Some of the most important decisions affecting consumers in California are made with surprisingly little input from consumers themselves.
That’s certainly the case with California’s Green Chemistry Initiative. Three years after the Legislature passed groundbreaking laws to create a system for making consumer products safer, regulators in Sacramento are still about the business of writing the rules that will put the laws into action. But after three years of public hearings, written comments, sub-committee meetings and reports, it remains unclear whether consumers are being heard from in a meaningful way.
To be sure, there is no shortage of participants claiming to represent the interests of consumers. At times in these hearings, everyone who testifies claims to be interested only in what ordinary consumers want and need.
But an objective census of these hearings would reveal that pretty much everyone there fits into one of the three categories of the usual suspects. There are the regulators, who in this case ultimately will decide which products can be made and sold in California. Then, there are the associations representing the companies who make and sell those products. Finally, there are environmental groups and activists, who see their role as pushing for ever-stricter controls and safeguards.
With which of these three groups do consumers’ interests lie? Historically, environmental groups have done the best job of anointing themselves the protectors of consumers. But do these groups want the same things that consumers themselves want? It’s a question that doesn’t get asked – let alone answered – in most news stories about this and other “green” policy debates.
The fact is, consumers and environmental activists are decidedly out of step when it comes to making “greener” or safer products.
When consumers are polled on what matters to them when choosing a product – like, say, a bottle of floor cleaner or an alarm clock – they consistently mention two top criteria: price and performance. They want a floor cleaner that is affordably priced and that will actually clean their floors. They want an alarm clock that doesn’t cost too much and that will reliably wake them on time.
Yes, they want to know their products don’t put them at risk of exposure to toxics and don’t harm the environment. First and foremost, though, they want products that work and that are affordable. But if you go to a month’s worth of hearings on Green Chemistry, it’s unlikely you’ll hear a single environmental activist mention either of these things.
That’s because activists don’t care about things like price and performance. To the activist, if a product can be made safer, if a government body has the power to insist on a reformulation that eliminates even the most infinitesimal of risks, it must happen. Whether it still cleans a floor or fits into a budget is of no concern.
But despite this critical disconnect, news reports will continue to portray every word spoken by environmental activists as being on behalf of consumers. Any skepticism or scrutiny is reserved for the testimony of manufacturers or retailers, who bizarrely are portrayed as fighting for the right to poison their customers.
This phenomenon must give California companies fits. Many of them have practiced green chemistry for years, understanding that making safe products safer – while keeping them affordable and effective – is simply good business. Reflecting the fact that companies are actively leading this new science, the list of winners of the Presidential Green Chemistry Challenge Awards reads more like a chamber of commerce roster than an academic directory.
So, consumers find themselves in the dangerous position of being “represented” by entities that don’t want the same things they want for themselves. No good outcome ever resulted for a group in that position.
All of this puts a greater burden on the regulators whose decisions will affect consumers from this point forward. It’s up to the Department of Toxic Substance Control to build a framework of rules that isn’t dictated by environmental activists and that doesn’t stick already burdened consumers and taxpayers with increased costs.
Creating a rulebook that ignores what consumers care about would be a monumental mistake.
Jim Conran, former director of the California Department of Consumer Affairs, is an adjunct professor in the graduate business school at Golden Gate University in San Francisco where he teaches about the convergence of government, business and consumers.