Friday, July 17, 2009

Getting the lead out

Critics sometimes damn American consumers for being heedless of the pollution, deforestation or harm to workers caused by manufacturers.

Heedless we Americans may be at times. Yet, the truth is that we can't easily access information about the products we buy—even in this digital age. Significant numbers of us likely would make different purchasing decisions if we had more information.

For example, when Americans discovered in 2007 that China was exporting toys with paint containing toxic levels of lead, toy sales plummeted until companies undertook better testing and China made commitments to get the lead out. That was not only good for kids, but also for Chinese workers who paint the toys.

Walmart, the nation's largest retailer, reportedly is working on a system to tag items with an environmental impact rating. If successful, the ratings could have globally beneficial impacts on the health of workers and the health of the planet as consumers are able to make more informed choices.

In another arena, health advocates are pushing Congress to require restaurants to post calorie counts. They argue persuasively that we Americans, beset by diseases of plenty including obesity, diabetes and heart disease, need more information to make better choices.

We may still buy the oh-so-delicious 5,000-calorie monster shake, but we'll not do it ignorant of the content.

Posting environmental impact ratings and calorie counts would give us better control of the quality of our lives—inside and out.

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