Chicago Green Jobs

3 Reasons We Need The Green Products Innovation Institute
May 25, 2010, 6:47 pm
Filed under: Green Chemistry

Tastes like snozzberries!

Observe this comical ad for DDT flavored wallpaper. Isn’t it hilarious how back in the fifties corporations and governments rushed to create all kinds of products with awesome new chemicals without even bothering to do much testing! What’s that you say? Of the 800,000 chemicals produced and used in the US the EPA has only required testing on 200?


The good news is that the Green Products Innovation Institute was launched this month with the purpose of creating a design framework to help businesses design products without relying on traditional toxic chemicals. The GPII is located, of course, in California largely as a result of that state’s Green Chemistry Initiative. My vote for the most interesting aspect of the new org:

The GPII is developing an open, public database that tracks product chemical data and also creates a list of “positive” alternative chemicals, materials and processes. This will help companies reformulate or retool to create new products.

Here are three reasons why we need a functional database of positive chemical alternatives fast:

1. Kids with higher levels of pesticide in their systems are twice as likely to have ADHD. The medical journal Pediatrics recently published a study concluding that “organophosphate exposure, at levels common among US children, may contribute to ADHD prevalence.” The key phrase here is “at levels common among US children.” Organophosphates are found in roughly 40 pesticides commonly used in the US agricultural industry, which means that the odds that your strawberries have a light dusting are pretty good. And considering that organophosphates were originally developed for chemical warfare it’s not too surprising that research scientists are discovering that they affect our neurochemistry.

2. American newborns come pre-polluted with 300 contaminants. The President’s Cancer Panel released a report on May 5th with this astonishing conclusion, adding that these contaminants come from normal day-to-day living, not, as one might have hoped, from licking the walls of a chemical plant. The report comes with a list of helpful hints for mitigating your child’s risk that includes: “Choose foods, house and garden products, toys, medicines, medical tests that minimize children’s exposure to toxins.” So get cracking on that – I’ll wait!

3. No one has any idea how toxic the 850,000 gallons of chemicals BP has dumped into the Gulf actually are. Forget the oil for a minute if you can. To cope with the oil, BP has dumped a world record breaking 851,000 gallons of Corexit, a chemical dispersant which, according to its Material Safety Data Sheet, has undergone no toxicity studies. The EPA has taken issue with BP’s decision to use Corexit, a stance which the New York Times reports is complicated by the fact that “there are many methods for estimating the toxicity of chemical oil dispersants and no single standard prevails.” Emphasis mine. That’s right: no studies, no standards, no way to know what BP has let us in for.

Good lord that is depressing. What should we do?

These three issues have one key point in common: the only way for us to protect ourselves is to carefully research every toy, cleaner, sofa, strawberry and pork chop that we buy to make sure we’re minimizing our exposure to the endless list of potential hazards. Oh, and try not to live too close to an oil rig.

This is not a sustainable solution. We desperately need our institutions – governmental, corporate, and social – to take a systematic approach to weeding out harmful chemicals before they are spun into plastics or sprayed on our food. The GPII has the potential to create a practical tool to help inventors do just that. I will be watching with interest.


Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce For The Win!
April 12, 2010, 3:06 pm
Filed under: Event

Did you hear the one about how the United States Chamber of Commerce explained in a petition to the EPA that global warming doesn’t matter because more people get air conditioners every day? No? Well, that’s actually the whole joke!

The good news is that not all Chambers of Commerce are created equal.  In fact, our very own Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce has launched the Green Business Forum, a new effort to help local businesses capitalize on the opportunities inherent in sustainability.  I’ve done some informal consulting on the business greening challenge piece if the GBF, and from all I can see this effort has legs. There will be winners and losers as our country moves towards developing a more sustainable economy, so good on the Chicagoland Chamber for seeing past the politics and protecting the interests of its members.

It’s definitely worth spending a few minutes with the PPT deck from the inaugural Green Business Forum event on March19th.  It’s divided into two segments: why businesses should incorporate sustainability into their strategies and how they can take advantage of the incentives and programs available in Chicagoland.

