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.
O: Why is this kind of knowledge so important?
Goleman: It's what I call radical transparency. It brings to the neighborhood mall the same full disclosure that's in corporate financial reports. It means that shoppers know the entire life cycle of a product right at the point they consider buying it. It makes every one of us able to vote with our dollars based on sound information.
O: How will that affect manufacturers?
Goleman: Once shoppers become empowered, we will facilitate industries thinking in completely new terms; for example, making products that are totally biodegradable. The industrial processes in use today were developed at a time when no one had to consider what the environmental impact was. Who cared? But making ecological concerns matter to a company's bottom line will help it do the research and development that will reinvent everything we buy.
O: Your book was written before the economic downturn. Can we live green without paying more for it?
Goleman: Yes. You don't have to go to the most expensive organic food store. And some of the highest-priced shampoos have the worst chemicals, according to Skin Deep [CosmeticsDatabase.com], a website that evaluates ingredients in cosmetics.
O: Why will green information affect consumers any more than education about tobacco has? The surgeon general has been putting warning labels on cigarettes for more than 40 years, but 21 percent of the population still smokes.
Goleman: There will always be a group of people who just don't care, but look at the number of people who smoked in the 1950s [nearly 40 percent of the adult population in 1955] before the warning, compared with now. That's a massive improvement. And unlike the tobacco industry, which dug in its heels and fought every scientific fact about smoking, companies today are more than willing to make improvements that benefit the environment. The perception that an issue matters is important to companies because it's the perception that will change consumer behavior and, in turn, market share.
O: Who will lead the green revolution?
Goleman: I think it's going to be an army of eco-moms. In most families, it's the moms who shop, and moms care about the well-being of their families. The real leaders are not the Al Gores; they're the moms.
O: In your book, you urge us to be compassionate consumers. Do you mean compassion for the Earth?
Goleman: Making choices that improve things for all of us on the planet is an act of compassion, a simple act we can do any time we go shopping.