Will Radical Transparency Save the Earth?

There's a growing school of thought that unfettered information about the environmental impacts of our world will smoke out the bad guys and help the good guys win.

I wish it were that simple.

I've just finished reading Ecological Intelligence, the new book by Daniel Goleman, whose 1997 bestseller, "Emotional Intelligence," helped broaden our thinking about what it means to be "smart." (It's not the IQ test, stupid.) Now, he's turned his sights on the environment -- specifically, the quantity and quality of information available about the environmental impacts of the things we buy. His highly readable book describes how the lack of good information belies the hidden impacts of our purchases -- the way they are sourced, manufactured, used and disposed of when they are no longer of use.

Goleman calls for "radical transparency," a term I've been hearing increasingly lately, one of those coinages that sneaks up on you en route to becoming a full-fledged meme. Goleman didn't invent the term -- it's been around for some time -- but it is a central theme of his book: the virtuous circle that develops when companies, voluntarily or not, lift the veil of secrecy to reveal the ingredients and sources of their products, enabling consumers to make smarter choices, thereby moving markets toward less-harmful products. That cycle, argues Goleman, can occur only when we fully exploit the full arsenal of technologies and human networks: 

Psychologists conventionally view intelligence as residing within an individual. But the ecological abilities we need in order to survive today must be a collective intelligence, one that we learn and master as a species, and that resides in a distributed fashion among far-flung networks of people. The challenges we face are too varied, too subtle, and too complicated to be understood and overcome by a single person: their recognition and solution require intense efforts by a vastly diverse range of experts, businesspeople, activists — by all of us.

I can't argue with the premise, but my 20 years of watching the green marketplace leaves me, well, unsold.

Like Goleman, I am a steadfast believer in the power of transparency: The more we know, the smarter decisions we can make. But I'm more skeptical than Goleman about how willing and able consumers are to actually harness such information to make changes in the way they shop and live. At least, not at the scale and speed needed to transform the marketplace toward one that embraces sustainability, in all its many forms.

Here's what I see as the central flaw in Goleman's case: While he is correct in stating that the complexity and sheer number of products and manufacturing processes requires the collective intelligence of the global village, actual shopping choices are still made at the individual level. And it's here that saving the Earth often takes a backseat to simply saving the day.

It's been almost exactly 20 years since the first-ever survey of Americans' attitudes toward making green purchases, by an outfit called the Michael Peters Group, told us that a whopping 89 percent of shoppers said that they were concerned about the environmental impact of the products they purchased. And nearly as many -- 78 percent -- said that they were willing to pay as much as 5 percent more for a product packaged with recyclable or biodegradable materials compared with its conventional counterpart.

Since that August 1989 survey, dozens of market researchers have unearthed similarly tantalizing findings describing consumers' interest in aligning their purchases with their environmental concerns. But behind those impressive numbers are some conditionals that aren't always picked up. They sound something like this: "Yes, I'd happily pick the greener product -- IF it comes from a brand I know and trust, IF I can buy it where I currently shop, IF it is at least as good as the product I'm currently buying, IF it doesn't require me to change habits, IF it doesn't cost more, and" -- this last one is significant -- "IF it is somehow better -- for example, that it lasts longer, performs more effectively, saves money, is healthier for my family, or will be perceived by others as cool."

That's a pretty high bar to clear. The result is that while the research data haven't changed much over the past 20 years -- neither have most consumers' purchases.