Deloitte, the Chamber’s partner in the Forum, contributed the research on the why behind business sustainability strategies. Highlights include:

  • The framing sentence “Sustainability is not about “going green”; it’s about ensuring an enterprise’s long-term viability and includes environmental, social and economic programs.” I could kiss the person who wrote this.  Over the years I’ve worked in this field the phrase “going green” has gone from being useful shorthand to an overused cliché that makes about half of your audience to roll their eyes and start thinking about something else.
  • A nifty graph on slide 13  showing how companies with a sustainability strategy outperform their peers financially. Click here for a fuller explanation of the 2009 source study.
  • A shout-out to Walmart’s $1 million a year savings from removing the light bulbs from vending machines, an innovation proposed by North Carolina store associate Darrell Meyers during the Personal Sustainability Project launch in 2007. Fun fact: I was the PSP strategist who interviewed Darrell Meyers for the details of his money and energy saving brainwave (and yes, I will be signing autographs after the show).

The rest of the deck is chock full of information on incentives to help businesses start moving towards sustainability. Highlights include:

I personally find energy conservation incentives and financing structures a little dry, but the next Green Business Forum event is on a subject near and dear to my heart: how are corporate claims of sustainability verified? The event runs from 5-7 in the evening on Wednesday, April 28th, and will feature a discussion of carbon trading and sustainability reporting.

It’s early days yet, but it looks like the Chamber’s efforts have the potential to cultivate new and important allies in the effort to make Chicagoland a leader in the green economy.

And if we’re lucky, the United States Chamber of Commerce will follow Chicagoland’s lead instead of continuing their comically out of touch anti-sustainability battles.

Forging a Green Career, or Kate Learns Valuable Lessons About Being Interviewed on Camera
March 10, 2010, 11:39 am
Filed under: Event, Job Training and Skills

I do my best robot impression in the opening 20 seconds of this clip. Photo courtesy of Don Solo on Flickr Creative Commons.

Last December I was invited to join a panel on forging a sustainable career at one of Peter Nicholson’s excellent Green Drinks events.  I can’t vouch for how much the audience learned from me, but I certainly learned a lot about how to behave when I’m being filmed! Note to self: try not to look like a robot that has been powered off while your interviewer is introducing you. But don’t take my word for it – watch the clip!

The keen of eye might observe that I appear to be rather round in the belly in this video – photos of a green baby here.

The next Green Drinks is tonight (March 10), and I strongly recommend attending. I’ve heard panelists Cleetus Friedman of City Provisions and Sarah Elizabeth Ippel of the Academy of Global Citizenship speak before and they are both fabulous. And as an added bonus you’ll get Janet Hong of the Field Museum talking about a new climate change exhibit she’s developing!  Register to attend here.

Green Chemistry Case Study: Passing the Buck on Cadmium
January 12, 2010, 5:24 pm
Filed under: Green Chemistry

Thought experiment time! One of my favorite things about business school was reviewing case studies. It’s so interesting to dig into how business decisions are made in the real world where there are complications and loopholes and conflicting needs. There’s a doozy of a business problem in the news these days, so I thought I’d try my hand at boiling it down.

The situation:

You know how kids love jewelry and don’t have a lot of pocket money? Well, retailers like Walmart and Claire’s meet this market need by stocking super cheap Chinese imports, like Disney themed “Princess and the Frog” charms. Only it turns out that lots of these imports are made with cadmium, a shiny and malleable metal that also happens to rank 7th on the Center for Disease Control’s priority list of the 275 most hazardous substances to human health. Cadmium is a known human carcinogen and tests show that children can ingest unsafe levels of this poison by biting, sucking, or swallowing it. An independent study by the Associated Press showed that some of these charms and necklaces were made of up to 90% cadmium by weight.

“How horrible!” I hear you cry. “Who is responsible for this outrage?”

The likely suspects:

1. The Manufacturer

The LA Times interviewed a Chinese jewelry manufacturer:

“Business is business, and it’s all up to our client,” said He Huihua, manager of the Suiyuan Jewelry Shop at International Trade City in Yiwu. “We just make what our clients order. If they pay more, we use the better raw material, and vice-versa. From a few cents to a few dollars, we can make the same style of jewelry product with a different raw material.”

