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Steps Without Footprints

By: Steve Herman
Posted: December 9, 2009, from the December 2009 issue of GCI Magazine.

“Concern for man and his fate must always form the chief interest of all technical endeavors … Never forget this in the midst of your diagrams and equations.” —Albert Einstein

Once upon a time, a light dusting of chamomile and rosemary extracts, along with the obligatory dose of aloe vera, made a product look “natural”—at least in terms of label copy. It was also fashionable to identify and isolate the active chemicals in botanicals and explain their function. The market then pursued all natural formulations, then organic products with certification complete with official seals of approval. None of that is remotely adequate now. The carbon footprint and social responsibility, poetically expounded yearly in corporate sustainability reports, are the current gold standard for environmentally sensitive companies.

For those who consider this an issue only for inveterate tree huggers, images collected by NASA’s ICESat satellite1 (launched in 2003) should remind us all that the earth is indeed changing. These images show that the permanent ice blanket around the North Pole has decreased by 40% since 2004. Global warming is here, and everyone is contributing to it.

Carbon footprint applies to individuals as well as corporations. The Ecological Footprint quiz at www.myfootprint.org estimates the area of land and ocean required to support the consumption of food, goods, services, housing and energy, and assimilate wastes. The footprint is broken down into carbon (home energy use and transportation), food, housing, and goods and services.

Since current activities require an extra half earth to sustain, it is incumbent on everyone at every level of activity to take action. Every time a steam jacketed kettle heats up to 75°C or a raw material is shipped overnight from coast-to-coast, the planet has a little less to give. Every time water (often 80–90% of a product) is shipped, the earth suffers. Every bottle, cap, pump, box and label has its impact on the planet.