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Perfecting information.

March 3, 2011

In domestic climate change wonkery, the big news this week is from EPA, who released a study finding that the Clean Air Act’s 20-year stint of regulating air pollutants like smog and soot will pay back with annual benefits of $2 trillion by 2020. The benefit estimates are based on prevented deaths, cases of heart disease and asthma flare-ups, and associated missed work and school days. The study should strengthen the agency’s position as it’s poised to regulate greenhouse gases, and you can’t regulate properly without knowing the costs and the (perpetually ignored) benefits.  (On the other hand, the Republican budgetary assault against the EPA continues apace, such that Pew Center on Global Climate Change President Eileen Claussen speculates that Obama might sign a delay provision on greenhouse gas rules.)

Of course, it’s not like we all have perfect information about environmental costs. That’s why I’m glad to see that Transparency International has reported on the corruption and disclosure policies of 44 oil companies (the report itself is available here). The data itself is (ironically, disappointingly) pretty opaque, but it underscores the important point that states should require sufficient disclosure from the companies that enjoy the privileges of operating in their borders so that regulators can properly assess the costs and benefits of their operations. On the international level, there are costs and benefits that affect foreign relations, as the Guardian article suggests. On the domestic level, we’ll hopefully see some strong disclosure rules to implement the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform Act section targeting oil, gas, and mining companies.

As to the more pedestrian, everyday matter of clothes-shopping, the New York Times reported on a new effort to provide “sustainability scores” for items of clothing. The Sustainable Apparel Coalition looks particularly promising because of its broad reach: members include heavyweights like Wal-Mart, Target, and H&M, as well as more traditionally eco-minded brands like Patagonia and Timberland. The group aims to work first on cleaning up supply chains before next targeting the harder problem of life cycle assessments.

The coalition’s tool is meant to be a database of scores assigned to all the players in the life cycle of a garment — cotton growers, synthetic fabric makers, dye suppliers, textile mill owners, as well as packagers, shippers, retailers and consumers — based on a variety of social and environmental measures like water and land use, energy efficiency, waste production, chemical use, greenhouse gases and labor practices.

Already, some of the participants – H&M and Levi’s, along with several other brands – have collaborated with the International Textile Garment & Leather Workers’ Federation to stop sandblasting jeans. The sandblasting process is harmful to workers: 40 garment workers in Turkey have died of silicosis since 2005. I think it’s great that these companies are voluntarily doing their part to improve the market with more transparent supply chains and effective collective bargaining. You know, since apparently it’s not the role of government to do stuff like that.

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