It’s been 23 years since the U.S. Food and Drug Administration began requiring "nutrition facts" labels on most food products. Is it time to do the same for disclosing the environmental impact of laboratory products?
We’ve become so accustomed to nutrition labeling that we barely notice it anymore. Yet it took years for legislators to pass a law that mandates it. Now, a voluntary effort is underway in the private sector to provide information on the manufacture, energy and water use, packaging, and end of life of laboratory products.
The initiative is being spearheaded by My Green Lab, a non-profit organization dedicated to increasing the sustainability of scientific research. Its new ACT label (for Accountability, Consistency and Transparency) is intended to help buyers of laboratory products make environmentally responsible choices about their purchases.
The label includes scores for the degree of renewable energy use in manufacturing, responsible chemical management, shipping impact, product and packaging content, energy and water consumption by users, and packaging for end of life. The individual numbers are totaled to create an Environmental Impact Factor. In addition, each label bears an expiration date, requiring manufacturers to renew their certifications on a periodic basis.
MilliporeSigma, a provider of chemicals for labs and industry use, is among the early adopters of the ACT label. Jeffrey Whitford, global head of corporate responsibility and branding, says the company was approached by My Green Labs executive director Allison Paradise and independent consultant Annie Bevan to participate in a pilot project. The idea was to construct and apply the first-ever framework for categorizing the environmental impact of chemicals and lab materials.
Whitford says MilliporeSigma was keen on increasing the transparency of its own products. It created a tool called DOZN, a method for evaluating products based on 12 principles of green chemistry that were first laid out in the 1990s by former scientists from the Environmental Protection Agency.
With the ACT framework in place, MilliporeSigma set out to amass information about four of its products through pilot programs. It then submitted the data to My Green Lab, which assigned an environmental impact factor to each of the four chemicals under review.
The response from scientists at Millipore Sigma wasn’t completely positive. “My team in particular had a vitriolic reaction on some elements,” recalls Whitford. “On others, we said it makes sense.”
Part of the problem stemmed from the global nature of MilliporeSigma’s supply chain. The fact that so many of its chemicals are made offshore meant that the shipping impact could be as high as that of that of manufacturing. The company also found it difficult to address certain issues of packaging, particularly with regard to recycling. It doesn’t have complete control over disposal methods for the various products, Whitford says.
The comparison to food labeling isn’t exact. Elements such as sugar, fat and carbohydrate content can be easily quantified for consumer products. That’s not always the case when it comes to assessing the environmental impact of a chemical. How, for example, do you precisely score “shipping impact” or “product content”? These are complex elements that involve multiple supply-chain partners and a certain amount of guesswork.
Whitford argues that the environmental impact factor can be increasingly nailed down over time in many areas. The distance required to ship product from the plant to a distribution center, for example, is “absolutely quantifiable.” Things get blurrier when it comes to measuring user impact across multiple product categories.
Again, experience can serve to improve the accuracy of the numbers. “It’s not going to come to a perfect end point,” Whitford says. “It’s a work in progress.”
Three other providers of chemicals and laboratory equipment are participating in the initial piloting of the ACT label: ThermoFisher Scientific, Eppendorf, and Priorclave. Whitford says other companies have expressed interest as well. “People are starting to see the value of this.”
One factor that could inhibit rapid industry-wide acceptance is the proprietary nature of the ACT label. The name is trademarked and the auditing process is considered a trade secret, involving the signing of a non-disclosure agreement by participants. It’s not impossible to imagine multiple label formats popping up, making it difficult to create a coherent industry standard for the evaluation of environmental impact.
Still, the presence of the ACT label on a manufacturer’s product could serve as a strong marketing tool to reach environmentally conscious customers. The label might also spur adoption by makers of other types of products, especially in the consumer sector. One could envision an environmental impact label alongside the nutrition facts for food items. Or a consumer electronics device might disclose the types of materials and energy usage that were involved in its manufacturing and shipping.
First, though, the ACT label has to catch on in the highly specialized world of laboratories and scientific research. “The key is to see how the uptick happens, and whether universities and leading research institutions start working it into their procurement,” says Whitford. “Once you get some of those dominoes to fall, it becomes a bit easier to do.”