By Barbara Spector
INFORM Inc., founded by Joanna
DeHaven Underwood 62, has been a major force
in the American environmental movement since its
doors first opened 27 years ago. The independent
research organization, which assesses industrys
effect on the environment and citizens health,
has been lauded not just for its focus on describing
problems, but also for identifying solutions and
presenting them objectively. While INFORM tackles
many technologically complex problems, it aims
to present its findings in language that is easy
for policy-makers and the public to understand.
It also helps companies, government agencies,
community groups and environmental organizations
to implement its proposed solutions.
DeHaven Underwood 62
INFORM, which is based in
New York, has received the prestigious Environmental
Protection Agency Administrators Award and
two regional EPA awards. Underwood herself was
a member of the Eco-Efficiency Task Force of the
Presidents Council on Sustainable Development
during the Clinton administration, among other
notable appointments. In 1999, she received an
honorary doctor of science degree from Wheaton
Feeling the Pride
Looking back at her career,
Underwood reflects, "How I got here was very
step-by-step. My interests have taken me in this
direction I just put one foot in front
of the other."
At Bryn Mawr College, Underwood
studied European history and history of art. "What
I learned was how exciting it was to learn, and
to think your way through problems to find answers,"
The facultys emphasis
on "what young women learned, and how they
learned" helped Underwood find her voice.
"The intimacy of the community was very supportive,"
Underwoods mother, Helen
De Haven Guiterman 28, also attended Bryn
Mawr. "More and more over the years, that
continuity grew to mean a lot to me," Underwood
says. "I still feel the pride."
Underwood participated in
her first protest as a Bryn Mawr student, picketing
a local diner that had no African-American employees.
"I came from a home where ideas were talked
about," she notes. "My mother was a
crusader for Planned Parenthood; my father was
on the board of Alcoholics Anonymous."
Tools of Reporting
Inspired by a love of writing
and research, Underwood began her career as a
journalist. In 1970, she became co-director of
a new organization, the Council on Economic Priorities,
which used statistics to compare businesses
practices in areas of social concern. The position
enabled her to leverage her reporting skills for
the benefit of the public. She was the co-author
of "Paper Profits," a landmark study
of air and water pollution in the pulp and paper
industry that compared various companies
By 1974, Underwood had perceived
a need to move beyond identification of environmental
problems and statistical corporate comparisons
toward a focus on why these problems existed and
how they could be solved. She considered joining
another organization, but she couldnt find
one that shared her goals. Some focused on criticism
but failed to propose solutions; others were too
conservative for her approach, declining to identify
polluters by name. She concluded that there was
a need for a new group that would use "the
tools of reporting" to promote positive change.
Her years of activism have
taught her to take a long view, Underwood says.
She notes that protection of the environment first
became a high priority in the United States in
the early 1970s. The EPA was a nascent organization;
the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act were
newly passed. "We thought that if we could
identify all the sources of pollution and set
standards for safe levels of exposure, then businesses
with all their technological prowess would find
the answers, and we would be able to implement
them quickly," Underwood recalls.
Viewed from the perspective
of history, this reasoning seems naïve indeed,
Underwood notes. Today, the use of hundreds of
toxic chemicals such as mercury, lead and polyvinylchloride
(PVC) is still pervasive because safe levels of
exposure to these substances cannot be determined
rendering government regulators unable
to set exposure standards. "EPA has not figured
out how to take these chemicals out of commerce,"
Environmental challenges extend
beyond waste to the destruction and contamination
of resources situations that cant
be remedied merely by creating a new landfill,
building an incinerator or picking up litter,
Underwood says. Environmentalists now recognize
that whats needed is a broader, more systemic
way of assessing economic systems in order to
get to the root of the problems.
developed the industrial way of life in one tiny
century," Underwood notes. "It was based
on a massive use of fossil fuels, for energy,
for transportation and for chemical production.
While this has given us a world of new materials
and products, it is a very extravagant way of
living on the earth and its not sustainable."
In the aftermath of the Sept.
11 terrorist attacks, the United States
relations with Middle Eastern countries have been
under scrutiny, underscoring the need for America
to reduce its dependence on oil imported from
the region, Underwood says. The organization has
been a major proponent of cleaner alternatives
to gasoline and diesel fuels, which pollute the
air and have contributed to widespread flare-ups
of asthma attacks in children and respiratory
distress in the elderly.
It is sometimes challenging
to get the message across in the era of the sport-utility
vehicle, Underwood observes. "The SUV is
an anachronistic idea," she says. "Its
a sad use of technology based on ego value. Its
time has passed now that weve been through
As a first step, INFORM advocates
a transition to vehicles that run on natural gas,
which is composed primarily of hydrogen, is 90
percent less polluting than petroleum and is plentiful
in the United States. While consumers are likely
to have trouble finding fueling stations that
offer natural gas, this cleaner fuel is a viable
alternative for fleet vehicles such as buses,
taxis and garbage trucks if a municipality builds
the needed refueling infrastructure, Underwood
notes. INFORM has initiated clean-fuel outreach
programs focusing on bus, truck and taxi fleets
in New York and across the country.
In areas where natural gas
isnt available to consumers, electric hybrid
vehicles are a great alternative, Underwood notes.
This technology combines a conventional engine
with an electric motor, enabling oil-based fuel
to last longer. In the future, Underwood expects
fuel-cell vehicles powered by pollution-free
and renewable hydrogen to become a reality.
Hydrogen can be extracted today from natural gas.
However, she notes, more research needs to be
done on how to use a gas fuel before hydrogen
becomes a reality for consumers.
The growing presence of natural-gas
refueling stations for vehicles is providing an
opportunity for researchers to refine systems
for transporting, storing and delivering a gas
fuel for transportation. "The system that
is enabling us to use natural-gas vehicles today
will facilitate the use of hydrogen tomorrow.
And one day we will extract hydrogen from water,
a source that will be limitless," Underwood
Underwood is optimistic about
the progress that can be made toward improving
air quality, given a strong level of public commitment.
"We can actually see the path to pollution-free
renewable transportation," she says. "We
are close to tackling these problems in the right
About the Author
Barbara Spector writes on
science and technology as well as business topics.
She is the executive editor of Family Business
magazine and former editor of The Scientist.