By: Lars Luscuere (EPEA Nederland)
Imagine going out for some sorbet ice cream. Looking at the flavors you decide it’s a good time for lemon ice cream. Wondering what you will be eating and whether there is actually lemon in the ice cream you decide to ask the shop assistant, “What’s in the ice cream?” A quite simple question to which you expect an answer listing some ingredients such as lemon, water and sugar. Instead what you hear back is that they do not know, as the ice cream is purchased and not made in the shop. Interesting. You suggest they look on the packages the ice cream arrives in for a list of ingredients, but there is no such list. Friendly as the personnel is however they ask you to wait for a couple of minutes and enjoy your ice cream while they call their supplier and ask some questions. A couple of minutes later they return and happily state: “Well, there is no melon in the lemon ice cream! And it is not expected that any mercury is present either”. You decide to hold out on eating the ice cream just yet.
When I started out at EPEA, one of my first assignments was to figure out: “What are the ingredients of this product?” The product in question didn’t seem to be very complex at first sight. A combination of some ingredients, some materials, into a physical, functional product for everyday use. This is a common activity of EPEA personnel in their natural habitat and so I got down to it. I got in contact with the company that manufactures the product and was quickly relieved of my illusion that obtaining a full materials list was a simple endeavor. Apparently it is not necessarily the case that the producer of a product knows what is actually inside of his product.
Some information can usually be found in for instance MSDS (Material Safety Data Sheet), or in information booklets used for advertising. However, these sources are very limited on actual substance content. They focus more on the properties of materials and on listing some materials that are not in the product. And so the search continues.
Coming back to the ice-cream shop; after explaining why the answer is not satisfactory, you ask the ice shop employees for the suppliers´ phone number so that you can make some calls and ask questions yourself. From the supplier you manage to get more phone numbers from their suppliers in turn and it is shaping up to be a complex puzzle to figure out what exactly is melting in your hand at the moment. After some perseverance however you may have managed to convince the suppliers and sub suppliers of the notion that you are interested in what the product actually contains and not a list of things that it does NOT contain.
Finally you manage to write up the list of what the ice cream consists of: Lemon, water, sugar, some traces of nuts, seeds and milk, and a little passion fruit. Nothing else. Perfectly suitable for consumption, but sadly meanwhile a puddle on the floor.
In the case of the product I was researching: What the producer knows is, of course, what he puts together in order to make the product, and where this comes from. A product is often built up from material components, which are in turn produced using several ingredients or subcomponents each. The depth of this hierarchy depends on the complexity of the material and the product it will be used for. Is it for example a laptop, an office chair or a plastic bottle? After getting in touch with the manufacturer, suppliers, sub suppliers et cetera and hopefully solving the puzzle of who is producing the base materials that make up the final product, I could finally start inquiring about substance content with reasonable expectation of an answer.
One of the difficulties which reduces the transparency of this type of information through the supply chain is of course the wish companies have to keep their recipes secret so that they cannot be copied or studied by competitors. Still, process secrets aside, shouldn’t a producer at least know what he is putting inside of his products? In food items we see the need for this in a more direct way, and as such it is common and even obligatory that ingredients lists are provided. This is also the case for products which we apply directly on our skin for example, such as many cosmetics.
It is remarkable that products for everyday use do not come with an ingredients list; especially since many of them are in contact with human skin, or close to our mouths or eyes, exposing us in various ways to their substances. Think for example of a computer keyboard or a phone, which often house many substances that ought to be avoided. Having accessible ingredient information would give the conscious consumer a fighting chance in choosing healthy and beneficial materials over harmful ones, and it gives suppliers of healthy products and sub-products the confidence to advertise their products accordingly. In establishing materials information it is important for producers and suppliers to start thinking about what they are actually producing and handling, what ingredients they are using for this and to have this information available. Transparency in supply chains is therefore of vital importance. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to regard the supply chain connected to a certain product as a group of companies working together to put a quality, healthy and cyclable product on the market? Having clearly defined materials is a first step in setting up circular models of production, use and recovery.
After all, I wouldn`t be too happy knowing that my local ice cream shop serves me `mercury ice’ but I would be even worse off not knowing this at all!