Ecological Intelligence by Daniel Goleman

| 1st June 2009
Finger pointing at a barcode
Anyone who cares about the environment needs to be making more informed choices at the checkout. Laura Sevier meets an author promoting ethical shopping
Ethical shopping alone is not going to save the planet, but we may as well make informed choices instead of shopping in a void

It’s not easy being an ethical shopper. On top of the basics of cost and quality there are myriad other considerations. Does it contain harmful chemicals? Is it organic? Was it produced locally? Is it ethically traded? Is it cruelty-free? Has it been sustainably sourced?

The overuse and abuse of words such as ‘organic’, ‘sustainable’ and ‘carbon-neutral’ means it’s tricky to gauge the ethical merit of one product versus another. Where can we get the assurance that the products we buy are safe, for ourselves, our families, the planet and its other inhabitants?

Yes, we can be guided by eco labels such as the Soil Association logo, the Fairtrade mark and the European Energy Savings symbol, but while these are helpful indicators of how a product has been produced and its impact on the planet, we can still be faced with a dilemma. When buying honey, for instance, should we go for local, Fairtrade or organic?

Other indicators include carbon footprints – a handful of products, such as Walkers crisps, have had theirs calculated – and whether or not something is recycled or recyclable. The only way we can really know the true impact of a TV, fridge or washing powder, however, is by assessing it over the full course of its life cycle, from manufacture (and even before that, to the origins of its components and extraction or creation of their ingredients) to disposal.

Imagine if, with the click of a button on your computer or phone, you could know which frying pan, toy or pair of trainers was best for the environment, your health and for the wellbeing of those who made it? In other words, what if we knew, with the precision of an industrial ecologist, the hidden impacts of what we buy?

This is a question addressed in detail in a new book, Ecological Intelligence, by US psychologist and author Daniel Goleman. ‘We need to become more intelligent about the ecological impacts of how we live,’ he says. His book heralds a new wave in ecological transparency that goes beyond eco labels and carbon footprints.

‘Ecological transparency becomes radical when its analysis encompasses the entire life cycle of a product and the full range of its consequences at every stage, and presents that information to buyers in ways that demand little effort,’ he says.

‘Radical transparency’ covers three spheres: the geosphere (including soil, air, water and climate), the biosphere (our bodies, those of other species and plant life) and the sociosphere (conditions for workers).

How might this work in practice, though? Goleman cites the example of Good Guide Inc, based in Berkeley, US, and spearheaded by industrial ecologist Dara O’Rourke. GoodGuide ( is a software innovation that draws together more than 80 million separate evaluations of the impacts of substances, components, products and entire companies, pooling information from hundreds of databases. Instead of getting the raw data, shoppers receive the final evaluation divided into three dimensions: environmental, health and social. It can be tailored according to priority and offers 600 ways to evaluate impacts. People can look products up on the website or, if they have an iPhone, by using an iPhone application. While GoodGuide’s product
directory is largely geared toward a US consumer market, there are many products available to shoppers in the UK (see listings below).

Will this extra information make choosing more confusing, though? ‘I think it will simplify choice,’ says Goleman. ‘It will pierce through the “green mirage”, where a company takes one aspect of a complex product, improves it and calls it green, but leaves the 999 other aspects untouched.’

As shoppers, Goleman suggests, we need to favour improvements and contribute to a process of industrial greening and perpetual greening. ‘Ideally, we will come back to purely organic processes that do nothing that goes against the grain of nature,’ he says. ‘But we have a long way to go. That’s true sustainability.’

From the Arctic Circle to the Sahara Desert, native peoples everywhere have survived only by understanding and exquisitely attuning themselves to the natural systems that surround them. It is this ‘brand of wisdom’ that Goleman defines as ‘ecological intelligence’: ‘our ability to adapt to our ecological niche’. The trouble is that modern life diminishes such skills and wisdom. The routines of our daily lives go on completely disconnected from the adverse impacts they are having on the world around us. Given the complex global nature of supply chains, understanding the impacts of what we buy demands a vast store of knowledge – one so huge that no single brain can store it all. Ecological intelligence therefore needs to be a collective. ‘We need to collaborate and spread awareness,’ says Goleman.

He believes this can be done virally, on a massive scale, using e-circles, forums, Twitter and Facebook applications.

Do enough people care enough, though, especially in a time of cost-cutting and belt-tightening? Goleman is optimistic. ‘I don’t think the credit crunch matters. We all have to buy, and it’s an illusion you need to pay more for a product that is ecologically beneficial.’

There are signs that the future doesn’t look too bleak for ethical shopping. In the UK, the Co-Operative Bank’s Ethical Consumerism 2008 report shows that despite the first tremors of the downturn being felt towards the end of 2007, overall ethical spend in the UK reached £35.5 billion in that year, up 15 per cent from £31 billion in the previous 12 months. A Soil Association report published in April this year showed that while organic food sales have been hit across all sectors, a core of committed customers appear to be staying loyal.

I ask Goleman what role he thinks retailers and governments should play in all this – shouldn’t they too be responsible for our values? But for him it’s all about consumer power. ‘I think we need to be responsible for our values and we should take them to the store when we shop – and then retailers will respond,’ he says. As for governments, he doesn’t think they need to do a thing. ‘It’s all done with market forces and the magic of the free market. The good guys are the NGOs.’

He cites the example of Skin Deep, the Environmental Working Group’s searchable database of  toxic ingredients in cosmetic and personal care products (, a non-governmental, not-for-profit organisation that is ‘forcing the profit sector to get its act together’.

Shopping out of the void

Before we get carried away in our sustainably sourced green trolleys, however, a word of caution. By itself ethical shopping does not tackle the root of the problem. As Jonathon Porritt, chairman of the Government’s Sustainable Development Commission, said in a recent Observer interview, ethical shopping is not enough; our levels of consumption are undermining life-support systems on which we depend. Rather we should be cracking down on ‘unnecessary consumption, conspicuous consumption and irresponsible consumption’. George Monbiot is another environmentalist who is sceptical of ‘green consumerism’. ‘No political challenge can be met by shopping,’ he writes. ‘It is easy to picture a situation in which the whole world religiously buys green products and its carbon emissions continue to soar.’ Goleman too admits that ‘part of shopping smarter is shopping less’.

Okay, so ethical shopping alone is not going to save the planet – everything we use and dispose of leaves a mark on the world – but we may as well make informed choices instead of shopping in a void. As Goleman puts it: ‘The biggest collective blindspot is that we don’t make the connections between the things we despair about – global warming, particulates, rates of asthma in inner cities – and how each of us makes our personal decisions about what to vote for with our dollars. What I saw was that information technology is about to pierce through that veil and let any of us know when we go shopping what the consequences will be.’

Ethical shopping alone is not going to save the planet, but we may as well make informed choices instead of shopping in a void

Ecological Intelligence by Daniel Goleman (Allen Lane, £16.99)

Guides to shopping ethically in the UK

Ethiscore  The Ethical Consumer Research Association Ltd (ECRA), publishers of Ethical Consumer Magazine, has an online shopper’s guide: ( It is designed to help users quickly and easily identify the best ethical products to support, and the best companies to avoid. It is based on the Corporate Critic database, which contains information on the behaviour of more than 50,000 companies around the world.

The Good Shopping Guide 7 (The Ethical Company Organisation, £14.95) This book will help you make more informed choices about which brands are best for people, animals and planet. Visit

Behind the Label  Pat Thomas’s Behind the Label column in the Ecologist's Green Living section takes a detailed look at the ingredients in everyday products and food. See also her article on Eco labels: Behind the Eco labels.

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