Books: retraining the consumer instinct

Can humans save the earth by making better choices? In Ecological Intelligence, Daniel Goleman says we can learn to shop with our brains and so motivate change. Jonathan Birchall has his doubts.

Ecological Intelligence: Knowing the Hidden Impacts of What We Buy
Daniel Goleman
Allen Lane, 2009

Daniel Goleman, a trained psychologist and erstwhile science journalist, made his name in the 1990s with a book called Emotional Intelligence. It was a huge bestseller that contributed to a movement in US schools to start teaching “social and emotional literacy” along with mathematics and writing – a concept Goleman later extended to business leadership. Now he has turned his attention to the deteriorating state of the planet and what we can all do about it.

How, he asks, can we humans, trained by our evolution to focus on short-term benefits, think instead about the longer-term implications of our actions on the environment – what he calls “ecological intelligence”.

Time magazine has already hailed “ecological intelligence” as one of the “10 ideas changing the world right now” – a refreshingly optimistic view, given the state of the polar ice caps.

Ecological Intelligence is a summary of one school of current thought on the environment; if we as consumers are given sufficient information about the true impact of our actions and our purchases, we will together force businesses to become more sustainable. In short, the virtuous market will save the earth.

Goleman argues that we can train ourselves to think differently – to develop an innate flight instinct when confronted by, for example, a shampoo that contains methylparaben, or a garden chair made from tropical wood.

Helping the consumer along the way are new websites which drive “radical transparency”. Skin Deep, a “cosmetic safety database”, evaluates the chemical content of more than 50,000 different products and rates them on a score of one to 10.

An even more ambitious website,, rates everything from yoghurt to toys and laundry detergent. It gives products an overall mark out of 10, with subdivisions for its health, environmental and social impacts. Companies will seek to improve their ratings, and all will be well – or at least not quite so bad.

Radical transparency depends on the quality of its data, however. Goleman admits that the data is not always that good, particularly when it comes to assessing issues such as factory conditions. For the environment, the data is better, and can build on the “life cycle assessments” of products and processes increasingly used by companies such as Coca-Cola, Wal-Mart and Tesco. These help to establish a comprehensive picture of the carbon footprint of any product, including its components.

Goleman wants us to use this information to go shopping with our amygdalas – the part of the brain that governs our “flight instinct” – which might work when it comes to perceived direct threats, such as lead levels in children’s toys, or concerns over phthalates.

But all this radical transparency, he argues, could also change the way we think about broader environmental and social issues. “Shoppers in Berlin or Brooklyn or Beijing could make informed choices that would speed the conversion of China’s power grid from coal-belching plants to alternate sources … or enhance the health of miners in Africa,” he writes.

Goleman could take confidence in the argument, recently made by a senior executive responsible for customer research at Procter & Gamble, that the current economic crisis and loss of confidence in public institutions will lead to an increase in “consumer engagement” – the desire for independent information that allows us to assess the value, in a broad sense, of our purchasing decisions.

But the big problem – which Goleman does not get to grips with – is that this is unlikely to be enough. Towards the end of his book, he undermines much of what has gone before by noting that John Ehrenfeld, a founder of the field of “industrial ecology” has concluded that gains delivered by efforts towards increasing the eco-efficiency of business “are too small as yet to offset the growing threats”. Ehrenfeld wants innovations that “radically reduce the amount of stuff that humans all over the globe use to produce well being”.

Unfortunately, history suggests that businesses do not do that kind of thing unless they are pushed, and not just by concerned consumers. Yes, we each need to be ecologically intelligent, and aware of the consequences of our actions. But to really change the habits of the majority of us who carry on regardless will require government action – as well as informed consumers.

Jonathan Birchall is the US consumer correspondent of the Financial Times.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2009