Asked what he thought about the health risks associated with cadmium and other toxic metals, He said: “I can’t be overly concerned about that.”

2. The Retailer

ABC ran an excerpt from Claire’s statement:

“Claire’s has its products tested by independent accredited third-party laboratories approved by the Consumer Product Safety Commission in compliance with the commission’s standards, and has passing test results for the bracelet using these standards.”

Two more suspects after the jump.

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Sustainability’s Next Big Thing: Green Chemistry
January 6, 2010, 6:08 pm
Filed under: Green Chemistry

Job security for mad scientists: on the rise? Image by practical owl via Flickr, CC license

It’s 2010, and you know what that means! That’s right – it’s sustainability trend prediction time! Not to toot my own horn, but I have a pretty good track record with this (tooooot). I saw green business trends on the rise in 2005, started pursuing my Green MBA in 2006, and then dropped out to work with Walmart on sustainability in 2007 back when everyone thought they were kidding about going green. Good times!

And since we all know from watching the stock market that past performance is a perfect indicator of future success, I thought it would be fun to try predicting the Next Big Thing in Sustainability. One word: Plastics. Or, to be more specific, Green Chemistry.

There are tens of thousands of chemicals floating around in the products that we use every day and the overwhelming majority of them have never actually been tested for harmful effects on human health or the environment. Here are five indicators that show we’re about to hit a tipping point:

1. BPA Breakthrough. Every trend needs a breakthrough celebrity, and Bisphenol-A is the clear front runner. BPA packs a one-two punch: not only does this estrogen-mimicking  chemical have measurably nasty impacts on health, it’s in EVERYTHING.  As a result BPA bans are on the rise by both governments and manufacturers, bringing big visibility to the fact that products we use every day without thinking twice are full of chemicals that are hazardous to our health. Which brings me to my second point: won’t someone please think about the johnson?

2. Threats to manliness. Let’s face it: most folks are prepared to brush off scary news about health threats with a dismissive “everything causes cancer anyway, so oh well” attitude.  It’s BPA to the rescue again:  exposure to BPA impacts adult male sexual performance! Well why didn’t you say so! That’s the kind of issue you can build some real buzz on, which is important because public concern makes it much easier for governments and corporations to move aggressively to make changes.

Three more indicators that green chemistry is going big after the jump.

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Truth in Advertising: Humble Oil Tells It Like It Is
November 24, 2009, 10:15 am
Filed under: Creating Green Behavior Change

Quick: which of these two statements makes a better headline?

“If every American household installed a WaterSense labeled toilet, we could save more than 640 billion gallons of water each year.

“If every American household installed a WaterSense labeled toilet, we could save enough water to equal 15 days of flow over Niagara Falls.

Niagara Falls, right? That thing is huge! Translating abstract numbers into tangible examples is a core tenet of our approach to inspiring behavior change. It’s basic human psychology: the more real the  consequences of our actions are to us the more likely we are to tweak them.

But there’s nothing new under the sun, and we aren’t the first to hit on this particular tactic. Check out this fabulous ad Humble Oil (now Exxon) ran in a 1962 Life Magazine:

Image available in a 1962 Life Magazine on Google Books

Yup, that’s right: Back then Humble Oil supplied enough energy every day to melt 7 million tons of glacier. Vivid! And who says there isn’t truth in advertising?

Curious to know just how many million tons of glacier Exxon can melt every day right now? Check out Pablo Paster’s excellent analysis on Treehugger.

Copenhagen, Climate Change, and the Art of the Possible
October 23, 2009, 4:20 pm
Filed under: Creating Green Behavior Change

Word on the street is that the Copenhagen climate change talks will not result in a treaty this year. Most of the reactions I’ve seen tend to fall into two camps: “this delay is the triumph of Evil Corporate Interests™ over the common good” and “this is a victory of economic rationality over Tree Hugging Hippies™.”  Needless to say, these are not especially useful frames. So what are we to make of this delay?

The most important thing to remember is that the world has moved from a scientific debate about whether or not climate change is happening to a policy debate about what we’re going to do about it. It may not always feel that way when polls show that Americans are getting more doubtful about the existence of climate change,  but when the Pentagon, Desmond Tutu, and the World Bank are working on the same problem that’s a good sign that action is in the offing.

