O: Most of us turn down the thermostat, use canvas shopping bags, and recycle paper. Is any of this making a difference?
Goleman: In 10 years we'll look back on these efforts as baby steps. What we haven't understood is the full consequence of everything we buy and use. A glass jar has hundreds of ecological impacts we're blind to. Just to make the glass, you have to burn a gas furnace 24 hours at 2,000 degrees. That consumes a huge amount of energy.
O: You talk about "greenwashing." What is that?
Goleman: Greenwashing is the selective display of one or two virtuous attributes of a product, meant to impart ecological friendliness. Used to shine up market appeal, it actually creates an illusion. The label may say 100 PERCENT ORGANIC COTTON, but it takes about 660 gallons of water to grow the cotton for one T-shirt. If the shirt is colored, a large amount of dye rinses off into factory wastewater, which can end up in rivers, and some commonly used textile dyes harbor carcinogens. These products are green-ish: They're draped with the appearance of ecological merit, but that's not the whole truth.
O: So how can we know the whole truth?
Goleman: A method called life-cycle assessment looks at an entire range of a product's impact from the time its ingredients are extracted from the Earth: the chemical compounds used in manufacturing, how it's transported to us, what happens when we use it and throw it away. Buying phosphate-free soap allows you to say, "My detergent doesn't have the harsh chemicals others do." The question is, how are you washing with it? The very worst thing for the Earth about detergent is that we heat water to use it. What we need is ecological intelligence, so we become a mass of shoppers who care, driving companies to do the right thing.
O: How should we educate ourselves?
Goleman: There's a new software program, GoodGuide, that can calculate the specific ecological impact of a product during its manufacture, transport, use, and disposal. The visionary behind this idea is an industrial ecologist named Dara O'Rourke, PhD, at UC Berkeley. To help us make smart purchases, GoodGuide provides information like: What ingredients in the product are health concerns? How far did it travel? How were workers treated? GoodGuide integrates data from hundreds of complex databases and summarizes the bottom line in the time it takes to exhale. A shopper can type in the bar code of a product in her cell phone, send it via text message, and within seconds an image appears, rating the product in terms of its environmental, health, and social impact. The software is still being worked out, but it's available for iPhones now, free, at GoodGuide.com.