The Green Column #15

Vote with Your Dollars to Steer Corporate Merchandising

November 30, 2009—People ask me what we can do personally right now to bring about a greener future. Here’s a practical suggestion that starts small at the individual level but multiplies in power as the idea spreads.

Seventy percent of the U.S. economy is consumer spending. Naturally, in the worst economic recession since the Great Depression, consumers are presently spending less and saving more. Nevertheless, we must all buy groceries, household supplies, medicines, gasoline, clothing, etc., even if many of us are delaying purchases of big-ticket items like appliances, autos and houses.

Our purchasing choices are so important to corporate merchandisers that they spend hundreds of billions yearly on advertising to influence us. Much of this money is spent to mislead people into believing that old is “new,” that standard is “improved” or that artificial is “natural.” Advertisers lately have become adept at finding some component of a product to claim it is “green.”

Yet, amazingly, products routinely are sold for months or even years before the public uncovers nasty defects. A sunblock that becomes a carcinogen when exposed to the sun. Electric ranges that turn on and off unpredictably. Batteries that burst into flames. Cars that accelerate on their own. Paints that poison. Food ingredients containing industrial wastes. No one could invent fiction as startling as product recalls.

Besides safety, other questions that trouble many of us are energy input, carbon dioxide and other gases released, liquid discharges, scarcity of raw materials, conditions of labor and waste concerns like recyclability. We don’t like hearing from a fashionable American manufacturer that management had no idea Asian factories were abusing their employees or that one popular “organic” yogurt is made in a way that creates more greenhouse gases than competitors.

What if conscientious consumers could learn more about the products they buy and the companies that make them? Wouldn’t some people then begin to more consciously pick products for their green virtues?

Corporations are in competition, all have marketing divisions monitoring sales figures and management is sensitive to threats and opportunities. Even small shifts in buying preferences lead to adjustments in production and merchandising.

This plan for action is outlined in Daniel Goleman’s recent book, Ecological Intelligence: How Knowing the Hidden Impacts of What We Buy Can Change Everything. Goleman is a psychologist, researcher and the best-selling author of Emotional Intelligence and Social Intelligence.

Now Goleman is building on the work of industrial ecologists, a new discipline that analyzes the impact of manufacturing processes. Behind every product of modern industry is a complex and long production chain, each step having resource, energy, pollution and social costs.

Goleman sees the world moving toward what he calls “radical transparency.” Coupling industrial impact data with powerful software will enable future consumers to escape the dishonesty of advertising to make more fully informed purchasing decisions.

Already websites like GoodGuide.com are comparing the health, environmental and social impacts of thousands of brand-name products. Wal-Mart announced this summer that it would be developing a sustainability index for all its merchandise. Pressure will mount for greater business disclosure in direct proportion to how influential such consumer engines become.

Who knows, if this gets enough traction maybe Congress will finally respond to efforts to require universal and comprehensive labeling. Every purchase should be based upon information about the origin of the material, the design and manufacturing process, and a certification of performance as advertised.

It is often said that modern civilization has become so big and complex that individuals feel powerless. Being asked to vote occasionally on two political options does little to counteract this dissatisfaction. But developing a new way of thinking about hundreds of market choices has real potential to involve more individuals in creating a greener future.

Pollsters conclude that only about one of eight Americans cares deeply about the environment. Three out of eight are indifferent. That leaves fully half of Americans in the middle, interested but preoccupied with other worries.

Now is no time for Greens to relax. This century will see a dramatic downscaling of industrial civilization because of skyrocketing oil prices as the peak impacts everyone. We must work hard now to redesign the world before others do.

As Paul Hawken told University of Portland graduates last spring, “Basically, civilization needs a new operating system; you are the programmers and we need it within a few decades.”

© Lincoln Green by Design