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January 07, 2008
Exposed: The Toxic Chemistry of Everyday Products
    by Anne Moore Odell

The United States is no longer setting the agenda for manufacturers’ standards and American consumers are paying the price with their health.


The Cold War is over, but a new world fission is taking place. The globe is splitting between the countries which have outlawed toxics and poisonous chemicals in consumer goods and the countries which have not outlawed the toxics argues Mark Schapiro's new book "Exposed: The Toxic Chemistry of Everyday Products."

No longer is the US at the center of the decisions about what chemicals should or should not be found in goods from cosmetics to computers, or what needs to be done to protect the environment. The European Union (EU) is the body passing strict laws regulating environmental and health protection. These laws are then being adopted in other parts of the world, from China to Japan and South America. "Exposed" asserts the power players and the big-money lobbyists have quietly left Washington for Brussels, where the EU is headquartered.

The size and the strength of the European market cannot be over looked. The 27 countries that make up the EU represent a larger and richer population than the US Schapiro's book reports. Although trade between Europe and the US still accounts for 40% of all global commerce, in 2005 Germany took over from the US as the world's largest exporter.

"Power has shifted," Schapiro writes. "In the process American citizens are being put in a position that would have been unimaginable a decade ago: in some instances a dumping ground for goods not wanted elsewhere in the world, in other instances the accidental beneficiaries of protective standards created by another government over which they have no influence."

The EU, which went from being a good idea to being a leader in this new century, has a radically different way of looking at products and deciding how consumers should be protected from dangerous ingredients than the US government "Exposed" argues.

The EU's strategy regarding chemicals with questionable safety is to ban them until more research is done. The US, on the other hand, follows the principle of "innocent until proven guilty," leaving companies largely alone to complete safety tests on the chemicals found in their products. The US court system also empowers consumers to challenge manufacturers if damages occur due to manufacturer neglect.

"Exposed" opens with a meeting of US engineers who are just coming to grips with the directives, entitled the Removal of Hazardous Substances (RoHS), passed by the EU to address problems relating to electrical waste and the toxics in electronics. RoHS outlawed many of the components of the technologies that the US engineers help invent from DVD players and computers to huge manufacturing machines.

The EU wants to change the way engineers and manufacturers look at the things they make to also include end-of-use and recycling policies, a very different outlook from planned obsolescence and throwaway technology. In the case of the US engineers, it took this wake up call from Europe to start questioning how products could be safer over their entire lifecycle from factory to store, from consumers to recycling center. The good news is that engineers are finding safer solutions to the toxic components currently in use.

Manufacturers are responding to EU laws in a number of ways. One way is that manufacturers are changing their products to no longer include banned substances. However, some manufacturers that are not changing their products with ingredients outlawed in Europe and are dumping these goods in the US. Other manufacturers are even creating two separate products, one for US consumers and another for European consumers.

The significance of EU's health and environmental rulings for investors is huge, although the implications are not necessarily all negative. In fact, after the EU changed its policies outlawing phthalates in toys, the European toy industry actually saw sales increase by 5% compared to the US's toys sales increase of 3% during the same time period. The companies that have already started to respond to increased demands for toxin free products, clear labeling and end of user issues are clearly ahead of competitors who are ignoring these matters.

Working within the boundaries created by the World Trade Organization, the EU is trying to reconfigure trade on a truly international level. Schapiro quotes Anne Marie Slaughter, Dean of the Princeton School of International Affairs, "Regulators are the new diplomats." Regulations protecting consumers are growing stronger everywhere outside of the US. Schapiro writes, "More rigorous criteria for assessing the long-term sustainability and health impacts of today's chemical and technological creations are being established with the back-up of consumers in the world's largest single market. This trend threatened to leave American industry trialing their increasingly 'green' European competitors."

Although the book does spend some time explaining the dangers of certain chemicals, for example, the family of plastic softeners called phthalates, it is more concerned with power plays and players. As a first hand observer of events and interviewer, Schapiro is top notch. However, the book can feel bogged down in the many international environmental meetings it covers - perhaps a reflection of how the meetings felt.

Schapiro's first book, written 25 years ago with David Weir, "Circle of Poison" describes how the US exported pesticides banned in the US to countries with less stringent laws. The irony of the US now being on the receiving end of forbidden products is not lost on Schapiro.

Schapiro points out that the EU is the biggest supplier of foreign aid and has moved many important international initiatives forward, including Kyoto and the Land Mine Treaty, without the support of the US: "The European Union is consolidating its influence just as the U.S. influence ebbs. That 'Unidentified Political Object,' as former European Commission president Jacques Delors dubbed the EU, is now being seen as a model for greater political and economic integration by transnational networks like the African Union and Mercosur, the Latin American trading association."

As the European countries learn to work together, they are facing some of the same difficulties that the United States faced at the turn of the nineteenth century. "Exposed" becomes the story of the EU's rise to world power told through the lens of toxins found in consumer goods.


 

 
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