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Manufacturing, Toxins and the Traceability Challenge

A machine may be more than the sum of its parts, but, when something goes wrong, tracing the origin of those parts is becoming a problem. The component parts of devices ranging from iPads to coffeemakers are frequently made by different companies that may be located in different countries, which makes it difficult to assign responsibility when a product is defective, a recent Slate article explains.

The struggle to trace each component part matters not only in cases of error, where an accidental flaw in a device makes it dangerous. It also could have implications for product claims. Say a company claims its product is BPA-free, but some of its components are not. It it even clear which entity is legally responsible for each piece of the product? To what extent is quality control the responsibility of the company that is selling the device and making claims about the product?

These issues are increasingly important given a Wall Street Journal article that found companies’ claims that their products are eco-friendly or BPA-free are frequently false. In short, if you’re worried about plastics, you’re better off purchasing products that are glass or metal. You can’t trust companies’ claims that their products are free of endocrine disruptors or other dangerous chemicals. (Or, apparently, lead paint, if you remember the recent scandal when it was revealed that millions of toys imported from China contained lead or other dangerous substances.)

In an ideal world, government regulators or reliable private or non-profit groups would test products and let consumers know what they contain. There are great resources, such as the Environmental Working Group, that do just that (their cosmetics database is particularly impressive). But their data is not available for all products and the government’s oversight and resources are limited. Until this situation is improved, consumers are mostly on their own in researching companies and products. The diverse origins of product parts makes this task all the more difficult.

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