Voting with our dollars for a better planet

The bad news for my nine-year-old nephew Joey came when he looked up Webkinz Pink Pony on GoodGuide.com, a website that rates the environmental, health, and social impacts of the things we buy.  On a scale where ten is best, Pink Pony came up with a disappointing 3.7.

Why? That cute toy seems to contain two toxins—chloride and antimony. To Joey’s relief the other toys in the Webkinz menagerie all had flying colors.

But then again, when he started looking up his favorite snacks – all junkfood – none scored above a deplorable 1.7, all because their nutritional values were largely based on sugar and fat.

These sad truths have a greater significance: they herald the dawn of an era of ecological transparency, where we shoppers – for the first time ever – can know the truth about the ecological impacts of what we buy.  GoodGuide.com, for example, aggregates more than 200 databases to produce ratings of more than 65,000 products, giving us an instant comparison on eco-virtue to all the alternatives for the same item.

This information hands all of us a powerful tool, knowledge.  Consider what might happen if each of us did just three things when we shop:

1)    Know the impacts of what we buy. GoodGuide is an iPhone app as well as a website; we can check it as we stroll the aisles, or run through our shopping list at home.

2)    Favor Improvements. The instant ranking on eco-impacts lets us find better choices. The same with www.SkinDeep.com, which reveals toxic ingredients in personal care products like shampoos and lip gloss.

3)    Share What We Know. If we Twitter while we shop, or post to Facebook when we learn, say, that our favorite kid’s sunscreen contains a chemical that becomes a carcinogen in the sun, then we multiply the impact of what we’ve learned.

With these simple steps we can together start to shift the market share of products toward those with better eco-impacts. This, in turn, can trigger a virtuous cycle, where companies start to compete on finding ways to improve their scores and win us back.

Some companies are already paying attention. WalMart – and a group of other companies – have announced their intention to have an independent consortium develop their own GoodGuide-like sustainability index, with ratings to be posted next to the price tags.

It’s about time.  Geologists now tell us that since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution we have been living in the Anthropocene Age – an era where human activity is eroding the planetary systems that sustain human life.  This includes not just global warming but eight other fragile systems, such as the consumption of nonrenewable resources like drinkable water.

The main driver of this attack on our ecological niche: our daily habits, multiplied by billions.  There are, of course, many ways we can change our personal habits to lessen our own ecological footprint. But consider recycling. If you recycle the plastic container your yogurt came in, that takes care of only 5% of its global warming impact. Theother 95% is elsewhere in the life cycle of that container.

That’s why voting with our dollars can make such a crucial difference: it sends ta powerful bottom-line message to business and industry to clean up its act by finding more sustainable alternatives for everything.

For starters, how about a yogurt container that we can eat when we’re done.

One thought on “Voting with our dollars for a better planet

  1. I was delighted to read your perspective on how consumers can vote with their dollars. This idea a finalist at the TED Lexus Hybrid Living Award at http://bit.ly/9kG2nV attempts to combine your thought with the opportunity for consumers to voluntarily pay to offset at least the carbon footprint component of the ecological cost.

    A salve to their conscience and perhaps online social status. I just wonder if ideas such as this will ever get sufficient momentum to really make a dent especially outside the developed world. Until it does, I’ll settle for the cherry flavored yogurt container 😉

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