This is a fair, if tough to answer question. It would be nice to know when a product I buy has reached a level of environmental impact that is deemed to be low enough to warrant my relatively guilt-free use of it. We know this for our buildings: In the U.S., we have LEED, which despite its shortcomings, is at least a goal to strive for, with "zero energy" construction standards also available for the overachievers. Similar assessments are available throughout the world for the built environment, enabling a form of standardization of construction that is understood by the industry.
When it comes to stuff (and more about The Story of Stuff in a bit), there is no clear definition. We have some restrictions on the raw materials that constitute the finished product. Alarmingly, as many come from consumer outcry (polycarbonate baby bottle anyone?) as often as they do from governmental regulation. (The Restriction of Hazardous Substances Directive (RoHS), the 2003 EU directive that limits hazardous substances in our products, is still to be adopted in most U.S. states, despite all major consumer product companies having already got on board. Even China complies.)
Nothing yet, however, covers all the types of products that we purchase. Yes, there are some companies who admirably present their impact, and show how they have improved year on year. Timberland has its Green Index, Ikea its Scorecard (PDF) and even medical products are getting the assessment treatment with Kaiser Permanente requiring suppliers to provide environmental data for products used in its hospitals.
But how do I know that their "better" is actually any "good"? Life cycle analysis (LCA) would appear to be the best way currently to assess the impact of our products, and is the most widely adopted method for quantifying the energy, water, waste, impact on humans and ecosystems, and carbon footprint of any thing or system. LCA doesn’t play favorites, and luckily does not go gooey-eyed over things that look "green" (It’s covered in bamboo! It must be sustainable!), but it also does not tell me what is acceptably low-impact. You can undertake an LCA (ISO 14040 is the international standard) on your product, but it does not make the product any less sucky. It just tells you how big your footprint is and how much water you use, and so forth. Comparison to competitor products can only really be done if both products were assessed using the same parameters—something hard to do unless your rival is happy to tell you the intricate details of their manufacturing methods.
We need a way to standardize these assessments so that everyone can know how they stack up against each other, as well as against an acceptable baseline. This was clearly the thinking when Walmart announced its Sustainability Index in 2009. Beyond the government, who else has the power to enforce compliance for such huge number of the household brands we purchase every day? I have been very much in favor of this move as an effective way of changing the mindset of the average U.S. consumer, but still have one major concern—can I trust Walmart to decide what an acceptable degree of sustainability is?
Their efforts are being aided by a nonprofit organization called the Sustainability Consortium, but with a group whose board of directors includes higher-ups from PepsiCo, Dell, P&G, Disney, and Walmart (of the remaining two directors, one is from the Sam M. Walton College of Business at the University of Arkansas, Walton being the Walmart family), I believe I should be allowed my modicum of apprehension. One way to look at this is how we as consumers really only see the results of the waste and energy of the end product itself, not all the other aspects of manufacturing and shipping that produces waste. The statement that hit me hardest when watching the Story of Stuff a few years ago (it is still totally relevant and totally watchable) was the amount of waste generated not at the consumer end, but during the manufacturing. For every garbage can of household waste I produce, up to 70 times that is produced during the manufacture and shipping of the stuff I use.
So when consumers think about waste, whether packaging or the eventual end of life of their stuff, there is the unseen aspect of consumption and waste, the bit happening during manufacturing that we never quite grasp, and fair enough, if I was a manufacturer, I’d prefer not to call attention to it either.
So if architecture can agree on an acceptable level of sustainability, and accept that the bar needs to be constantly raised as more achieve these levels, why not every other industry? And I want a truly independent body to assess this, one that looks beyond what I as a consumer can see, to the true environmental cost of manufacturing.