As often happens with innovation from Silicon Valley, a new product launched recently is designed to do one important new thing, but may find even bigger applications in the hands of end-users—especially when the designers of the product include Google , Alcoa , Robert F. Kennedy Jr., California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, Rosario Dawson, and Brad Pitt.
Based on California’s recent “green chemistry” laws, the “product” is actually the new DNA for thousands of products still to come. These industry, government, and Hollywood heavyweights have created the Green Products Innovation Institute, a new non-profit think tank that will help manufacturers find safer alternatives to toxic chemicals used in their products. Other early adopters include the world’s largest carpet maker, Shaw Carpets (owned by Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway ), SAP and Proctor & Gamble.
Sustainability guru Bill McDonough’s “cradle-to-cradle” design philosophy will be a cornerstone of the new Institute and its certification of products, something that giant retailers like Walmart (Senior Vice President for Sustainability Matt Kistler was on hand for the launch) and Carrefour are tracking, because they want consistency for consumers when a product label says “sustainable." Other yardsticks like this exist in more limited form, such as SC Johnson’sGreenlist, which has been applied to products like Pledge, Windex, Ziploc bags, and Raid insecticides, increasing the safer content in these common consumer products from only 18 percent in 2001 to almost 50 percent today.
So what does this initiative tell us about carbon pollution and tackling climate change? Imagine that chemicals, embedded energy, and other ingredients of everyday products were measured for carbon content and a database existed with lower carbon alternatives that would work just as well? Manufacturers could reduce costs by substituting lower carbon constituents in their products (carbon is essentially a measure of waste, so ingredients with lower carbon will arguably be more cost-efficient by reducing that waste) and consumers would be able to reduce their carbon footprint with objective data applied to many of their purchasing decisions. Think of the nutrition labels on food packages that take the guesswork out of grocery shopping.
One reason that so many large companies and celebs got behind the new Green Products Innovation Institute was that its measuring tools will not only help protect public health and the environment, but it will also help everyone save money. The launch event in Google headquarters resembled an AA meeting as one executive after another stepped to the mic to testify how much money their company had saved by replacing toxic constituents in products with safer alternatives—and the PR advantage that it gave them with consumers in the marketplace.
Imagine Toyota, desperately in need of some good news these days, reporting that it had lowered the carbon content of the parts in its cars by undergoing this kind of review and improvement, and that the savings were being passed on to consumers. The same cool factor that propelled the Prius to the top of the automotive charts—and Toyota along with it to become the world’s largest car maker—might be recaptured and the company might not find itself struggling with outdated products in a few years like GM or Chrysler.
Governor Schwarzenegger said that environmental and economic challenges won’t be solved by making people feel guilty about their lifestyle or the products they buy, but rather we should make being green seem sexy. If we can look like Rosario Dawson or Brad Pitt and save money by reading a few labels and choosing less toxic, lower carbon products, I suspect we’d all be ready to abandon the guilt thing and solve the climate crisis very quickly.
Terry Tamminen, former Secretary of the California Environmental Protection Agency, is a partner at Pegasus Sustainable Century Merchant Bank and the Cullman Senior Fellow at the New America Foundation. (Cracking The Carbon Code is a registered trademark of Terry Tamminen).