Earth day is coming up, and with along with it a spate of events, blogs, web sites, films, and publications all dealing with the environment in one way or another. It's hard to know which to pay attention to. Among many worthy contenders for our attention, I recommend a new book, "Ecological Intelligence," by Daniel Goleman, author of the bestseller "Emotional Intelligence."
In his new book, Goleman argues that, much as we might wish to buy products and services that are more environmental responsible, in most cases it is all but impossible to find the information we need to make those decisions. And partial information may actually do more harm than good, leading us to believe that our small efforts at recycling and green awareness are enough, while we fail to appreciate the wider-ranging life-cycle implications of all that we buy and do.
Greenwashing is rampant; many products tout one eco-friendly attribute - made from organic cotton, say - without mentioning that the item was made using child labor in a factory with dangerous and unfair working conditions.
In other cases, even with no attempt at greenwashing, the information we need is just not available. Consumer products contain thousands of chemical compounds, only a tiny fraction of which have been tested for safety. Many products have been reformulated to remove compounds that have been found harmful, yet they contain dozens, or even hundreds, of other chemicals that no one knows the long-term effects of.
Goleman's solution for this mess is a system of "radical transparency." As more product information becomes readily available and widely disseminated, consumers vote with their wallets and business takes heed. He offers trans-fats as a textbook example of what happens when consumers have access to information.
When scientists first discovered that trans-fats, even in small doses, had serious adverse effects, Congress began investigating. A long debate about how or whether to regulate trans-fats ensued. But while Congress deliberated - a long process - more and more information about trans-fats came out in the news and was quickly spread by blogs, web sites, and social media. Sales of food containing trans-fats plummeted.
As a result, manufacturers reformulated hundreds of products; today it is nearly impossible to find food items containing trans-fats on the grocery store shelf. This happened without any government regulation.
Likewise, when car makers were required to display a rating system for the rollover potential of SUVs, the public voted with its buying power. When the rating system first appeared, thirty models were rated with one or two stars - indicating a 30% or greater chance of rollovers. Just one SUV achieved four stars, meaning less than a 20% chance. Resulting consumer pressure convinced automakers to speed up efforts to make SUVs safer. Within four years, twenty-four models received four stars, and only one SUV rated two stars. (Of course there are lots of other problems with SUVs, but that's a subject for another post.)
The profit motive, Goleman argues, is what will ultimately move the world in a more environmentally responsible direction. "Eco-transparency," he writes, "transforms the core assumptions . . . transforming the business model to create a market reality where doing good becomes synonymous with doing well."
You can listen to an audio clip of Daniel Goleman explaining the market implications of "radical transparency" by clicking the image at the top of this post. If you want to order the book from Amazon, please click here.