Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Moving to the lower left corner

Achieving sustainable consumption and manufacturing

In the last posting we were discussing the "space" that manufacturing and use impacts occupy depending upon the product. I presented a graphic that outlined four areas of that space - from low manufacturing and use impact (lower left corner) to high impacts for both (upper right corner). The lower left corner was the location of products that could be considered more sustainable both from the production and use aspects. Hence the title of this posting.

The other two "high-low" quadrants then represented products where we need either to increase the efficiency of the product (with respect to design or using manufacturing leveraging) or we need to improve the efficiency of the manufacturing process relative to use and manufacturing phases, respectively.

So the obvious question is - what kind of product typifies the "low-low" quadrant?

One great example is hangers!

OK, I know some of you will snort that this is a typical academic example and does not relate to "real products" - like automobiles, toaster ovens or laptops, etc. I accept the criticism. But wait until you hear the argument (and see the example I've in mind) before totally disregarding this argument.

First, the set up.

Is there any more annoying "consumer product" than the wire hanger? They are absolutely necessary for keeping clothing stored and orderly (either in the store or in your closet or, it turns out, in shipping garments to the store) but hard to get rid of  responsibly. They tangle easily, and recyclers hate them or have severe restrictions on their recycling since they are not easy to process, they are hard to store and transport and are usually coated with something.

Most say the best way to deal with hangers is to reuse them. What do you do with old hangers? They accumulate faster than you can use them!

I looked on line for help. According to the Montegomery County MD waste services,  for wire hangers, they suggest (and the parenthetical comments are my observations!):

"Reuse- The best "disposal" method for wire hangers is reuse! Check with your local dry cleaners to see whether they accept wire hangers -- many do! (if you look behind the laundry at the end of the day you may see them in the trash; that's what I observed;  it is a customer service but it is not recycling)

Recycling - Curbside blue bin program; Sorry, we do not accept wire hangers in our curbside blue bin program

Curbside scrap metal collection program- If you have a scrap metal collection scheduled for large metal items, you may add your hangers to the pile. We do not schedule scrap metal collections for hangers alone. (Next time you are throwing away the scrap steel in your backyard…toss the hangers in!)

Solid Waste Processing Facility and Transfer Station; We accept hangers in the scrap metal drop-off. Follow the signs to the Recycling area. (OK, this is better)

Trash- You may put wire hangers into your regular household trash." (but not recycling).

Enter Ditto hangers. They have developed a product for commercial and residential use - the paper hanger! The website says "The Ditto 10-Pack line is smart, hip and stylish, 100% non-toxic and recyclable anywhere! Strong and long lasting, the Ditto Paper Hanger can hold over 20 lbs, strong enough to hold the heaviest leather jacket or winter coat. Made with 100% tree-free recycled paper the Ditto Paper Hangers can fit twice the amount of clothing in the same closet space!" They are designed to replace the wire hangers (see issues with them above) or the polystyrene hangers that you bring home from the store (and that the clothing was shipped to the store in) and then can't recycle.

Now the sustainable part. Besides making the hangers from 100% recycled paper, they have a strategy for easy reuse or recycle of the hangers. Their website shows the traditional life cycle of a hanger (ending up in a landfill - apparently an estimated 8 billion hangers end up in landfills every year - that's 21 million a day!).

Ditto Hangers include a cartoon in their website under the "environment" tab that shows their product in use in a commercial setting with easy customer reuse/recycling.

This is compared to the traditional cycle of clothing shipped from manufacturer on hanger, item removed from shipping hanger and put on display hanger, and both landfilled when the product is sold. In the new system the "product is shipped and displayed on Ditto Hangers. Hangers can go home with customer for further branding power or can be recycled at the store with cardboard boxes." And, since it is cardboard, the customer can recycle it with their normal cardboard recycling.

The impact? Using 1 ton of Ditto hangers vs. polystyrene hangs saves, according to the website, 2,418 lbs of carbon, 17.44 barrels of oil (yes, plastic is made from oil!), and 121,129,281 BTU of energy.

To me, that puts this product squarely in the lower left corner.

But, what about more complex products? A recent Environmental Leader article (March 1, 2011) discusses the efforts of some major manufacturers and retailers in the apparel and footwear business working to inform customers of the environmental impact of their products. Called the "Apparel Index" this is designed to drive improvements in the whole supply chain as well as inform.

The goals include (from the article): improving water-use efficiency and/or re-use in cultivation or production of raw materials (e.g. cotton) and product manufacturing; Minimizing the volume and chemical constituents of water discharges associated with manufacturing; reducing the need for water use in garment care by challenging conventional washing practices and developing alternative approaches; minimizing direct and embedded energy use; creating products that mitigate other carbon impacts in society (such as reducing the need for heating and air conditioning systems); committing to minimizing operational, supply chain and end-of-life waste; developing effective uses for textile waste; and reducing the use of chemicals and potentially hazardous materials which pose health or environmental risks, both in cultivation and manufacturing.

They hope to substantially alter the "business as usual" model and the potential costs, impacts, and damage it can cause.

I don't have any specific examples of products but one of the prime drivers here, Nike, has its Environmental Apparel Design Tool for assisting its designers in making the right choices at the product design stage. And, this will move Nike products in the direction of the lower left corner of the diagram.

We will look at some additional efforts to drive products to the lower left corner including some major initiatives from US government agencies in the future.

And, finally, something you can do to help with the battle to get more understanding of global warming!

This was brought to my attention by one of my lab researchers, Dr. Barbara Linke.  A new study has proved that "Being in a warm room can make the idea of global warming seem more likely." A study done by a Business school professor and published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (described here) showed, among other things, that if people were asked about their impressions of global warming and its impacts when they were in a "heated cubicle", they were more likely to believe in global warming. The article also notes that "In another experiment, the researchers found that participants who were led to experience thirst by eating pretzels were more likely to agree that desertification and drought will increasingly threaten people’s ability to find fresh drinking water." The study comments that the results validate the finding that "people will judge a certain condition of the world as more likely if it fits with what they are experiencing at that moment."

What can I say? Eat your pretzels in a cool room if you want to avoid worrying about global warming!


  1. Thank you, David, for such a wonderful review of our company and philosophy.

    We're very proud of our work here at Ditto. It's all about intelligent design; looking at a product as if for the first time. When you do that, the design and material choice falls into place. Getting people to reject wasteful or poorly designed products with their purchasing choices is the hard part. We all know the only way to change is by the power of our wallet. We're seeing the change take place. The movement towards sustainable design and reasonable products continues to grow. It's a very exciting time to be involved in this great movement.

    Gary Barker
    founder and ceo
    Ditto Sustainable Brand Solutions

  2. David,

    Great post. Thought you might be interested in this. We have a LEED certified food ingredients company here in Rock Hill, SC. Here's an interview of their president:

    We are looking for more environmentally positive manufacturers and distributors in Rock Hill (which is in Charlotte, NC) marketplace. Visit http://rockhillusa.com/ for more info.

    My question: How do we recruit more green companies through our Economic Development efforts. Any perspective you have on this would be great.



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