Ecological Intelligence: The Hidden Impacts of What We Buy

Ecological Intelligence by Dan Goleman

An Excerpt

A while ago I made an impulse buy: a small, bright yellow wooden racing car, with a green ball for the driver’s head and four black discs pasted on its sides for wheels. The toy cost just 99 cents. I bought it for my 18-month-old grandson, who I thought would love it.

After I came home with that little wooden racer, I happened to read that because lead in paint makes colors (particularly yellow and red) brighter and last longer -- and costs less than alternates -- cheaper toys are more likely to contain it[i]. Then I came across a news item reporting that a test of 1200 toys taken from the shelves of stores -- including the chain where I bought that car -- revealed a large percent contained various levels of lead[ii].

I have no idea if the sparkling yellow paint on this toy car harbors lead or not – but I am dead certain that once in the hands of my grandson his mouth would be the first place it would go. Now, months later, that toy car still sits atop my desk; I never gave it to my grandson.

Our world of material abundance comes with a hidden price tag. We cannot see the extent to which the things we buy and use daily have other kinds of costs – their toll on the planet, on health, and to the people whose labor provides us our comforts and necessities.  We go through our daily life awash in a sea of things we buy, use, throw away, waste or save. Each of those things has its own history and its own future, back stories and endings largely hidden from our eyes, a web of impacts left along the way from the initial extraction or concoction of its ingredients, during its manufacture and transport, through the subtle consequences of its use in our homes and workplaces, to the day we dispose of it. And yet these unseen impacts of all that stuff may be their most important aspect.

Our manufacturing technologies and the chemistry they deploy were largely chosen in a more innocent time, one when shoppers and industrial engineers alike had the luxury of paying little or no attention to the adverse impacts of what was made. Instead they were understandably pleased by the benefits: electricity generated by burning coal, with enough to last for centuries; cheap and malleable plastics made from a seemingly endless sea of petroleum; a treasure chest of synthetic chemical compounds; cheap lead powder to add luster and life to paints. They were oblivious to the costs to our planet and its people of these well-meaning choices.

Though the composition and impacts of things we buy and use daily are for the most part the outcome of decisions made long ago, they still determine daily practice in manufacturing design and industrial chemistry – and end up in our homes, schools, hospitals, and workplaces. The material legacy left to us by the once wonder-inducing inventions of the industrial age that ran through the 20th century has made life immeasurably more convenient than the life our great-grandparents knew. Ingenious combinations of molecules, never before seen in nature, concoct a stream of everyday miracles.  As practiced in yesterday’s business environment, today’s industrial chemicals and processes made utter sense, but all too many make little sense going forward. Consumers and businesses alike can no longer afford to leave those invisible decisions -- and their ecological consequences -- unexamined.

 In my past work I’ve explored what it means to be intelligent about our emotions and, more recently, about our social lives. Here I look into the sense in which we can, together, become more intelligent about the ecological impacts of how we live – and how ecological intelligence, combined with marketplace transparency, can create a mechanism for positive change.

In the interest of full disclosure, when it comes to ecological intelligence I am as clueless as most of us[iii]. But in researching and writing this book I’ve been fortunate enough to stumble upon a virtual network of people – executives and scientists alike -- who excel in one or another subset of the skills we urgently need to build the human store of shared ecological intelligence, and to let that knowledge guide our decisions in better directions. In sketching the possibilities of this vision I’ve drawn on my background as a psychologist and science journalist to delve into the world of commerce and manufacturing, to explore cutting edge ideas in fields like neuro-economics and information science, and particularly an emerging discipline, industrial ecology.

This journey continues one I began more than two decades ago, when I wrote in a book on self-deception that our habits of consumption on a worldwide scale are creating an ecological deficit at a rate unparalleled in history, as I put it, “simply by our heedlessness of the links between how we live and the effects on the planet. We do not know the connections between the decisions we make daily – for instance to buy this item rather than that – and the toll those decisions have[iv].”

