Ecological Intelligence 

How knowing the hidden impacts of what we buy can change everything

Book by Daniel Goleman  April 2009  who authored Emotional intelligence.  Notes by Henry Lahore June 2009

I became aware of the book by seeing an excellent 15 minute video interview of the author by Bill Moyers  Read the excellent book then saw a great 1 hour presentation by Goleman at Google about May 15.

This book for me has the impact of Silent Spring or The Jungle, but with a very positive view of what we can do about the problem of what we are doing to the ecology.

GOODGUIDE was mentioned in the interview and in the book on page 93.  Very nice web site which compresses the hidden information of life cycle analysis of 1,000’s of consumer products into a single 0-10 scale.  These are concerns about the hidden affects of the manufacture, transportation, consumption, and waste of consumer products, as well as nutritional information  It was surprising to find that, for example, the lower cost sun screen products are better for the consumer and for the environment.  It is just starting, but may provide a great amount of visibility to consumers. There is still a barrier in as much as it is not easily available in the stores.  Goodguide is providing a way that you can take a picture of a barcode and it will immediately send back its rating of the product having that barcode.

In the future GoodGuide will add capability to weight concerns: hopefully this will include: sweat shops, carbon use, water, use, energy use, pollution, and allergies. HFCS, gluten, sugar,.

Chemical accumulation in your body

The human body accumulates some chemicals – lead, arsenic, PBA, PCB, etc. shows many people who have had a detailed analysis of the toxins being carried in their body, liver, blood, etc. The CDC, EPA and other US govt restrictions on the amount of lead, etc in the environment  has usually been based on high-dose/short-exposure models.  Apparently many European govt models are far more conservative, and consider the possibility of long-term accumulation.  Also, most US models consider the individual effect of toxins on standard-healthy individuals, and rarely test for the affect of toxin combinations or affect on non-standard individuals – young, old, allergic, negro, ….. 

Back in 1969, when the EPA was established, it grandfathered-in 62,000 chemicals – many of which are known to be highly toxic. Now, 40 years later, the EPA has required tests only a few hundred of those ‘grandfathers’  The US appears to be taking the policy of innocent unless proven guilty.  Starting in 2009 Europe is test all of the chemicals (pg 153). The US allows as ‘safe’ lead at 600 parts per million.  The American Academy for Pediatrics is arguing for 40 parts per million standard.  Some people feel that there may be no minimum amount of lead over a long term which does not affect the body in some way. 

Industrial Ecology stated about 1997

First issue of Journal of Industrial Ecology appeared in 1997.  Their study of  LCA = Life Cycle Analysis looks at ‘all’ of the upstream and downstream ecological impacts of products. They consider over 1,000 aspects of a glass jar, for example. When comparing a stainless steel water bottle to a plastic water bottle they even look as such details as the use of metals for making the plastic bottle – the wear of the machines and transportation accounts for 1/500th the amount of metal directly used in the stainless steel bottle (this example was in his talk at Google, and was probably not in the book)  658 ingredients are needed to make packing glass. 8% of the cancer causing impacts of glass comes from volatile organic compounds and 31% of those come from the plastic that the glass is wrapped in for shipping. (pg 19)

Back in 1991 a Life Cycle Analysis was published on paper vs plastic cups for hot drinks. Paper: 33 grams of wood vs polystyrene 4 grams of fuel oil or natural  gas.  Paper cups required 36X more electricity and 580X more wastewater than plastic cups.

More impact by buying more ecological products than by more recycling

This is a major premise in his book. GoodGuide makes it much easier to know which are the more ecological products.  Consumers have generally been given many indications as to which products are greener, but ‘green’ is just a tiny portion of the story. 

He gives an example of a cotton shirt.  2,800 liters of water are required to grow the cotton for a T shirt ( The Aral Sea in Russia, had been 45th largest lake in the world, going dry due to the water needed for the local cotton plants). The dyes needed for cotton are also very hard on the environment.

When the Coke company did a LCA of their operation they found that over 200 liters of water was needed just to make the sugar for 1 liter of coke. More water is used to make the bottles and 2 more liters of water are lost inside of the bottling plants. Coke, by the way, is the largest single consumer of sugar in the world.

Some sunscreen products create major, hidden, downstream problems. 5,000 tons of sunscreen is washed off swimmers around the world. This has increased the growth of a virus which live inside coral reefs. Also, some sunscreen products, when exposed to the sun, create cancer-causing compounds.

Ecology will improve when consumers decrease buying ecologically poor products

Probably the major premise of the book is that when consumers are able to ‘easily’ determine correct purchases, using GoodGuide, that the business will respond by improving their ecological rating. He feels that often a ecologically good product does NOT cost more than the poor product.  Example of EnergyStar for refrigerators. 

