The guru of green: After years of being told that products are eco-sensitive, author Daniel Goleman says consumers are finally getting a better sense of which ones really are
THE BERKSHIRES — Becoming a grandparent is a life-altering experience for a lot of people, but for Daniel Goleman, it was more than that. It was a planet-altering experience.
The prolific psychologist and science writer is best known for his 1995 bestseller Emotional Intelligence, which challenged existing definitions of what “smart” means. (He factored in interpersonal strengths, such as people skills and empathy.) He parlayed the book into a mini-industry as a researcher and lecturer promoting emotional literacy in schools and at work.
But having grandchildren propelled his work in a new direction. He has four, between the ages of 3 and 10, and like a lot of grandparents found himself thinking about the world that he’d be leaving them. Given what he does for a living, Goleman worried about things like global warming and toxic chemicals in the water and soil, problems he felt were exacerbated by his generation’s propensity for making and buying things without necessarily considering their impact on the environment.
“Unfortunately, [my grandchildren’s] world is likely to be a sadder version of the world we know now, because of our collective everyday choices,’’ said Goleman, 64. A former science writer for The New York Times who writes books about subjects he feels passionate about, Goleman was starting to feel passionate about this one. The result is his latest book, “Ecological Intelligence: The Hidden Impacts of What We Buy,’’ just out in paperback in time for Earth Day, which is Thursday.
A premise of the book is that most of us are oblivious to the health, environmental, and social impacts of what we’re buying, blundering through our consumer lives with a what-we-don’t-know-can’t-hurt-us attitude — even if we think we’re being eco-conscious. Most of us are functionally incapable of knowing which products are truly green, or when we’re merely being “greenwashed with green sounding PR,’’ says Goleman. We’re clueless about which shampoos contain toxic chemicals, what manufacturing processes emit greenhouse gases, which companies operate factories that exploit workers.
And it’s not all our fault. “All but the most obsessive among us lack the cognitive power to go through the endless computations that would make our decision-making approach optimal,’’ he writes. “And even if we do know about a specific hazard or two, who has the patience to read through a product list of dozens of arcane ingredients in a frozen pizza or floor polish and compare it with similar lists on an alternate choice?’’
The good news, though, is that there’s an emerging discipline called industrial ecology, which is devising new systems to rate products on how green they really are. Goleman cites the website GoodGuide.com, for example, which aggregates some 200 databases and scores products based on their ecological and health impacts. (GoodGuide even has an iPhone app that lets shoppers scan a barcode while they’re in a store to access its rating. Another website, Skin Deep — www.cosmeticsdatabase.com — evaluates the relative safety of personal care products.)
GoodGuide is working to expand into additional categories including electronics, apparel, pet food, and paper products, and other groups are starting to jump in, rating specific issues within specific product categories. Greenpeace, for example, publishes a guide to greener electronics.
“GoodGuide represents the bare beginning of true ecological transparency in the marketplace. It can and will improve,’’ Goleman said. “If this goes to scale, as more of us use this information, we can create a virtuous cycle where shifts in consumer demand toward ecologically superior products make it a good business decision to innovate, to get rid of the bad chemicals, to find better ways of making things,’’ said Goleman. “Not because it’s a nice thing to do, but because it’s an essential business decision. . . . Doing the right thing will be aligned with doing the thing that makes money.’’
Goleman is sitting in a light-filled studio located behind his house, at the end of a long road in a small Western Massachusetts town that he prefers not be disclosed. Behind the studio is an ecologically sound tea house (local stone steps, wood harvested from a New Hampshire swamp, bamboo fence) built to accommodate his wife’s passion for Japanese tea ceremony and Ikebana flower-arranging; she is Tara Bennett-Goleman, a writer and psychotherapist. Goleman uses the tea house to meditate, and wrote “Emotional Intelligence’’ here, kneeling on a tatami mat until he hurt his neck and his doctor put a stop to it. Now he works in an ergonomically designed office in the studio.
Like many big ideas in life, the inspiration for this one came from a series of small revelations. There was the time, for example, he bought his 18-month-old grandson a bright yellow wooden racing car made in China — a bargain at 99 cents — only to read shortly afterward that lead in paint makes colors like red and yellow look brighter, and is commonly used in cheap toys.
Or the time he was shopping for pasta sauces in his local supermarket, and was about to reach for his favorite when another brand caught his eye. It was packaged in a reusable plastic jar labeled free of BPA, an organic compound used to harden plastic. Just that week he’d been reading about whether BPA caused serious health hazards; he went home and threw out all his BPA-riddled plastic containers. (And switched his pasta sauce allegiance.)
Goleman concedes that until fairly recently, he too was a clueless shopper, roaming supermarket aisles in “mindless mode,’’ making choices out of habit, feeling virtuous if he bought something that was labeled “green’’ or “organic’’ because he thought it would be better for the earth.
Not anymore. “I used to believe advertising when it said such-and-such was green,’’ he said. “Now I immediately disbelieve it, unless there is an independent transparent rating of a product, like GoodGuide . . . or Skin Deep that assures me that it is green. Because if the person who is telling you it’s green is the same person who is making money from your buying it, you have every reason to be skeptical.’’
He checks GoodGuide’s ratings before he buys things, which resulted in some tough choices: He gave up his favorite — but poorly scoring — shampoo and deodorant. He avoids tuna out of concern about mercury contamination, and tries to buy fish that are not endangered, or are farmed in ecologically sound ways. (He recommends Arctic char.) He uses a glass or stainless steel water bottle, but argues that towns should bring back drinking fountains because “it’s a much more sustainable solution.’’
He also buys locally grown products whenever he can, and avoids big box stores. “In a big box store, 30 cents from the dollar stays in the community,’’ he argues, “but in the local store, about 60 cents.’’ He drives a hybrid Lexus but when he’s asked to do a speaking engagement, he tries to convince his host to do a webinar, so he won’t need to travel.
And he never did give that toy to his grandson. He just keeps it as a souvenir.
Daniel Goleman will speak in Newton on April 28, in Oak Hill Middle School auditorium at 7 p.m. To register, contact Newton Community Education, 617-559-6999 or www.newtoncommunityed.org.
Originally published in the Boston Globe