Back then I imagined that one day we would somehow be able to gauge with accuracy the ecological damage from a given act of manufacturing or the packaging, shipping and disposal of a given product and sum it up in some handy unit. Knowing that metric about a TV set or box of aluminum foil, I reasoned, we could take more responsibility for the impact on the planet of our individual choices. But I ran out of steam, conceding “there is no such information available, and even the most ecologically concerned among us do not really know the net effect on the planet of how we live. And so our obliviousness lets us slip into a grand self-deception that the small and large decisions in our material lives are of no great consequence.”

All those years ago I had never heard of industrial ecology, the discipline that routinely does the very impact analyses I dreamed of.  Industrial ecology exists at the cusp where chemistry, physics, and engineering meet ecology, and integrates those fields to quantify the impacts on nature of manmade things.  Back when I was wishing for this field to exist, that still-obscure discipline was just gathering itself. In the 1990s a working group of the National Academy of Engineering spawned the field, and the very first issue of the Journal of Industrial Ecology began publication in 1997, well over a decade after I had wished for its existence.

Industrial ecology had its roots in the insight that industrial systems parallel natural ones in many ways: the streams of manufactured stuff running between companies, extracted from the earth and emitted in new combinations can be measured in terms of inputs and outputs regulated by a metabolism of sorts. In this sense industry, too, can be seen as a kind of ecosystem, one that has profound effects on every other ecological system. The field includes topics as diverse as estimating CO2 emissions from every industrial process or analyzing the global flow of phosphorous, to how electronic tagging might streamline the recycling of garbage and the ecological consequences of a boom in fancy bathrooms in Denmark.

I see industrial ecologists – along with those at the cutting edge of fields like environmental health -- as the vanguard of a dawning awareness, one that may well add a crucial missing piece in our collective efforts to protect our planet and its people. Imagine what might happen if the knowledge now sequestered among specialists like industrial ecologists were made available to the rest of us: taught to kids in school, easily accessible on the Web, boiled down into evaluations of the things we buy and do and summarized as we were about to make a purchase[v].

Whether we are a single consumer, an organization’s purchasing agent, or an executive managing a brand, if we knew the hidden impacts of what we buy, sell, or make with the precision of an industrial ecologist, we could become shapers of a more positive future by making our decisions better align with our values.  The methods for making that data known to us all are already in the pipeline. As this vital knowledge arrives in our hands we will enter an era of what I call radical transparency.

Radical transparency converts the chains that link every product and its multiple impacts -- carbon footprints, chemicals of concern, treatment of workers and the like -- into systematic forces that count in sales. Radical transparency leverages a coming generation of tech applications, where software manipulates massive collections of data and displays it as a simple read-out for making decisions. Once we know the true impacts of our shopping choices, we can use that information to accelerate incremental changes for the better.

To be sure, we already have a mélange of eco-labels based on high-quality data assessing pockets of products. But the next wave in ecological transparency will be far more radical: more inclusive and detailed, and come in a flood. To make that mass of information useable, radical transparency must reveal what has been hidden from us in ways far more comprehensive and well-organized than the sometimes haphazard product ratings we have now. With the right, targeted data, a continuous cascade of consumer-driven shifts would ripple through the world of commerce, from the most distant factory to the neighborhood power grid, opening a new front in the battle for market share.

Radical transparency will introduce an openness about the consequences of the things we make, sell, buy and discard that goes beyond the current comfort zones of most business. It will reshape the marketing environment to ensure a better reception for the enormous variety of greener, cleaner technologies and products now in the pipeline –creating a far greater incentive for us all to make the switch to them.

Such full ecological disclosure presents an untried economic path: applying to the ecological impacts of the things we buy the high standards for transparency required, say, in financial markets. It would hand shoppers information for their choices akin to what stock analysts apply in weighing the profits and losses of companies. It would give senior management greater clarity in carrying out their company’s mandates to be more socially responsible and sustainable, as well as anticipate where markets will shift.

