Week of 04/08/2007

Dear EarthTalk: How can ordinary people convince corporations to behave more responsibly toward the environment?

—James B., Bridgeport, CT

Beyond the simple exercising of one’s own purchasing power, there are many actions consumers can take—and organizations and resources available to help—to pressure companies to green up their ways.

A good first step is to research the environmental records of companies involved in the industries that matter to you. The websites buyblue.org and alonovo.com evaluate companies according to various "green" criteria. And Co-Op America makes available online its Guide to Researching Corporations, which points to information on everything from corporate product safety records to animal testing policies to activities that impact everything from rainforests to the air quality in minority neighborhoods.

Co-Op America also works at the cutting edge of consumer activism, pushing companies into "doing well by doing good." Its "Adopt-A-Supermarket" campaign uses the power of individuals to pressure grocery stores into carrying more "Fair Trade" items, products including coffee and chocolate made by companies that commit to sustainable environmental practices and guarantee workers fair wages. At Co-Op America’s website you can download a campaign guide that provides background on the issue and tips on how to form an "adoption team" of concerned citizens that makes regular visits to educate store managers.

Another effort, "Be Safe PVC," conducted in partnership with the Center for Health, Environment and Justice, encourages major companies to phase out their use of the highly toxic plastic, polyvinyl chloride (PVC). They’ve already convinced Microsoft, Johnson & Johnson, Victoria’s Secret, and Bath and Body Works to phase out PVC in their packaging. Other Co-Op America successes include persuading Sempra Energy, the parent company of Southern California Gas and San Diego Gas & Electric, to abandon plans to build coal-fired power plants in Nevada and Idaho, and convincing the U.S. Postal Service to withdraw a proposal to deliver all residential mail in blue plastic bags, similar to those used for newspapers.

Another group, Ecopledge, recruits consumers to sign "pledges," which demand specific improvements to companies" environmental behavior and promise to cease doing business with the firms in question if they do not make efforts to green their practices. Armed with such pledges, Ecopledge has succeeded in convincing Dell and Apple to reduce the amount of e-waste they generate, getting ConocoPhilips and BP to drop out of Arctic Power (a lobbying entity pushing to open up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling), and working with Staples and Office Depot to craft green-friendly paper sourcing policies.

Ecopledge is currently working on a campaign to pressure major rental car companies, including Enterprise, Hertz, Cendant and Vanguard, to buy and rent cleaner cars, an effort, they say, that would save 500 million gallons of gasoline, reduce CO2 emissions by 14 billions of pounds, and save American drivers some two billion dollars in gasoline expenses every year. They are also pressuring major meat producers, including Premium Standard Farms, Smithfield and Tyson, to clean up hog and other animal waste that is causing widespread damage to the environment and human health in their areas of operation.

CONTACTS: Buy Blue; Alonovo; Co-Op America; Be Safe PVC; EcoPledge.

Dear EarthTalk: Every time I visit my local print shop, I am overwhelmed by the smell of chemicals, and wonder if the health of the workers there is affected. Is exposure to such chemicals known to cause human health problems, and what can be done to clean up the printing process?

—Bill W., Norwalk, OH<

That smell in your printer’s production facility no doubt comes from the cocktail of hazardous chemicals typically used in the printing process: inks, cleaning solvents, waste water and sludge that "off-gas" volatile organic compounds associated with eye and lung irritation, dizziness, headaches and even cancer.

But just because your printer uses such chemicals does not mean that all do. According to the Printer’s National Environmental Assistance Center, printers can take several steps to clean up their acts, such as avoiding alcohol-based solvents, abandoning mineral oil based inks in favor of vegetable-based inks and substituting chlorinated glues with water-based alternatives. Along with using fewer chemicals and more eco-friendly products, printers can go even greener by using recycled materials and renewable energy.

Despite a printer’s good intentions, though, it can be a daunting task to become more environmentally friendly. Most print shops are small businesses and may not be able to afford to upgrade their equipment or pay a premium for cleaner alternatives to some of the chemicals and supplies they have been using for years. Also, navigating the labyrinth of air, hazardous waste and industrial wastewater treatment regulations may be more work than a small company struggling to make payroll can undertake.

A few programs have arisen to address these issues. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s PrintSTEP (Printers" Simplified Total Environmental Partnership) program, in pilot phase in Missouri and New Hampshire, aims to make environmental and worker health and safety regulations clearer and simpler. The program is designed to help individual states streamline the regulatory process so that printers can spend time greening their operations instead of wading through thousands of pages of arcane regulatory gibberish just to see if their current practices meet the letter of the law.

Another pilot program, the Great Printer Environmental Initiative, is underway in Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin. This joint initiative of Environmental Defense’s Pollution Prevention Alliance, the Printing Industries of America and the Council of Great Lakes Governors encourages printers to minimize their impact on human health and the environment beyond what is required by government regulatory agencies in environmental, health and safety compliance. And in doing so, they can use their membership as a marketing tool to attract customers interested in cleaner, greener printing.

Print buyers can do their part by choosing firms that have implemented environmentally friendly practices. Ask your printer about their health and safety programs that go beyond the minimum requirements. And work with your printer to develop your printed materials in ways that minimize environmental impact, such as by using recycled paper and soy-based inks. If you are located in one of the pilot states for the Great Printer Environmental Initiative, be sure to choose a company that participates.

CONTACTS: Printer’s National Environmental Assistance Center; PrintSTEP.