Sustainability and news from the Dark Side

I had the honor to take part in a panel discussion at the University of South Carolina last week about entrepreneurship. During the discussion a bright young woman, an IMBA candidate, asked about “sustainable” products. My answer was a bit flip (“nobody cares”), but the point I was trying to make is I’ve yet to have a client who really wanted a “green” product.

We got into a discussion with other members of the group and briefly debated the recycled uses of various materials, but the consensus was that clients talk about wanting “green” products out of China but don’t want to pay for them. Ultimately, the green that matters is money.

Our Sourcing Feasibility Study (sample here) can identify suppliers that meet whatever criteria you like, including environmental criteria. But 90% of our clients pick suppliers based on price. Just my observation.

But that got me thinking about what really constitutes “green” or “sustainable” anyway. A few members of the group talked at length about recycling materials like metals and plastics, but I don’t think this should count, as people have been recycling valuable metals since time immemorial. I used the example of salvaging steel, iron, brass, lead, etc. from battlefields during the Napoleonic Wars. As any art historian knows, many of the great bronze statues were melted down to make cannon during this time.

But many “green” products strike me as a scam. The Compact Fluorescent Light bulbs that have been forced upon us by Congress just plain suck – they are expensive; they cast crappy light; they contain mercury, so you break one and need a hazmat cleanup; despite their supposed energy efficiency, I have seen no significant drop in my electricity bills; and did I mention they contain mercury, so how the heck am I supposed to dispose of the stupid thing when it burns out far ahead of schedule (as every one I’ve bought has done)? So, which savior of the planet should I thank for foisting this overpriced, under-performing, toxic “green” product on us? Should the control of Congress change hands in November, don’t be surprised if one of the first acts is repealing the incandescent bulb ban.

I remember my first encounter with “green” products was in the early 1990s while visiting family in Colorado. They used environmentally friendly dish soap, which in practice meant that you had to use half a bottle for every load of dishes washed. The stuff was environmentally friendly because it was apparently 99% water. Nearly 20 years later doesn’t look like much has changed – Cleaner for the Environment, Not for the Dishes (from the New York Times).

And as I was writing this, I just saw the polar bear commercial for the all-electric Nissan Leaf. Does anyone realize where 50% of the USA’s power comes from? Hint: It’s a black rock we burn. And the reports I’ve read about the Chinese betting big on EVs are also followed by reports about how such a move will result in LOTS more pollution. While the traffic jams in Beijing may be not quite so smoggy and saturated with ground level ozone, the net result will be more pollution from the coal-fired plants that supply most of China’s electricity.

So…remind me again what makes a “green” product?

I lived through such governmental BS in the USA heavy truck industry, but since my escape from the automotive world, I’ve tried not to think about it. So those stories will have to wait for another day.

Quick note in closing about the Dark Side (as a friend termed my switch to Mac)…my eyes have adjusted. I love the MacBook Pro and doubt I will ever go back to PC.

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