This book tracks my personal journey into this realm, beginning with my speaking to industrial ecologists about the enormous complexity inherent in making even the simplest product, and about this new science that tracks the environmental, health and social impacts at every step. Then I explore the reasons this information remains largely concealed from us, and why the remedy lies in boosting our ecological intelligence, a collective understanding of hidden ecological impacts and the resolve to improve them.

I show how we could boost our ecological intelligence by making this data on impacts available to shoppers – and visit the inventors of a technology about to make such radical transparency a reality.  Next, I look at evidence suggesting how this could shift market share to a degree that companies will see more clearly the competitive advantage in ecological improvements far deeper than typical now. I examine a case in point: controversies about industrial chemicals, as viewed through the lens of brain researchers examining purchase decisions, reveal why consumers’ emotional reactions to products’ ecological impacts will matter for sales.

Finally, I shift from the psychology of buyers to the strategies of sellers, and talk to a widening circle of business people who are ahead of this coming wave, and who already have undertaken the changes in managing their company’s supply chains to upgrade impacts, so positioning their businesses to thrive in a radically transparent marketplace. These executives realize that at the emotional level, good business means good relationships, and that by demonstrating their ecological concern in these ways, they make their customers feel cared for, too. My mission here is to alert businesses to a coming wave, one that will wash over any company that markets a manmade product.

We hear much about helping the planet by changing what we do – bike, don’t drive; use the new, energy-saving fluorescent bulbs; recycle our bottles, and other ready fixes. All such changes in ecological habits are laudable; if more of us made these efforts they would have great benefits.

But we can go further. The true impacts of what we buy have been ignored for the majority of goods.   Surfacing the myriad hidden ecological impacts during a product’s life cycle, from manufacturing to disposal of those bikes, bulbs, and bottles, as well as the rest of the materials in the room, opens a floodgate of effective action. Using a deeper understanding of the impacts of the things we use to guide our buying decisions can give us added leverage that ripples widely through the worlds of commerce and industry.  

That opens the door to a vast opportunity for benefiting our future. For shoppers, this singular mechanism can add potent forcefulness to our collective will to protect the planet and its people from the unintended harms done by commerce.  For business, this more powerful alignment of consumers’ values with their purchasing choices will foster a hot new arena for competitive advantage – a financial opportunity sounder and more promising than our present-day “green” marketing. We may not be able to shop our way out of the current crisis, but radical transparency offers one more avenue to essential change.

The other day I bought a t-shirt that hung in a prominent spot in a department store. My t-shirt bears the proud label “100% Organic Cotton: it makes a World of Difference.”

That claim is both right and wrong.

First, what’s right: the benefits of forgoing pesticides in cotton[vi]. Cotton crops alone account for about 10 percent of the world’s use of pesticide. To prepare soil so that fragile young cotton plants can grow, workers spray the soil with a poison, organophosphates (linked to central nervous system damage in humans), that kills off any plant that might compete with the cotton or any insect that might eat it.

Once soil has been so treated, it can take up to five pesticide-free years before even earthworms return, a vital step in recovering soil health. Then there’s the paraquat sprayed by crop dusters on cotton just before it’s harvested. About half this defoliant typically misses the cotton and ends up in streams and fields nearby. Given the damage done by pesticides, there’s little question about the intrinsic environmental goodness of organic cotton – so far as it goes.

Then there are the downsides. For example, cotton has a prodigious thirst. It takes about 10,000 liters of water to grow the cotton for one t-shirt; the Aral Sea evaporated into desert largely because of the demands for irrigating regional cotton farms. For another, simply tilling the soil has its own ecosystem impact, releasing CO2.

