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Spotlight on Sourcing at Greener Gadgets

As the global economy strengthens its grip, consumers (and even some manufacturers) are led further and further away from the origins of the products they consume. And, of course, the greater distance a product travels to get to us means a larger carbon footprint, further damaging the environment. At the Greener Gadgets conference last week, design competition prize winner John Healy and guest speaker Leonardo Bonnani of MIT both revealed brilliant new platforms that allow us to make better buying decisions.


Leonardo Bonnani, a PhD candidate at MIT Media lab, founded as a way to visualize the relationships we have with the ingredients of every product that we use. He began his presentation by talking about the finite resources of certain precious metals, like indium and rhodium, that appear in the guts of every laptop. As laptops are discarded, dismantled and melted down, these elements are transitioned to new products; Bonnani says we're merely "custodians of these materials" as they transfer from one gadget to another.

Yet, reuse of these components can be dangerous. Bonnani pointed to a recent recall of a metal children's toy that contained traces of poisonous lead and cadmium. As electronics are liquidated in countries with lax environmental and safety regulations, hazardous metals are mixed with innocuous metals like tin.

This led Bonnani to think about the materials used in products other than electronics. The labyrinthine routes lying between a material's source and, say, an IKEA bed results in a significant amount of waste -- emissions from production, waste from refining, exhaust from delivery. Even companies that claim to be green -- that use organic materials and low-emissions factories, for instance -- might be damaging the environment without knowing it. Bonnani began to visually trace a given material's route in order to tally a final product's environmental impact.

Sourcemap is an open-source project, and is available to developers who want to expand the database (although it takes some considerable research to flesh out data). Really, in order to effectively spotlight corporate carbon footprints, all Sourcemap needs is publicity and commitment.

Living Goods Program

The winner of the much-anticipated Greener Gadgets Design Competition was not the Corky Mouse, but John Healy's mobile app, the AUG/Living Goods Program. The ambitious AUG (Augmented Living Goods) project is currently only a concept, but one that is squarely aimed at mass implementation. By using the network to connect producers, grocers and the public, Healy and his cohorts hope to encourage consumers to buy locally grown food.

Under the program, food producers would provide information about their products to the AUG database, which would assign a specific bar code to each item. Grocers stocking that item would then place the AUG barcode near the food in its display. After signing up and downloading the app, a shopper would use their phone's camera and the barcode to retrieve the location of the item's farm, its price history, user comments and more.

At checkout, the consumer would their member bar code in order to upload their current purchase to their online account history. As a member of the program, the consumer will receive rewards and benefits based on their purchases. The argument goes that, by encouraging consumers to buy locally with incentives, both local farmers and grocers will increase sales while providing locally grown food.

Product sourcing is not only environmentally sound, but it's important for local and regional economics, as well. If you or someone you know has an interest in researching manufacturing sources, or in further developing Sourcemap's software, log on straight away and get involved.

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