Nothing frosts my cookies more than being referred to as ‘a consumer’.  It’s such an impersonal term, generally used to categorize faceless crowds and their spending habits… believe it or not, here in the US of A we are twice as likely to be called a consumer than a citizen!  Ick!… This is far from cool, but it’s not difficult to understand why as 70% of the American economy is driven by consumer spending… We consume like no other country on earth, representing 5% of the world’s population but using 25% of its resources… Other developing countries like China and India are following suit, and this is not good news for the planet!

Well, what if I were to tell you that our purchasing decisions might actually be our saving grace?… There are some amazing ideas and technologies in the works right now that could truly give power to the people… one of them worthy of discussion is Radical Transparency!

In a nutshell, radical transparency is the exposure of the entire life cycle of products and their environmental, health, and social consequences at every stage.  Basically, it entails banishing all secrets so consumers (ahem, citizens!) can have the information to make educated and enlightened choices… this in turn would level the playing field, rewarding companies that have strong eco and social initiatives and taking business away from those that choose to cut corners.  Currently it’s profitable for businesses to keep information hidden… they can drastically cut their costs and increase profit margins, capturing more of the market.  With no authoritative indicators, sellers have little reason to share information that would help buyers.  But a system that prioritizes affordability comes with externalized costs… the pressure for cheap products often forces suppliers into a cycle of child labor, unsafe working conditions, hazardous materials, and environmental degradation.  Traditional American shopping habits not only supports but encourages this system by continually putting money back into it…. not cool!

We as citizens lack a sound way to know the harm or good a product might do…. we generally assume that everything is safe if it has found its way onto shelves.  Radical transparency is out to change this.  If foods are heavy in trans fats and pesticide contamination, you should know… if a child’s toy has mercury, cadmium, arsenic and lead in it, you would probably like that information… and if you discover a company you’re about to give business to has a problem disposing of hazardous waste, this might influence your decision.

A great tool to help us understand the life cycle of products is the GoodGuide.  Acting as a database of information, the guide features 70,000 food, toys, personal care, and household products that have been thoroughly tested by industrial ecologists and given scores based off of three different categories:

  1. Health (cancer risks, respiratory hazards, mutagenicity, skin & eye irritation, etc)
  2. Environmental (carbon emissions, natural resource impacts, proactive environmental initiatives, etc)
  3. Social (labor & human rights practices, working conditions, compensation, etc)


Each category receives an independent score of 1 to 10 and an overall number is tallied by averaging all three.  The guide is also customizable… if the environment is your primary concern, you can cater your search to prioritize a product’s eco-impacts.  (FYI… the GoodGuide is currently in Beta testing and has several kinks that need to be ironed out… regardless, it’s a pretty rockin’ resource!)


The future of GoodGuide is promising… already in production is an iPhone application that gives access to this database of information to shoppers on the go.  Plans down the road include further user-friendly evolutions.  Imagine this… you have your smart phone in hand walking through the isles of a grocery store… you snap a picture of the bar code on a box of cereal and instantly pops up the product’s GoodGuide score… you do the same to a comparable box of cereal that is a 50 cents less, but discover it has several ingredients that the Center for Science in the Public Interest has recommended be banned in the United States… hmmm, probably don’t want to eat that one!  With this information, the 50 cent upgrade now sounds like a pretty good choice…

As promising as this all sounds, it will be interesting to see how accepted these ideas and technologies will become… In theory, you’d think that everyone would welcome them with open arms as the benefits are ample, but history and consumer trends would argue differently.  Dozens of studies have shown that a vast majority of Americans say they would spend 10% or more for green products but their actions are not backing up their talk.  It is still just an elite few who are spending more for local, organic, fair trade, and other ethical products… Why is this?… Psychologists say the act of shopping is largely guided by a fog of inertia.  Brand loyalty and sensory impressions like ‘On Sale’ or ‘Two for a buck’ often drive our shopping experience, overriding any ambitions of mindful intent.  Another factor is that we are hardwired to focus on short-term savings at the expense of long-term benefits… Many people would still reach for the cereal that is 50 cents less, knowing that questionable ingredients are involved.

The other side of the coin is that the timing might be just right for systems like the GoodGuide to take center stage… a new era of shoppers and cultural creatives are gaining influence and understand the value of Twitter, Facebook, and other social media outlets that can easily influence people.  This demographic is generally regarded as the driver of change and it only will be a matter of time before they pick up on the power of increased accountability…. for radical transparency to be successful… to really put pressure on the supply side of industry, we would need more than an elite few to make changes… we need a vast majority on board, and only time will tell if this is attainable.

The question really comes down to this… “if you were aware that your choices had negative impacts, would you continue to make them?“… an optimist would say ‘no, people would change’ while a realist would respond ‘yes, it’s cheaper and easier’… this my friends becomes the underlying struggle…. does our culture have the courage to utilize information in a positive way to benefit global health, or will we side with apathy and the maintenance of the status quo?…

If you’re interested in learning more about radical transparency, I highly recommend you pick up Daniel Goleman’s recently released book,  ‘Ecological Intelligence.’  It covers a lot of the ideas I mentioned in much greater depth, and further expands on various tools that can help us make more mindful decisions.