Friday, May 13, 2011

Outsourced Pollution

The crisis of design in an age of hyper-consumption.

As a design professional who formerly designed, inspected, and sourced goods manufactured in overseas factories, I witnessed firsthand many of the lessor-promoted, inglorious aspects of our globalized economy. In terms of pollution, carbon emissions, and issues related to energy efficiency, the view was not very good, literally. Too often forces of the marketplace brought out the worst in companies. Vendors seemed constantly locked in a quest solely for the lowest price and a race to the bottom tiers of nobility, driven predominantly by the relentless demands of US consumers.      

Guangdong factory. Pic: D.A. DeMers. CC-BY-SA
Dongguan factory. Pic: D.A. DeMers. CC-BY-SA
China's "back side." Pic: D.A. DeMers. CC-BY-SA

An overwhelming majority of consumer goods we own today come from places like China. Our society has relinquished manufacturing jobs in return for astonishingly affordable products. In doing so, we've accelerated the wheels of a hyper-consumerist, disposable economy, which has created challenges to our planet, to human rights, and to our domestic labor force.

It would be unfair to place blame for this solely on importers or overseas manufacturers - after all, we had our own great industrial boom nearly a century ago in Upton Sinclair's America. At one point, the waste in Chicago was said to be so horrid that its river could be crossed by walking on the backs of rotting, discarded carcasses of hogs.

There are no simple answers to the problem of finding a mutually beneficial trade balance. Former presidential contender Donald Trump's talk of a 25 percent tax on all Chinese imports seemed an effective means to settle the score, until one realizes that the result would cause an instant 25 percent spike of inflation amidst an already fragile economic recovery. 

China lamp factory. Pic: D.A. DeMers. CC-BY-SA

One thing we should not do is reverse advances made in clean manufacturing practices. A roll-back of our clean air and water laws is argued by some as a way to get sluggish industrial sectors moving again. This view is short-sighted and unsustainable in terms of reducing overall life-cycle costs of human health, worker productivity, and the depletion of natural resources. Likewise, a recent study by researchers at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York found that the US already spends a staggering $76.6 billion each year to cover the health expenses of children who get ill because of exposure to toxic chemicals and air pollution. A better way by far is to set a new example for the world by utilizing cutting-edge advances we've made in green technologies and disseminating those innovations assiduously.

Recently, the Department of Energy announced an initiative to begin training energy assessors who will assist manufacturing facilities in China and India to reduce their energy use. Stated in a notice calling for applicants, the program is described as follows:

Target lamp by D.A. DeMers.
"Competitively selected energy efficiency experts will work with engineers and energy managers abroad to provide technical assistance, share best practices, and create opportunities to deploy state-of-the-art, U.S.-made energy efficiency technologies and services.

"Accelerating the international demand for energy-efficient products, especially in rapidly developing countries like China and India, will open up new markets for American clean energy technologies and services. Industrial facilities account for almost 40 percent of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions and one third of global energy use. This program will grow the market for industrial efficiency products, creating new opportunities for American workers and helping to bolster U.S. leadership in a growing global industry."

Such a program may not be the sole solution for uniting both economic and environmental sustainability, but it's a step toward making the global economic race one that aims for a higher plateau rather than listlessly spiraling downward into a toxic pit of values.--D.A. DeMers. 


Study: Imports of Carbon Nations Nix Cuts from Developed World.

Carbon emission reductions achieved since 1990 by the world’s developed nations were canceled out many times over by the increase of imported goods from nations without binding emissions targets, including China, according to a new report. While climate policies, including the Kyoto Protocol, stabilized carbon emissions in many wealthy nations from 1990 to 2008, most of these nations increased their “consumption-based” emissions significantly during this period because of large imports, according to the study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The study, which the authors call the first global assessment of how international trade affected national carbon footprints since Kyoto, says that while developed nations reduced their CO2 emissions by 2 percent from 1990 to 2008, those emissions actually increased by 7 percent when imports were factored in. “This suggests that the current focus on territorial emissions in a subset of countries may be ineffective at reducing global emissions without some mechanisms to monitor and report emissions from the production of imported goods and services,” said Glen Peters of the Center for International Climate and Environmental Research and lead author of the study.

Above article republished with permission from the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies.
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  1. This is frustrating news, to say the least. I have done many things to change my own personal habits, hoping it would be a step toward changing the world. But this implies that so much of what needs changing is beyond the capability of the ordinary world citizen.

    -Toni R.

  2. My wife is from Shanghai and came to America in 1991. She did go back to visit until 2006. The changes were unbelievable. Since then we've traveled there several times. In 1991, there were no subways. By 2006, the system was very extensive. They have doubled it now since. We went Beijing recently for the first time and found the pollution there unbearable - much worse than Shanghai. The pollution in Shanghai today reminds me of the way it was in LA back in the 70's. I can only hope they get that under control.


    1. Thanks for commenting! Without a doubt, pollution varies greatly from region to region throughout China. In fact, much of the sprawling country is rural, quiet, and pristine. The central government initiated its "experiment with capitalism" by setting up enterprise zones for free trade, such as near Shanghai in the east or Guangzhou in the south. That accounts for the exponential growth in some regions while very little occurred in areas outside.

      It's interesting to note that when I worked in China, the company I was with often encountered periodic labor shortages. Many Chinese managers and workers (who had become my good friends), routinely expressed frustration with bleak factory town lifestyle. As a result, they'd save up a few years wages and travel back to their home towns to be with family and a live a less stressful life. Then they'd do it all over again. Factories often tried to dress their gulag-like grounds with flags and balloons to draw employees. After seeing so much pollution, stress, and general misery, I often wondered to myself - does America really want these jobs back?

      Also, like all cultures, there's a noticeably wide generation gap between environmentally-conscious Chinese youth and the older folks who are dead set in their polluting ways. Perhaps that's a smidgen of hope for the first commenter, Toni. The central government understands that a ruined ecosystem will cost them dearly, in every sense. They've introduced a formidable campaign to raise awareness in schools and through the media - perhaps one edge a true authoritarian regime might have over our own bickering quasi-politburo, who can't even agree that climate change is a reality.

      But like many well-intentioned initiatives in China, corruption at the local end tends to make its implementation a significant challenge.

      (Reply was re-posted from earlier date due to technical issue).

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