Green Label

College sophomore Doug Miller develops proposal to help foster more sustainable consumption.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

By Priya Ratneshwar

Most of us would like to make more environmentally conscious choices as consumers, but the overwhelming amount of information about what makes a product "green" (or not) can range from confusing to contradictory to downright misleading. In response to this problem, College sophomore Doug Miller recently presented a proposal at The Economist magazine's Carbon Economy Summit for an inventive product that would empower consumers with the knowledge to buy more sustainably.

Miller, an environmental studies and Philosophy, Politics and Economics double major, developed the idea for a "Production and Transportation Facts" label for packaged products. The label, he explains, would be formatted much like the Nutrition Facts label we see on many food items, and it would provide a multifaceted breakdown of the environmental impact of a product. This includes the estimated emissions generated in production, the energy sources used in production, the distance and method of transport for materials, information on proper disposal of the item, as well as a general score that rates the product's overall environmental impact on a scale of one to five.

The Production and Transportation Facts Label

"I think this label would provide a necessary tool in creating the foundation for a sustainable economy," Miller says. "Hopefully, the consumer could drive changes in business behavior by rewarding green production practices."

Miller developed the proposal in response to The Economist's competition for innovative solutions in the energy sector. He was among 11 finalists—and the only student—chosen to present his idea at the magazine's Carbon Economy Summit last November to an audience that included White House officials. He credits his public speaking experiences with the student-run Penn Environmental Group and ready access to the expertise of his professors with helping him prepare for the summit. Miller worked particularly closely with Alain Plante, Assistant Professor of Earth and Environmental Studies, to address shortcomings in his proposal and to get ready for the question and answer session that followed his presentation.

"Hopefully, the consumer could drive changes in business behavior by rewarding green production practices." – Doug Miller

"What impressed me about Doug's work was the simplicity of the proposal," Plante says. "Companies already invest significant amounts of money and effort in ‘supply chain management'. Doug's proposed label simply leverages that information and makes it publicly available to consumers in a simple and elegant way. Such a ‘Production and Transportation' label is not only consistent with increased consumer demands to ‘buy local,' but it would also provide consumers with information that would demystify how products are sourced and manufactured, possibly alleviating some of the current ‘greenwashing'—marketing based on potentially false environmental attributes."

Miller says he was pleasantly surprised that the corporate representatives in attendance at his presentation generally responded favorably to the label, and he has plans to further refine and circulate his proposal. He says also that attending the summit was itself a unique learning experience that has altered his perspective on his work in the classroom.

"The summit put in place the reality of what government can potentially do, what businesses are doing right now and what they are capable of doing," he explains. "This knowledge will be really beneficial in getting the most out of my studies over the next two years."

Doug Miller's video proposal for the "Production and Transportation Facts" label: