Sustainable Industry & Consumption

Who Caught Me?I have a long-running interest in sustainable industry issues. My doctoral work at Harvard focused on pollution prevention in the chemical industry in Britain and the US. I analyzed why and how "prevention" became a new environmental protection norm, whether and how companies, workers, and regulators developed the tools and processes needed to identify prevention opportunities, and the role of societal actors such as NGOs in creating pressures for industry to implement pollution prevention. My green chemistry research continues this line of work.

However, the early 2000s are seeing the emergence of another phase in industry’s transition to sustainability. Most environmental policy approaches have focused on making factories and production less polluting and wasteful. Taking a divergent starting point in my new research, I ask: What is a sustainable product? How do we come to know that a product is sustainable? How and why do companies invest in developing such products? What are the (perceived) obstacles and challenges that companies encounter? In these ways, I integrate market and organizational issues into environmental STS.

Fair Trade LogoIn turn, consumption is one of the greatest challenges that we confront. In industrial societies, and increasingly in large developing countries like China, consumption is generating vast environmental and social impacts. Yet consumption is often not included as a core part of environmental policy. Consumer sovereignty takes priority. Consumers have the right to buy any product that they want. But this "right" is contingent and grounded in cultural and social conditions. Tackling consumption is seen as the "third rail" of environmental policy.

I am investigating the assumptions and pressures that help create this lacuna, and the range of policies and tools that may be used to influence the trajectories of consumption more effectively. Sometimes, it may be more effective to aim strategically at influential actors (retailers such as Wal-Mart), or to rely on product standards rather than on consumer demand. I have worked on sustainable seafood production and consumption, along with the environmental impacts of electronics (at this point, focused on electronic wastes).

I am also the deputy director of the Consumer Information Laboratory, which my collaborator Professor Dara O’Rourke directs. Please click here for details. The InfoLab has a growing range of projects, led by graduate students and faculty according to their interests, with a common theme of exploring how consumption can be changed through regulation, market-based approaches, information tools, new production chain tracking systems, and other ideas.

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