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Reducing the Environmental Impact of Consumer Goods


The Öko-Institut e.V. (Eco-Institute) was founded as a "spin-off" of Germany's antinuclear movement in 1977. The institute's primary goal was to conduct scientific environmental research independently of government and industry, but for common use. This mission is still valid today, independent from the fact that social and economic aspects are taken more and more into consideration additionally to the ecological perspective while working on research projects. The institute is funded exclusively from membership dues by its roughly 4000 members, donations and commissioned research projects in a variety of areas such as energy and climate protection, sustainable products and material flows, chemistry, genetic engineering, nuclear engineering and plant safety, environmental law, and transportation. A total of 85 staff persons are currently working at the three locations in Freiburg, Darmstadt, and Berlin.

I am working in the "sustainable products and material flows" section. The primary duties of this group are the analysis, assessment, and reduction of environmental effects of products, services, or whole areas like mobility, nutrition, housing, or information and communication.

The approach of "top-10 innovations," one of several projects that we are presently working on, is very broad and inclusive. First, products from 10 different fields that account for about 70% of Germany's material flow (energy and water consumption, greenhouse gas emissions, etc.) are closely examined. These products cover almost all consumer needs--housing, food, mobility, washing machines, refrigerators, personal computers, or television sets. The project's objective is to develop and promote new or improved products that match the criteria of being affordable, environmentally sound, and of high quality.

On the other hand, we do not only monitor the production phase, but also the application phase, as the environmental impact while using a product may well exceed the production phase's impact. Cars are a popular example: The primary energy consumption during the use is five times as high as during the production. Thus, the way products are used is a deciding factor for resolving current environmental problems as well as an efficient and environmentally sound production cycle. Through the joint examination of ecological, social, and economic aspects by the means of lifecycle assessment, consumer research, and lifecycle costing, we try to take the diverse demands of environmental, consumer, and industry interests into consideration.

While working in this project, my duties include an interesting field of tasks. In order to account the environmental impact of a product or a consumption field, recent and accurate data is necessary. So I have to be up to date with the latest developments in the areas of food and nutrition on which I am working primarily. I am not only gathering information from other relevant studies, the Internet, or corporate businesses, but I sometimes also have to conduct surveys myself. It may well be that I am spending an afternoon in the stores comparing prices or at home retrieving data on the energy consumption of certain appliances. But still, my most important resources are the Internet, magazines, books, and the telephone.

Teamwork is given pride of place at the Öko-Institut. Joint collaboration during projects enables an exchange of experience and information that leads to faster, more creative solutions. Short meetings, intensive project retreats, or workshops with cooperating partners or clients are rather the rule than the exception and have to be organized and prepared. Especially for larger meetings with external partners, issues like location and time need to be solved. A facility has to be found--most likely, the accommodation of participants has to be organized as well as a presentation of results.

The output is naturally most important--both clients and members want to see results: papers, reports, press releases, or articles in journals have to be written, grant proposals need to be submitted, and inquiries are waiting to be answered. Giving this daily "routine," boredom is seldom. Usually, one rather regrets not having the extra time (and extra energy) to further study all the other interesting tasks that colleagues are working on.

Everyday work life is very pleasant, as well as the working climate. I enjoy the diversity of tasks and issues, the inspiration from my colleagues with different scientific backgrounds for different views and discussions, and the search for practical but scientific solutions that can be applied in industry, business, or politics. But this is certainly not the only reason why I am here today--a main factor was my desire for a profession that is in accordance with my personal values. From my point of view, sustainable development--meaning the integrated consideration of ecological, social, and economic aspects--is a core task of today's generation. This is the only way to create acceptable living conditions for people in poorer parts of the world and future generations while maintaining an intact environment. At the Öko-Institut, I have found my place to contribute to this idea professionally--during my working hours.

As diverse as problems and solutions are, plenty of opportunities to start off in the environmental sector exist. I only used one of those, having a background in natural sciences. Economists, social and political scientists, and engineers are as important. Only by collaborating on these multilayer problems can sustainable concepts be developed that respect technical, entrepreneurial, and political opportunities as well as the needs of all human beings. The way into the environmental sector does not (fortunately) exist--everyone can contribute his or her own interests and qualifications, if only they want to.