Feeling Good With Goodguide.com

mirage.jpg

Running through my RSS feed reader tonight, I spotted an entry in Bill Moyers Journal referring to an interview with Daniel Goleman about his new book, Ecological Intelligence. I just got a copy of the book from the author as a thank you for a short passage in it, summarizing a conversation we had while he was writing the book. I haven't yet had a chance to read it, but I draw today's post from watching the interview video.

I came away with a mixed impression. With this book, Goleman has done more to publicize the use of life cycle assessment (LCA) than all my colleagues in the field of industrial ecology have been able to do over many years. This is certainly the first "popular" book to discuss and applaud this technique for estimating the environmental impacts of all sorts of products and processes. He is absolutely on target with his argument that LCA's can provide information that help researchers, product developers, marketing departments, consumers, and others make choices among closely related alternatives. But he goes overboard when he jumps to the popularization of the technique through a couple of websites that offer ratings based in part on LCAs. He claims that these websites lead to radical transparency, implying that, with them, consumers will make the right choices that will lead to less harmful impacts on the world.

I disagree with this characterization. I went to the website he spoke about in the interview, Goodguide.com, to see what is offered and how the the ratings shown are determined. I must admit, that as an old hand in the LCA business, I went in with some biases as to what I would find, and, indeed, found what I expected. Goodguide collapses a set of scores for environmental, social, and health performance into a single number. Any such system is fundamentally non-transparent because the myriad assumptions and weights used to aggregate the individual impact categories are hidden from view. The single number displayed is based on a compilation of some 90 plus individual categories. The outcome depends on the specific weights used. The website offers a way to dig down a layer or two, but never to the very bottom. Somewhere I saw a note that said that users could put in their own weights, but I doubt if anyone would ever work through all the hoops.

Yes, the system will probably work when facing the choice between a product with a score of 2.4 and one with a score of 8.3. But there is no honest way to prefer something with a score of 7.3 relative to one with a score of 7.2. Further, choosing the highest score available appears to be right thing. That's where the feeling good kicks in. The consumer leaves the supermarket or department store believing that she has done the right thing for the world, but she has only chosen among a few closely related products.

The real choice for the world is to ask herself why is she buying the stuff in the first place. This behavior is a prime example of shifting-the-burden, the cultural pattern that has been a major cause of unsustainability. I do credit Goleman with telling Moyers that, at some level, all this is a mirage (his words). Everything leaves some footprint out there.

Goleman's the journalist and has a way with words; and I'm not. Mirage sure beats shifting-the-burden in creating a mental image, but I doubt if I could ever get away with using mirage in my world of academia.

|