When Ecological Awareness Hurts

At a Cambridge restaurant one night, I was about to order the cod when my dining companion, Gregory Norris, whipped out his iPhone, accessed www.Blueocean.org, and told me the sad news. On the Eastern seaboard cod has been over-fished; while it’s fine to order it in San Francisco, with Pacific Ocean supplies plentiful, doing so in New England ups the pressure on dwindling stocks.

Then I talked to Dara O’Rourke, who spent years roaming the floors of factories throughout the Third World as a watchdog on behalf of agencies like UNESCO. O’Rourke tells me that garment workers are most likely to get injuries like gashes around two in the morning, when weariness and poor lighting combine with missing equipment safety guards. Why are the lights so dim and safeguards missing? And why are they working through the wee hours of the night in the first place? So you and I can buy low-priced knock-offs of what walked down the runways of Milan just a few months before.

Another downer. O’Rourke also tells me he stopped using a children’s sunblock on his five-year-old daughter the day he learned it contained a chemical that becomes a carcinogen when exposed to sunlight.

Call it “eco-angst,” the sickly sense that comes as a cost of learning the actual environmental, health and social consequences of all the stuff we buy and use every day. In the course of research for my book Ecological Intelligence: How Knowing the Hidden Cost of What We Buy can Change Everything, I learned an ever-expanding litany of such tales of ecological distress.

My daily read now includes an email blast from AboveTheFold, which monitors world media for alarms like the pending approval in California of methyl iodide, a suspected carcinogen, as a pesticide; or the report from an international neuroxicology conference in Jerusalem that far too few of the 80,000 industrial chemicals in daily use have been fully tested for safety. Another source, e360, from the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Science, skims scientific research to report, for instance, that a 60-member expert panel concludes chemicals added to plastics disrupt endocrine function and fetal development, plastic debris floating in oceans can last thousands of years and clog the digestive system of fish, and plastics in the nation’s landfills leach harmful chemicals into groundwater.

As such once-hidden industrial impacts are becoming open information an ecological awareness dawns: the realization that you, me, and everyone we know are unwitting accomplices in one or another disturbing drama much of the time we shop.

But now relief for eco-angst seems on the way, and from an unlikely source: WalMart. The retailer recently announced the development of a sustainability index that will rate the products it carries on their ecological impacts. Everything from diapers and detergents to xBoxes will be held accountable for their greenhouse gas emissions and toxic chemical use; the health, wages, and rights of workers; and a host of other previously hidden consequences of manufacture, transport and disposal. WalMart hopes one day to share the system with other retailers like Target and Cosco.

Both Dara O’Rourke and Gregory Norris, who teaches at the Harvard School of Public Health and the University of Arkansas, are part of the consortium helping WalMart design their transapency index, which will launch in a few years. But a ready anodyne for eco-angst can be seen in O’Rourke’s website www.GoodGuide.com that rates upwards of 75,000 consumer products on a ten-point scale that instantly lets you compare your detergent or sunblock with all the others on their relative virtue. O’Rourke, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley, led the development of GoodGuide, which extracts its ratings via a complex calculus involving more than 200 databases. Want to know why one prominent national brand of “organic” milk gets a mediocre score? Drill down into the database and discover how the company’s industrial-style dairy lots are environmental disasters.

GoodGuide, like other such ecological rating systems, lets us vote with our dollars for the better choice. Once I bypassed the cod, Norris guided me to order the arctic char, raised in an inland fish farm where they do less harm than such operations in an ocean. O’Rourke switched brands of children’s sunblock, but also emailed the company whose product he abandoned to tell them about the problematic ingredient, saying he’d come back if they dropped it.

Then there’s the fashion industry where time- and cost-saving pressures in the supply chain too often mean somewhere along the way a sweatshop endangers its workers to get us cheaper clothes more quickly. One solution might be a “slow fashion” movement, akin to that for food, which favors clothes with at least a sweatshop-free pedigree, if not an outright artisanal heritage.

Gregory Norris, who teaches at the Harvard School of Public Health and the University of Arkansas, heads the development of Earthster, a software system that allows companies to track the ecological impacts of a given product all along its supply chain to find better alternatives. As radical transparency tools like GoodGuide and WalMart’s sustainability index help us shift market share to favor better alternatives, Earthster can help companies find the upgrades that will keep our business.

So I see an antidote for eco-angst: marketplace transparency that lets the buyosphere help repair the biosphere.

4 thoughts on “When Ecological Awareness Hurts

  1. A couple of points;

    1. The global fish market being as it is, where you buy fish usually has little relationship to where it was caught. There’s no real reason to suppose that your cod was Atlantic or Pacific cod. Of course you might not want cod that has been shipped across the country to get to you.

    2. Skin cancer caused by the sun represents between 95% and 99% of all skin cancers. The potential carcinogens in sunscreen are far less dangerous than being in the sun without sunscreen. Choosing not to use sunscreen due to the possible carcinogens is the worst risk management decision I’ve ever heard.

  2. Let’s declare September “Eat More Vegertarian Meals Month”. Eating less animal protein is so much healthier for us and the planet, and, is a much smaller carbon footprint and easier on global warming. Much less eco angst, too.

  3. While I completely agree with you and applaud your discussion in raising awareness of this issue, I think there are some other points we must consider. We live in a very materialistic society that encourages people to buy, buy, buy. Quantity is valued over quality and environmentally friendly goods generally cost more, meaning you get less quantity for your money. We as individuals must work to change this societal mentality so that people realize and embrace the concept that less is more. We must also raise awareness that it is better to invest in well-made goods that come from sustainable, fair-trade sources than to constantly be trading in for the latest fashion. Until these cultural changes take root and spread, many people will continue to buy cheap, dangerous goods because the concept “more is better” is what society pressures on us. Thank you for addressing such an important topic on your website.

  4. Suffering from Eco-Angst and Orthorexia can lead to analysis paralysis. Consider your choice of fish-farmed arctic char:

    Aquaculture can be highly resource intensive – antibiotics, pesticides, chemical algae treatments, feces treatments, use of processed fish as feed, inland water management.

    And I personally don’t trust any farm’s fish feed, whatever the origin, to be free of toxic or spoiled contaminants.

    I would have ordered the cod.

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