Ecological Intelligence

It doesn’t come as a surprise at all that Daniel Goleman, the No. 1 International Bestselling author of books such as Emotional Intelligence, Primal Leadership and Social Intelligence, has chosen to write “Ecological Intelligence- Knowing the Hidden Impacts of What We Buy.” After all, it is a logical extension to the theories espoused in the earlier books.

He started the journey with the intelligence of mastering the emotions of the self, moved on to the effectiveness in managing our social lives and now in a timely fashion to what the planet needs at a critical juncture- our collective intelligence in understanding the impact of our actions on the environment so as to live sustainably, our “Ecological Intelligence.”

The current state of the environment is a result of this mega industrial machine that is churning out billions and billions of products, entailing trillions of minute processes endlessly looping into each other, creating a mind-boggling array of pollutants in our ecosystems and in our bodies. And it is each one of us who is propelling this gigantic machine through our demand for and consumption of goods.

Radical transparency

No matter how determined I am as a conscious consumer, walking into a supermarket is usually the most frustrating of experiences, because of the sheer paucity of information about the product, even amongst the “green” labelled ones. Many a time, I wish to touch a bar of soap or a T-shirt, for a video to pop up and play the entire life history of the product from the extraction of raw materials, to production and packaging, to the arrival at supermarket shelves – with a vivid portrayal of how workers are treated, and how the air, rivers and soils are affected in the process, so I can make the ethical choice of whether to purchase it or not.

Oblivious shopping ?

Oblivious shopping ?

Much of our ignorance lies in our mistaken belief that “what we don’t know and can’t see does not matter.” But what if we as consumers had access to information in a clear and easy format, that gave us an immediate understanding to the spectrum of impact on people and the environment? And what if this information were made available to us, as we are about to make the purchasing decision, at the store? With this full information, are we are more likely to make smarter and ethical choices that are in line with our values?

Goleman delves into the evolving field of Industrial Ecology for the answers. Using Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) it is possible to get extraordinarily precise data on the entire life story of a product from resource extraction, production, manufacture and packaging, storage, and all the way to the point of sale as well as end use and disposal. Making a simple glass bottle, for example, entails 1,959 distinct processes and every single process has an entire range of consequences which can be precisely measured using different metrics.

On April 1, 2008 Dana O’Rourke, an industrial ecologist, launched an innovative software called Good Guide. *(1)  The software takes a product’s LCA, which is made up of massive and complex bits of information and sums it all up into a single metric, which can then be compared with other products in that category and ranked on the basis of what has the least/most effect in all three areas- health, environmental and social impact.

As this can be downloaded on the iphone, it can be used at the store as we are about to buy the product. Using Good Guide will hopefully revolutinise consumption on ethical lines as it rates products as well as companies.

For a more inquisitive consumer, the metric has underlying layers of information that gives details on the methodologies used and ratings on Health Performance, Environmental performance and Social performance.

Impact on Businesses

Till date, much of LCA data has stayed in proprietory hands. There has been a huge informational asymmetry between companies (as holders of this information) and consumers. As of now, there is not much incentive for companies and manufactures to move towards sustainable production, as the only pressure is the financial yardstick of shareholder value which they seek to improve.

The end of informational asymmetry has important ramifications for business. With radical transparency, power transfers from the hands of sellers to those of buyers. Consumers will be able to vote with their dollars for those products which are healthily, humanely and sustainably produced. This could be the most powerful tool to influence companies and manufacturers. Those who listen to enlightened choices of consumers will have greater competitive advantage as they make changes in manufacturing design and move towards creating sustainable products and processes.

While Good Guide is for individual consumers, the same concept is extended to B2B (business to business) buyers, through the development of a free, open-source, web based program called Earthster, developed by Dell and the state of Texas, among others. This will highlight suppliers who score well on environmental, health and social criteria. Goleman hopes that one day, these two softwares can work together, to create a virtuous cycle of changes triggered by the consumer, that reverberates all the way down the supply chain.

Swarm of the bees

Will a single metric make everyone ecologically intelligent?  There is always a chasm to be bridged between knowledge and action. Knowing a metric may not automatically translate into changed behaviour. Then there are always those who simply couldn’t care less to use it. This is where I’d say, Goleman’s earlier wisdom on Emotional and Social intelligences come into play.

Our ability to deal with ourselves, gives us the ability to take action, in our personal sphere, and beyond in the social sphere. The empathy we feel for another’s perspective that is so useful in interpersonal relationships has to extend to empathy for all life forms and ecosystems.

For all of us to become what Goleman calls active agents of change, we need “shared information,” which is something that many of us do regularly on social media and other networks. In fact, the internet is now a really potent tool to add to this collective knowledge and influence behaviour.** (2)

In a sense, using Goleman’s analogy, we are like swarming bees. Acting individually (or in groups), we are part of a larger hive adding to a growing collective vault of ecological wisdom. We are all pushing a big juggernaut of positive social change, one that Paul Hawken poetically calls, as in his book title, “Blessed Unrest.” He calls it the “largest social movement in history that no one saw coming, one that is restoring grace, justice and beauty to the world.”  This comprises of a loose interconnection of at least a million social and environmental groups, growing organically with no central authority, each focussing on a specific issue or local problems with the ability to link, connect and share because of the internet. ***(3)


We are still at the nascent stages of the exciting promise of informational transparency.  Important questions to be asked are : Who supports Good Guide? This is a key question if we are to trust that the data is without biases. How will this site be sustained as there are no clear plans for this yet?  Can all the complex data be accurate? Hopefully these will be answered to our satisfaction over time.

At the moment, Good Guide has about 65,000 products under its ambit. Many thousands if not hundreds of thousands have yet to come under its umbrella. And then, a thought struck me as I strolled near Little India today, what about the plethora of unbranded products that flood markets all over the world, can data even be obtained for these to do an LCA? What about the local homegrown Asian brands?

Alternative approaches to economic growth are being fashioned by different well intentioned think-tanks. Environmental economics, for example, which proposes that ecological costs be incorporated in the market price is nice in theory, but has been hard to put into practise. A lot of progress has been made in formulating policy tools, through Environmental Pricing Reforms (EPR) by way of cap and trade systems, carbon pricing and congestion fees, but as much rests in the hands of governments, there is inertia galore.

Somehow, in this model of marketplace transparency, I find a flicker of hope as it puts power in our hands and gives us the ability to fuel the kind of massive change and sustainable growth required at this juncture. Whether this flicker turns into a shining beacon depends on whether you and I, the consumer are willing to use the information, and more importantly, act upon it.

* (1) See www.goodguide.com This is still under beta testing. One of the supporters of Good Guide is the Environment Working Group which rates brands, products and companies for personal care and household cleaners through its Skin Deep database, on the basis of the concerns about toxic levels of a product. Good Guide is more encompassing, as it includes scores on Health, Environment and Social impacts, and will have far more categories such as food, electronics and electronics.

**(2) Golemen cites Coke’s extraction of ground water in Plachimada, Kerala when the region was suffering from drought as a case to illustrate the power of shared information. A global web of activists brought the world’s attention to this issue through the internet, which led to Coke’s shutting down the plant and committing to $20 million to installing rainwater schemes in the area to regenerate water. (However, the activists group India Resource Centre highlights, this is still ongoing issue , as the activists claim only 8% of the groundwater extracted for the Mehdiganj plant, for example, is being recharged.)

***(3) Paul Hawken’s project in www.wiserearth.org is an inspiration connecting over a million individuals, organisations, social and environmental causes.


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Posted by on May 1 2009. Filed under Consumerism. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

1 Comment for “Ecological Intelligence”

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