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Cutting the Fluff Out of Sustainability: An Interview with Ramon Arratia

Ramon Arratia is a sustainability director with 13 years' experience Ramon Arratiain corporate positions at companies such as Vodafone, Ericsson and, currently, Interface. He is a strong advocate of product sustainability through his blog InterfaceCutTheFluff, and for many years he led the Cut the Fluff campaign against labels, certificates, partial truths and marketing claims that obscure legitimate sustainability work. He’s written a short e-book on the topic, employing what he calls a hybrid “geekzer” mindset for geeks (LCA practitioners, academics, engineers) and geezers (marketing, PR, sales, sustainability consultants).

The title of your book is Full Product Transparency: Cutting the Fluff Out of Sustainability. What do you mean by the “fluff”?

Today’s corporate world has stolen the sustainability movement’s concepts and applied it to their communications and public affairs campaigns with more rah-rah than actual performance. Buzzwords such as "corporate social responsibility," "triple bottom line" and "stakeholder engagement" fill the pages of meaningless CSR reports while business remains as usual.

What is the first step in getting rid of the fluff — to move from the “corporate responsibility beauty contest,” as you call it, to a more honest sustainability movement?

The first step is to carry out a life cycle analysis (LCA) to understand what are the real environmental impacts of your product or service. That will tell you which are the hotspots that should drive your sustainability strategy.

You’re one of many sustainability professionals who are critical of the growing number of green product labels on the market. What’s the problem with these?

When you look carefully at how some labels are administered, you realize how flawed they are. Most are too easy to obtain, which is obvious because the easier your label is to get, the bigger your market becomes. Most labels are very narrow in scope, measuring the easiest things rather than the big-ticket issues. Many lack independent certification or may even be administered by the manufacturers themselves. Many labels duplicate each other, confusing clients and leaving manufacturers obliged to certify the same product several times.

Unfortunately, some of the best-marketed labels are the least robust.

If the sustainability industry moves the focus from companies to products, and product labels aren’t working, what can work?

Showing the real impact of products is what works. The biggest impact of a car is the use phase, so today cars are mandated to show gCO2/km all over Europe. Energy labels of white goods supply information about consumption data on absolute terms. The next steps is for products to show embodied energy.

What is the role of LCA in achieving Full Product Transparency (FPT)? And what are the challenges of instituting them broadly?

LCA is critical in achieving FPT of environmental information. In order to show the real impacts, you need to first do the analysis. The problem with LCAs is when manufacturers set their own rules and change the scope and assumptions to make their products look better than they are.

How can Product Category Rules (PCR) improve the use of LCA?

PCRs fix the assumptions and scope so manufacturers cannot play with them in order to favor their products. These rules are set up for each product category (e.g. flooring products or tomatoes). They specify what is the functional unit or declared unit (e.g. kg or m2) and what is the scope and rules around assumptions, so all products follow the same assumptions.

You’re also a big proponent of Environmental Product Declarations (EPD). What do these do to cut through the fluff?Full Product Transparency

An EPD is a LCA following a PCR. It tells you what is the product, what are the ingredients and raw materials, what are the various environmental impacts (not only carbon but also things such as acidification or abiotic depletion). An EPD doesn’t tell whether a product is green or not, it just tell you the facts for you to make the conclusions. The same way nutritional information works.

The benefits of Full Product Transparency (FPT) are easy enough to imagine for engaged consumers, but are there benefits for businesses as well? What is going to compel them to take this path?

There is a big difference between consumers and B2B. In B2B and public procurement, professionals make decisions based on cold facts. This is a great market for EPDs. Consumers make more impulse buys, and we should not bother them with environmental information for all the products. You don’t want to search for the environmental performance for each of the 200 products you shop for weekly. Consumers will expect that either the government (through legislation) or retailers will cut the environmental impacts of the products they buy. But consumers can be “bothered” in big purchases where they are more likely not to buy on impulse. For example, consumers are already looking at energy use when buying a car or a house.

Where is FPT already being put to practice? Where do we look for examples?

The most advanced territory is the European construction industry with its standardized approach. There is an über-PCR called EN15804 for construction products. You can download EPDs for many products already in the website of IBU, the German institute for the built environment.

Full Product Transparency is part of a new series of short, expert e-books being released by DoSustainability that distill sustainability best practice and insights for busy professionals. For 15% off Full Product Transparency or any other book in the DōShorts series, enter code SB15 during checkout. Individual and corporate subscriptions to the full e-library are also available in 2013.

@Bart_King is a freelance writer and communications consultant.

Bart King is the principal of New Growth Communications, a network of affiliated content producers and strategists serving clients in the emerging green economy. He is also Associate Editor of Sponsored Content for Sustainable Brands. Follow him @bart_king [Read more about Bart King]

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