Thursday, October 8, 2009

Going Green More Complex than it Appears: The Key is Awareness

Daniel Goleman, the author of the bestseller Emotional Intelligence, has authored a new book entitled Ecological Intelligence: How Knowing the Hidden Impacts of What We Buy Can Change Everything.. The premise of the book is essentially that we need a lot more information about the right green choices than would first appear. It is not enough in other words, Goleman convincingly argues, to stick a "green label" on something and think you are doing good by the planet. Did you know for example:
* It takes more energy and pollutes more water to make paper bags than plastic ones?
* Even recycled glass jars create serious pollution and takes 659 different ingredients to produce?
* Organic T-Shirts made of cotton also cause their share of harm--it takes 2,700 gallons of water to produce one cotton T-Shirt, (the Aral Sea evaporated into desert largely because of the prodigious thirst of surrounding cotton farmers). If the organic T-Shirt is dyed it then causes a number of other toxic chemicals to be consumed because cotton resists absorbing dye and those chemicals end up in rivers.
*Buy a bag of crisps--its carbon footprint is 75 grams--(by jumbo jet flying from Frankfurt to New York City emits 713,000 grams per person.

Only 28% of food products surveyed out of 25,500 by a reputable group of nutritionists received a commendation of "healthy choice." Most foods were too salt and sugar loadded to receive any stars.

Basically, as Goleman says "green products" are overhyped and the idea that there can be some 100% green products is a complete PR hallucination--often a carefully constructed mirage in fact. Goleman makes a passionate case as to why we need far greater transparency in the green marketplace. He gives an example of what could happen. In 2007 HSBC in the UK ran a promotion to recruit business from college students by offering free checking and no fees for overdrafts.
Then someone at HSBC cancelled the policy deciding it was too expensive. Wes Streeting a VP at the Cambridge University Student Union stated a facebook campaign against the "rip off" and thousands of students joined the protest--needless to say HSBC changed their policy back within weeks.

It seems from Goleman's research that while 25% of consumers don't care about what global havoc was caused in a product's production--10% do care and will go out of their way to shop for a more ethical item. Roughly 2/3rds of shoppers are in the middle--they care but want the decision to be easy--these are the true swing voters.
Goleman wants the decision making of these consumers in the middle to be easier.

Goleman wants to see companies become more responsible but they will only move in this direction with public pressure. We are about to enter that period--with the "dawning of ecological transparency in the marketplace."

The companies that will survive in this new era will be those capable of doing continous R&D. But we have to be ever careful about the tendency for companies to engage in "green washing" and for empty PR gestures. Robert Reich, former Labor Secretary is skeptical that companies will sacrifice profit for looking good in the public eye and favors stronger regulation. Goleman is not so sure that regulations will achieve the victories that we need now and argues that "radical transparency" is the way out of the dilemma--"making goodness pay."

Goleman suggests that "an informational fix" is needed to make consumers from Bejing to Berlin aware of the hidden choices they are making--and so "changing the rules of the game for business." It is an optimistic thesis and one I wish I could believe in. What is missing for me from Goleman's argument are the corporate forces around that have a vested interest in keeping us content with the status quo.

For me what would make this book even more valuable is a focus of the choices others can make--particularly journaliss in reporting stories that provide a fuller context related to business news as they touch ecological and globalization issues and the role that educators can play. Surely students could be charged with doing some of this investigation into the products they consume as teachers help them to become more globally aware. This is not preaching to them--they just have a right to use their critical intelligence and the tools they have --and the disciplines they are discovering (math, geography, science) to bring their lessons alive and find a personal connection to what they are studying-rather than believe that the world exists as a remote object for study removed from their own lives and the consequences of the decisions they and their families make. The state of the planet is a critical one--surely we must martial all available resources to assist in the solution. The marketplace --transparent or not will not take solve this problem as we found out to our cost last year with the global economic meltdown--there is a place for regulation, education and the media to be far more responsible about doing right by the world they share with all of us than they have done in the past.

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