The good news for the environment is that when it comes to the impact of large appliances, people are concerned about their water and energy use, and much of their overall environmental impact, in fact, occurs during use — for a washing machine, say, it’s about 75–80% of its total impact.
However, the mining and processing of ores for metals and the manufacturing and transport of large appliances have their environmental costs too. On the upside, many whitegoods are recycled, which not only reduces landfill but provides metals for recycling — and using recycled metal substantially reduces the environmental costs of production.
Ease of use shot up closer to price and performance as one of the most important factors in choosing a hi-tech electronics product, such as computers, digital cameras or MP3 players — and most of us will relate to that. Less than half of consumers we surveyed consider the environmental impacts of producing, transporting and disposing of electronics, and very few rated them in their top three purchase criteria.
Given that e-waste is rapidly emerging as a major environmental problem, CHOICE wants to see mandatory product stewardship programs that place the onus on manufacturers and distributors to deal with the issue.
Baby and children’s products
Half the respondents considered the environmental impact of making toys quite or very important. One serious concern in toy manufacture is the use of nickel cadmium (NiCad) batteries, which until recently were common. While they’re safe to use, they’re being banned for most uses in Europe because the cadmium is highly polluting when it ends up in landfill.
The Toys ’R’ Us chain has committed itself to phasing out rechargeable NiCad batteries in toys made exclusively for the company, partly for this reason, but also because of the deleterious effects cadmium has on the health of Chinese workers making the batteries — it’s linked to kidney failure, lung cancer and bone disease. And it’s not just the workers — cadmium escape has resulted in polluted water and soil, and high levels occur in food in China. Hasbro toy company has also banned these batteries from its toys.
Working conditions of the people making clothes were considered ‘very’ or ‘quite’ important by almost half the survey respondents, but not surprisingly quality/durability and price were the most important factors when choosing clothes. Along with style/design, they make up the top three criteria (see the graph, above). Over the last decade the sweatshop issue has emerged regarding clothes. FairWear’s ‘No Sweat’ campaign addresses the poor pay rates and long hours worked by outworkers in Australia.
When we asked consumers if they’d boycotted any products for ethical reasons, the single highest response for a named brand was Nike. As a market leader, it was singled out for attention in the mid-’90s by anti-sweatshop activists, although many other sports shoe and clothing companies operated in a similar way. In recent years, campaigners have acknowledged that working conditions in Nike factories have improved, and a review by the UK’s Ethical Consumer organisation took them off the bottom of the list for ethical sportswear.
Almost half the consumers surveyed consider the environmental impact of producing clothing very or quite important. Environmental aspects of clothing production have entered consumer consciousness, with concern about the chemicals and huge amounts of water used to grow cotton. Organic cotton products are becoming more mainstream (Target, among other major retailers, now carries a range), as are alternative natural fibres such as hemp, which can be much less demanding of resources.
(A) For example, freedom of expression, right to a fair trial, freedom from cruel and degrading treatment etc.
(B) For example, worker safety, wages paid, hours worked, etc.