Politics, however, is the art of the possible.  According to the NYT, Yvo De Boer, the Dutch diplomat who oversees the negotiations, thinks hammering out a good agreement will take at least another year: “There isn’t sufficient time to get the whole thing done. The form I would like [the session] to take is the groundwork for a ratifiable agreement next year.”

Do we have another year to burn on this? I think we do. The interests and issues around managing climate change are complicated in the extreme, and we need to get this treaty right.  Let’s take a look at some of the key issues that need untangling:


“The reality that we face is that the cause of the fundamental emissions which result in global warming are to a large extent the responsibility … of developed countries,” Alf Wills, South Africa’s top climate negotiator, according to the NYT.

If there’s one thing all the major players agree on, it’s that climate-change triggered drought, disease, and displacement will disproportionately affect the residents of the countries that contributed the least to the problem in the first place.  The leaders of developing countries are keenly aware of this injustice, and are determined not to agree to a treaty that would require them to limit their economic growth to meet CO2 reduction targets.

In fact, India and China just signed a pact to unite against a climate treaty that requires developing countries to adhere to binding emission limits. Their united front will lend serious negotiating strength to the Group of 77 developing countries who are all striving to balance their responsibilities towards creating economic growth with the imperative to mitigate climate change. However, this anti-binding cuts stance is not sitting well with developed countries.


“We don’t want to close a steel mill in Canada and import steel from China. We don’t want to close a coal- powered generating station in Ontario and then import dirty coal- fired electricity from Michigan.” Canadian Environment Minister John Baird, according to Bloomberg

China has overtaken the United States as the world’s largest emitter of CO2, with India on track to become the third largest emitter by 2015. A treaty that places no binding emissions restrictions on developing countries would not only hand a strong economic advantage to two of the biggest contributors to the problem, it also opens the door to a scenario in which rising emissions from developing countries negate all the cuts developed countries make.  That is a risk that  developed countries are unprepared to take, especially in the midst of an already painful economic downturn. This is the reason President Bush refused to push for the ratification of the Kyoto treaty, and President Obama has signaled that he may not accept a treaty that doesn’t include binding limits.


“Maldivians have lived in these islands for over 2,000 years; and we don’t want to trade paradise for an environmental refugee camp,” President of the Maldives, Mohamed Nasheed.

A rise in world temperatures will have a net negative impact worldwide, but again some regions will be hit harder than others and most of those regions are in the developing world. So who should pay for developing nations to adapt to climate change: the governments themselves or the countries that emitted all the CO2 on their path to robust economic growth? A recent World Bank study estimates the costs for developing countries of adapting to climate change at about $100 billion per year for the next forty years, which is about twice as much as current levels of aid.  Developed countries want any aid money to be tied to binding emissions cuts in developing countries, a stance that the G77 strongly opposes.


“We’ve been taught, especially in America, that happiness will be at the end of some sort of material road, where we have lots and lots of things that we want,” Peter Whybrow, author of American Mania: When More Is Not Enough, according to Wired.

Successfully adapting to a carbon constrained world will ultimately require a shift in how we think about some of our deepest values and associations. How many of us equate a big juicy steak with celebration? How many of us see soft, air-dried toilet paper made from old growth forests as a non-negotiable comfort?  These things may seem trivial, but they are symptomatic of a strong strain in American culture of equating success with consumption. That’s a mighty hard mindset to change, and it’s a very easy one to export to other countries.  The negotiators hammering out that treaty are attuned to the willingness of the people they represent to make the changes that an effective treaty will require.

So What Can We Do?

This is quite a list of issues to untangle. In fact, I’d say that the negotiations around hammering out an effective climate change treaty are the most complicated that the international community has ever attempted. We have to get this right.  A one year delay is worth it if it results in a treaty that has the kind of buy-in to make it stick.

In the meantime, what can we do? Ultimately the responsibility for tackling climate change rests with all of us: the actions we take every day and the messages we send the leaders who are hammering out solutions at the legislative and corporate level. If you want to see a real climate treaty ratified, the most important thing you can do now is work to create powerful social movements to support action on climate change.

So tell me: what’s your PSP?