Tech & Science

How Our Purchases Affect the Environment

Last week, Wal-Mart announced a plan to rate the environmental impact of the items it sells and to provide customers with this information on each and every tag—right along with the price. NEWSWEEK's Ian Yarett spoke with psychologist Daniel Goleman, author of Ecological Intelligence: How Knowing the Hidden Impacts of What We Buy Can Change Everything, about the environmental and health impacts of our buying decisions and the implications of Wal-Mart's green initiative. Excerpts:

To what degree can our day-to-day purchases have an effect on the environment?
The sum total of our daily purchases, aggregated across everything we buy, is having a massive destructive impact on the environment. The destruction of nonrenewable resources, global warming, industrial toxins that are polluting water, our bodies, soil—all of it is due to us, but we don't see the connection ordinarily between what we buy and the actual ecological damage done along the way during the life cycle of that product.

What are some of the most common health and environmental dangers posed by the items we buy?
One of the big categories has to do with industrial chemicals; there are more than 80,000 in use every day in the things we buy, and tens of thousands of them were grandfathered in as presumably safe when the EPA was created decades ago. But now current thinking in toxicology says that these chemicals build up in our bodies; they off-gas from everything in our house. You know, if you have a computer—you're probably sitting in front of one right now—they use a fire retardant called brominates. Brominates are good because they keep your computer from going up in flames, but they're also carcinogens, and they off-gas molecules—those molecules end up in the dust in your room and in your body. This is true of tens of thousands of chemicals, which slowly build up in our body over a lifetime and cause what's known as inflammatory syndrome, and this inflammation is a prior state to a host of major diseases, from diabetes and asthma and cancer to heart disease. That's just one of the many ways in which the side effects of things that we find otherwise useful or very desirable need to be looked at.

Can you give more examples?
Take these hardeners and softeners in plastics—BPA and phthalates. These are known carcinogens and endocrine disruptors and so on. The great potential of the Wal-Mart sustainability index, particularly if it becomes adopted by other retailers, becomes a national standard, is it gives us the back story—the hidden consequences of what we buy—and lets us compare products. So if you want to avoid bringing toxic chemicals into your house or buying things [that contain them] that you put in or on your kids, you [will] now have a way to compare products and buy the better product. And as more and more shoppers do that, that will shift market share so that it becomes a business imperative to innovate and find, say, green-chemistry alternatives to toxic chemicals, or to find different industrial platforms or processes that will minimize [a product's] contribution to global warming. I think that's the real power of the Wal-Mart decision.

Why do you think there isn't more of a public outcry about a lot of these dangers inherent in so many of the items we buy?
The connection that hasn't been made is between us, as consumers, being drivers of the changes that we decry. I think it's because of what's called a vital lie: a story we tell ourselves, which is essentially that it's not going to make any difference if I buy this or I buy that. There's kind of a screen between us and the consequence of a product during its manufacture, or [during the gathering of] ingredients or transport or disposal. We've been blind to that—and I think maybe a little bit willingly blind, because it's a little bit of a headache to all of a sudden pull back that screen and realize, oh my God—you know, all these things I'm buying have these consequences.

But can a difference really be made by changing our individual buying habits?
Once we know the truth, then that information becomes a guide to smarter buying—to buying that minimizes the danger to ourselves and our loved ones and to our planet. And so I think Wal-Mart is taking actually a rather heroic step into this future. That's quite a radical move, because right now what economists call the "information cost" of knowing how a product matters—that is, how much effort you have to make to understand the impact—is enormously high. First of all, you have to know you can find the data; you have to go to some Web site that tells you is this fish stock being depleted or is this a carcinogen. Then you have to remember that when you go to the store, and then you have to look at the product to see does it pertain. In other words, that's a lot of steps. But if the summary is right there next to the price tag, that drops the information cost to zero. That information becomes a disruptive technology; it's a game changer. Now companies will see that they need to compete on this ground, too, not just price and quality.

What factors do you think led Wal-Mart to this initiative, and why do you think Wal-Mart of all places is spearheading it?
I've talked to people at Wal-Mart, and I was told by one executive that they kind of backed into this. They got into this unwillingly because they were accused some years ago of very negative environmental practices. But once they started to see the connection between their business practices and the environmental consequences, they took on sustainability. And the new CEO, I'm told, when he made his first talk within the company, said that sustainability was going to be one of his highest priorities.

What are some things the average person can do in the meanwhile to make environmentally responsible buying choices?
You don't need to wait for this sustainability index, which may take several years to develop, because there is a wonderful Web site called GoodGuide.com, which already does this. It's a downloadable app on an iPhone, and it rates products already on just these dimensions and instantly compares them to competitor products, summarizes their impacts in a single score on a 10-point scale, and lets you know what the better choices are.

From a logistical standpoint, how do you think Wal-Mart expects to accomplish this plan? It seems ambitious and fraught with obstacles.
Well, I think they're going about it in a very intelligent way. They're bringing in academics whose specialty is exactly this kind of assessment—they're called industrial ecologists—and they have a methodology called life-cycle assessment, which allows you to assay in a very precise, fine-grained way the environmental impacts, the health impacts, the social impacts of a product at every step in its life cycle. [You can hear audio of conversations Goleman conducted with industrial ecologists here.] They're also working with their suppliers, and they put together a consortium to do this in an intelligent way, so that not only will the ratings be sound but they'll be transparent and verifiable. In other words, you can know why it got that rating, and someone other than the person who's supplying the product can verify that yeah, this is accurate.

What do you see for the future? Do you think in a few years we'll start to see lots of stores, maybe all stores, displaying these kinds of guides?
What I hope is that the big chains like Target and Costco will join in—and apparently Wal-Mart is inviting them to—so that this will become a national standard, widely available to consumers. The more shoppers that have access to this, the more impact it will have in driving market share and making it essential for companies to have, intrinsic to their core business strategy, upping the sustainability of their products.

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