The organic t-shirt I bought was dyed a dark blue. Cotton yarn gets bleached, dyed and finished with industrial chemicals that include chromium, chlorine and formaldehyde, each toxic in its own way. What’s worse, cotton resists absorbing dye; a large amount rinses off into factory wastewater, which can end up in local rivers or groundwater. Some commonly used textile dyes harbor carcinogens; epidemiologists have long known that workers in dye plants have unusually high rates of leukemia.

That label on my t-shirt exemplifies greenwashing, the selective display of one or two virtuous attributes of a product meant to impart goodness to the whole thing. The more complete analysis of its hidden impacts reveals multiple ways in which the t-shirt may not be so green after all. Although an organic shirt is all to the good, when the adverse impacts of a product stay hidden, the “organic” part at best marks the first step toward a business becoming more socially responsible or sustainable; at worst, it is a marketing ploy.

When the fast-food chain Dunkin Donuts announced that its doughnuts, croissants, muffins and cookies would henceforth be “trans fat free,” the company joined most other major players in its industry in making its foods a bit healthier.  But the operative phrase is a bit: all those “zero trans-fat” pastries remain an unhealthy mix of fat, sugar, and white flour. When nutritionists analyzed ingredients in tens of thousands of supermarket items they found – no surprise – a vast number of foods marketed as “healthy” choices were not[vii].

From a marketing perspective, spotlighting the organic cotton in a t-shirt or the absence of trans-fats in a donut imbues that product with the sheen of virtue. Advertisers, of course, tout a single positive quality or two of a product to shine up its market appeal. The sizzle, not the steak, has always been standard operating procedure.

But that attentional sleight-of-hand directs shoppers’ focus away from whatever negatives a given product may still have. The t-shirt’s dyes are as dangerous as ever, just as a “Zero-transfats” donut still harbors fats and sugars that drive insulin levels sky high.  But so long as we stay focused on that thin slice of virtue in the t-shirt or the donut, we can buy it feeling good enough about our choice.      

So greenwashing creates merely the illusion we are buying something virtuous. Such products are green-ish – they are draped with the mere appearance of ecologic merit, but are not truly so.

Every small step toward green helps, to be sure. But our craze for all things green represents a transitional stage, a dawning of awareness of the impacts on ecology, but one that lacks precision, depth of understanding, or clarity.  Much of what’s touted as “green” in reality represents fantasy or simple hype. We are past the day when one or two virtuous attributes of a product qualifies it as green. To tout a product as “green” on the basis of a single attribute -- while ignoring numerous negative impacts -- parallels a magician’s sleight-of-hand.


[i] Colors: Christopher Beam,  “Why do they put lead point in toys?”, August 15, 2007.

[ii] Lead levels in toys: Jeff Karoub, “Groups release guide to toxins in toys,” Associated Press, December 5, 2007.

[iii] And, for the record, I did not coin the term ‘ecological intelligence’ – it’s been knocking around for years.

[iv] The passage is from the foreword to the paperback edition of my book Vital Lies, Simple Truths: The Psychology of Self-Deception. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1986. p.13.

[v] Industrial ecology for the moment remains largely an academic discipline that caters to the needs of industry, with its proprietary databases closed to the public eye. But an article in the Journal of Industrial Ecology has called for the discipline to apply its analyses to weigh the relative impacts of competing products, tag harmful impacts, and make those evaluations public in simplified form that would help shoppers make decisions at the point of purchase as well as progressive firms who could use these metrics to upgrade their products. Dara O’Rourke, “Market movements: non-governmental organization strategies to influence global production and consumption,” Journal of Industrial Ecology, 9, volume 1-2, 2005, pp. 115-128.

[vi] Pesticides in cotton: John C. Ryan and Alan Thein Durning, Stuff: The Secret Lives of Everyday Things. Seattle: Northwest Environment Watch, 1997.

[vii] Nutritional analysis: Andrew Martin, “Store chain’s test concludes that nutrition sells,” The New York Times, September 6, 2007. Page C3.