Correspondent Murray Carpenter reports on some of the new technologies that help consumers trace the global journey of their purchases and calculate their environmental cost.
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KATY CLARK: If you’re like most Americans, the shirt you’re wearing today probably has a label telling you it was made in say Indonesia, or Mexico. And a label on your computer probably tells you that it was made in China. But those country of origin labels don’t tell you anything about how the product was made, or about its environmental impact. Murray Carpenter reports from Boston on new web-based technologies that help track the origins. and environmental footprints of consumer goods.
MURRAY CARPENTER: At the Patagonia store in Boston, shoppers are stocking up on gear for the New England winter. Salesman Chris Pirrello shows off a new product that’s been selling like hotcakes.
CHRIS PIRRELLO: So this is our brand new Nano-Puff pullover. The entire jacket weighs about nine ounces, and it packs into its own pocket.
CARPENTER: Let’s take a look at the computer and see what we can see about where this comes.
PIRRELLO: Sounds good.
CARPENTER: Pirrello walks over to a terminal and pulls up a web page called the Footprint Chronicles, Patagonia’s effort to show the environmental impacts of its products. The site shows the jacket was stitched together in Vietnam using fabric and insulation from Japan and China, then sent to Reno, Nevada for distribution. Along the way, it traveled 12,000 miles and used the energy equivalent of burning an 18-watt bulb non-stop for a month. That might not sound like much, until you think about the resource stream of the billions of other products zooming around the world every day.
LEONARDO BONANNI: You’ll have a hard time finding any product that doesn’t involve a dozen countries or more.
CARPENTER: That’s Leonardo Bonanni at MIT’s Media Lab, across the Charles River from the Patagonia store. He’s in Cambridge, but the world of global manufacturing sits at his fingertips via a website he and some colleagues have designed. It’s called SourceMap, and it’s a sort of open-source analog to Patagonia’s site. Bonanni enters some basic information and pulls up a SourceMap for a typical laptop computer.
BONANNI: We’re actually zooming around the earth from satellite imagery, and if we go into this particular supply chain, we can actually go right down and see, in this case, the largest gold mine in the world from the air. And this brings a level of precision in the way we can understand supply chains that many people have never seen before.
CARPENTER: In addition to the huge gold mine in South Africa, the map leads to a massive copper mine in Chile, and lead mines in Indonesia. Links lead to videos of some of the operations. In this case, the laptop involves 43 suppliers from five continents. Where Patagonia’s website is a small window into one company’s supply chain, SourceMap allows anyone to evaluate the sustainability claims of a growing number of corporations.
BONANNI: We found out there was basically no public resource to allow you to find out what the supply chain is behind a product, or what the carbon footprint is. So while you might be told that something is green, you almost never get to see the math and the auditing underlying those assumptions. And as long as the consumer, or even the designer is not exposed to the underlying calculations, it is very hard to imagine that we are going to have sustainable products on the market.
CARPENTER: The two new website, one open source and the other corporate, are part of a growing movement to use the Internet to illuminate the usually obscured environmental impacts of consumer products. The movement is being led by activists but a growing number of companies are signing up. Brooke Barton is a corporate manager for Ceres, a network of environmentally-minded investors.
BROOKE BARTON: Ceres is committed to asking all the companies that we work with to unravel their supply chains to understand these environmental and social impacts.
CARPENTER: Barton says niche companies like Timberland, the footwear manufacturer, are leading the pack in transparency, but bigger firms are getting involved, too. Dole, for instance, now lets consumers use the web to track its organic bananas all the way back to the plantations where they were grown. Barton says even WalMart is starting to put its supply chain online.
BARTON: They have partnered with some environmental groups concerned about the impacts of mining to produce a set of jewelry that allows the consumer to go online and understand exactly which mines the gold and silver was sourced from, where it was processed, and how it got to you as a consumer.
CARPENTER: The movement toward more disclosure of resource use and pollution is being facilitated by ever-better information technology. But Paul Dickinson, of the Carbon Disclosure Project in London, says it’s really all about the power of consumers.
PAUL DICKINSON: When we shop, we vote for the corporations who administer the production and distribution of the goods and services that we consume. And I think it’s absolutely inevitable that people are going to put less and less money into the problem and more and more money into the solution.
CARPENTER: Back at the Patagonia store in Boston, information from the Footprint Chronicles helps shoppers make more informed choices. But those choices aren’t only about where a product comes from. Showing off a down sweater whose travels he looked up on the Footprint Chronicles, clerk Chris Pirrello says it’s still about where it can take you. The sweater starts with feathers from geese grown in Hungary.
PIRELLO: And then went from Hungary to California, to Japan, to China, to Reno, Nevada.
CARPENTER: And then from Reno to Boston.
PIRELLO: Sure, from Reno to Boston, and hopefully on an adventure after that.
CARPENTER: For the World, I’m Murray Carpenter.
CLARK: You can find links to MIT’s SourceMap and Patagonia’s Footprint Chronicles at The world dot org.
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