Share and share alike: Non-profit launches 'data commons' for lifecycle info

Walmart and Seventh Generation line up in support of Earthster, which is developing a way to visually show the environmental or social impact across the lifecycle of certain products.

It is now commonly agreed that supply chain information and the environmental impact thereof is a vitally important ingredient of the new measures that consumer electronics companies hope to use in the creation of indexes and other tools that measure lifecycle impact of different products.

But, let's be realistic, not every company has the moolah to go off and develop some sort of internal software for tracking this nor may they have the budget to go off and license one of the many applications that are emerging to address this function. That's why I was intrigued to sit in on a Web presentation given this week by a company called Earthster, which is driving the creation of some open-source technology tools for these so-called product lifecycle assessments.

First, a thumbnail on Earthster, a project of the non-profit organization New Earth, which is based in Maine. The goal of the project is to create an open-source platform for measuring and managing product environmental and social impacts. The company's newest software tool is Earthster 2 Turbo, a wiki application that manages production information across product supply chains. It offers data on greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, health impacts, product stewardship efforts, waste management, water implications and so forth.

"We want to use our system to understand ourselves and also to tell one another about our impacts," says Gregory Norris, co-founder of Earthster and also the founder of Sylvatica Institute, which is a product lifecycle assessment consulting company. "Every user makes the system better."

Earthster and some of its corporate supporters, including mega-retailer Walmart and green cleaning products maker Seventh Generation, are also advocating a data commons that will act as a repository of common information related to specific products and industries. The ideas is that companies will be able to draw on this information to perform their own lifecycle assessments. Of course, it is hoped that they would contribute information, as well. In fact, Earthster estimates that something like 80 percent of the average product's information would be "shared," that it, the information would be similar to that of competitive offerings.

Dave Rapaport, senior director of corporate consciousness for Seventh Generation, says his company initially plans to use the Earthster technology to help graphically illustrate the impact of two of its products on the company Web site. Let's be clear, this is a visual representation, not just data. The products that will be illustrated first are the Seventh Generation dish liquid and liquid laundry detergent lines. Knowing how his products compare to the alternatives is extremely important, Rapaport says.

Jeff Rice, sustainability director for Walmart, which has also been pilot-testing the Earthster software, says it is vitally important that these applications integrate with industry-specific information. "[Lifecycle assessment] software that creates value and makes measuring practical improves the effectiveness of reporting standards, like those of the Sustainability Consortium and the Global Packaging Project, especially when those tools are integrated with existing industry platforms ...," says Rice in a statement that was part of the Earthster briefing materials.

Now, the trick will be getting people to open up data that isn't necessarily proprietary. Aside from Walmart and Seventh Generation, other early supporters listed on the Earthster Web site include Caterpillar, Georgia-Pacific, Safeway, Stonyfield Farms, and Tetra Pak.

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