Sea miles are 1/60 the carbon cost truck miles

Transportation per sea mile generate 1/60 as much carbon as truck mile. So buying something (bulky – no fair flying)  from Japan or China in Seattle creates far less carbon than buying something the the East Coast of the US. Similarly New Zealand lamb has 1/4 the carbon footprint in British lamb (this is due to the facts that electricity in New Zealand comes from renewable sources and that less fertilizer is needed)

Clothes Washing in Cold Water

Goleman states on page 188 that Tide Coldwater should work well and save the ecology by washing without having the heat the water.  I checked on the internet and found many people complaining about Tide Coldwater, which appears to be now off the shelves. There apparently are some ‘natural’ detergents which work well, but Tide Coldwater has problems: darks loosing color, not getting out mildew, hives, strong smell, ….  There may be a new formulation – Tide Ultra for cold water – unsure.

Reducing transportation costs: concentration and packaging

There are several ways to reduce the cost of transportation (and carbon footprint), reduce the waste, etc. Some companies are concentrating their products: detergent, cleaners, etc. Some are just changing from bottles to boxes (I expect that most wines will be in boxes in a decade). Some are putting more into the package – many cereal boxes seemed not fully filled because the companies had not taken the time to learn how to fully fill the box on fast conveyer lines)

EPA only requires few toxins at the water source, not at the tap

Apparently 1 in 10 American drink tainted water daily.  The water is often free of toxins (but hormones and other things which are not tested for) at the source, but not miles away, at the tap. Here is a 2003 report on how many big cities are failing:

New production methods: Glass, etc.

Apparently glass is still made almost the way the Romans did. A few companies are experimenting with reducing the energy needed by >70% as well as reducing the waste and time to make galss. Goleman feels that a majority of processes will be changing in the next few decades – if for no other reason to allow the rest of the world to have our kind of living conditions.  Jared Diamond is just one of many authors  who believe that current resource use and pollution per developed people cannot be applied to the other 5 billion people on the planet.

A paper plant is now being made in New York City.  It will be using fiber from the city (more fiber per acre that in the Amazon) and sewage water. This will truly be ‘green’ paper – not even have to truck the product very far.

In Google books I used it to find the reference to the Aral Sea, above

A few summaries/interviews on the web,28804,1884779_1884782_1884776,00.html Times magazine  Newsweek Scientific American Harvard

My idea suggestions to the GoodGuide web site – June 2009

Provide pre-selected categories of weights

People have different priorities for ecological concerns: water, air, recycling, energy, allergy, ocean, ... In the future when you get the ability to provide individualize the weightings for the categories you should provide pre-selected groupings of those weights. That would makes it much easier for individuals to decide which grouping most closely matches his concerns. This would also allow you to show how many people are in each group.

Indicate the number of e-mails sent to each supplier

This would provide some degree of impact that GoodGuide might be having on each supplier.

Provide links to other product rating services

Could you provide links to the many other product rating services on the web - nutrition, pollution, sweat shops, carbon footprint, global warming, .... etc. In some cases you might even be able to link to their information at the category or even product level.

Give extra points to those products which use completely filtered water

Many companies fail to take hormones and other contaminates out of the water. Give extra points to those companies which do good filtering.

Add ability to see product reviews from elsewhere on the web

'MORE" would bring up reviews and comments on the product from other locations on the web. Similar to Google pulling up reviews of Restaurants .

Alternate name instead of GoodGuide

Alternate name, such as (available) would reduce the amount of time it takes to explain the service to someone. GoodGuide just does not do it. {I checked, and and are not available}

Make it easier for us to spread the word - provide a brief description of your site

We would like tell others about your site, but we rarely have enough time to write a good description of your site.

You should have a variety of descriptions to select from to copy and paste (with optional editing) into their e-mails, blogs, web sites, social networks, etc.

Allow a title-only view option for suggestions

It is difficult to review the ideas when there are only a few per page. Allow the option of seeing only the titles and click on a title to get the detail which is now show. Might also include in the title line the # of votes for a title.

I believe, however, that GoodGuide must simplify if it is to scale up to more products and more countries

While I agree that a complete Life Cycle Analysis is great, it is too much effort to just produce a product rating.  Also, so far most LCAs appear to have been generic – not getting the details on such things as factory age, water quality, etc., and so far have analyzed just a tiny traction of the products in say Wal-Mart, and virtually no products outside of the US.

Two ideas come to mind to reduce the effort needed.
1) Only do a Life Cycle Analysis on the potential outliers – the best and the worst of categories. Let crowd-sourcing suggest which product are outliers (best/worst). End up showing all products on the internet indicate that something like 90% of the products did not get reviewed.

2) Analysis to be made on only the top 10 to 20 of the LCA attributes/issues. Exactly which issues are analyzed will most likely vary with the product. reviews two more services: pesticides in food and a cosmetic safety database.   added June 21 2009


Henry Lahore  feel free to contact me:   hlahore at gmail dot com  to learn about me, go to my home page  at