Can a single standard lead us toward sustainable consumption?

A non-profit takes on the planet--and consumerism--in its quest to address all aspects of sustainability.

Paper or plastic? I tend to bring my own these days, but if you’re a thinking consumer, the answer to, “What kind of bags are best for the environment?” gets complicated when you start thinking about trees, transportation, landfills and our planet’s future. It’s even more daunting when you think about products more complex than bags. People 4 Earth has a solution. The global non-profit, with offices in the Netherlands and the United States (and Asia next year), has developed a standard for goods and services that addresses all aspects of sustainability: ecological and social concerns and individuals’ health and well-being.

I spoke with P4E’s executive director, Mark Tulay, about the organization’s mission, goals and how it’s connecting consumers, companies, NGOs and governments to create a healthy and sustainable world.

When you talk about a People 4 Earth “standard,” what does that mean?

There are currently 800 standards for sustainability that include environmental aspects and social responsibility. The World Wildlife Fund, for example, recently created a standard on aquaculture—how to treat shellfish responsibly. Most of these standards go a mile deep into the best practices for a particular issue. Our standard goes a mile wide and covers all aspects of sustainability. We cover workers’ rights, transparency, biodiversity and animal welfare.

Sounds like an ambitious goal. What will it take to make that standard work effectively in driving sustainability?

It is ambitious and it’s urgently needed. Whether it’s the U.S., Asia or Africa, we need a global standard so customers can differentiate between products that are green and green-washing (what we call it when companies overstate the environmental benefits of a product). Our plan is to announce our partners in the first quarter of 2010—more than 75 household-name companies and NGOs that endorse our standard. Companies will become members and will be able to use our logo and seal on their products to demonstrate all aspects of sustainability. We want customers to know that a company is good to its workers as well as the environment.

What benefits does your standard provide for consumers?

There’s a website,, where more than 75,000 products are now rated on sustainability. We will be producing our own version of a guide early next year, so shoppers can come to our website and find the products aligned with what they care about. Today, they can go to our site, learn about the standards, and begin to see companies changing their practice—like changing all this terrible plastic packaging.

Shopping for “sustainable” products tends to be more expensive. Will this change?

We believe the cost savings for products and services should be passed on to consumers. Through Wal-Mart, you can now buy Stonyfield Farm yogurt—that’s one example of what’s happening. We’ll get to the point when sustainable products aren’t in just one corner of the supermarket and more expensive. They will be throughout the store. It’s going to be an area of competitive advantages for all retailers.

We all have our shopping tendencies, and some of it’s based on old habits, like buying products that our mothers used to buy. How much of an impediment is human behavior your mission?

Now, consumers are evaluating the impact of certain products, from plastic packaging to miles per gallon on a new car. Consumers are now starting to have more information to make these decisions. But it’s got to be a split-second decision--it can’t be going back to your computer for six hours and figuring out whether a paper bag is worse for the environment than a plastic bag. We don’t have that transparency now, but we can see—with the GoodGuide and Wal-Mart (asking more than 100,000 suppliers to disclose and report the sustainability of their products) that things are happening quickly, in an unprecedented scale, bringing transparency for consumers to gauge impact.

What does People 4 Earth hope to achieve by the year 2015?

It’s clear that sustainable consumption will be the defining issue of the next millennium. It’s a shift where consumption becomes more conscious, and it becomes an act of citizenship. Right now, most of the innovations are at the company and investor level. We think for it to be community-owned, with collaboration between all stakeholders, the real transformation needs to happen with consumers.

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