Twas Brillig and the Slithy Toves. . .


Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky (John Tenniel’s original image is pictured here) is often quoted as an example of nonsense, but nonsense that has become familiar to a large audience. We will be seeing a different kind of example shortly when Wal-Mart releases details of their much anticipated “Sustainability Index.” Widely reported in the media, the news sends a couple of shivers up my spine. Slate has a long and informative story.

The giant retailer ($406 billion in revenues in 2008) is developing an ambitious, comprehensive, and fiendishly complex plan to measure the sustainability of every product it sells. Wal-Mart has been working quietly on what it calls a “sustainability index” for more than a year, and it will take another year or two for labels to appear on products. But the company’s grand plan-“audacious beyond words” is how one insider describes it-has the potential to transform retailing by requiring manufacturers of consumer products to dig deep into their supply chains, measure their environmental impact, and compete on those terms for favorable treatment from the world’s most powerful retailer.

My immediate concerns arise from three sources. The first is the meaningfulness of any “sustainability” index. The second is the inherent greenwashing that comes in any index labeled as “green” or “sustainability.” And the third asks whatever happened to consumer sovereignty. The power of a single enterprise to create a formidable force to guide consumers to products they (and others) claim are superior runs counter to every tenet of a free market. I’ll start with the last and work backwards.

Completely free markets operate only when everyone involved in transactions has perfect information. Supporters of labeling information and certifications argue that this kind of information begins to level the playing field, countering the usual situation where the seller and producer know much more than the buyer. But when the seller is the source of information, especially when that information is not transparent, there is much room for misconceptions and manipulation.

The name of the index to be announced is the source of my second concern. By naming an index as a measure of the relative sustainability of something, the buyer thinks that every purchase she makes is the “right” one for the world. But that is nonsense. Sustainability is a property of the whole global environmental system. And although individual efforts can contribute to lessening the impact on the environment, they do not add up to sustainability. The opposite effect is likely to overwhelm any gains; consumers buying products according to their sustainability index value will tend to become satisfied that they are doing their part and stop acting in other ways to bring about sustainability.

The most serious concern is that any index is fundamentally the result of a set of value choices made by the developers of the index, no matter what scientific claims are made. See my comments about “Goodguide” the websource of similar data. How much more important is global warming than sweat shops or whatever else is to go into the composite measure? How accurate will the index be? I will have to wait until the details are announced to comment further. But if this index is like others that have been developed, I am already skeptical about its meaning. Are the values and choices of what to include and what to omit representing Wal-mart’s and the others involved in creating the system? Should they be?

Wal-Mart insider describes the effort as “audacious.” I’m afraid that it will be. But look at how Webster defines the word. I am sure the spokesperson was using #3, but, even with very limited information at this moment, I would guess either of the other two to be more fitting.

1 : intrepidly daring : adventurous b: recklessly bold : rash

2: contemptuous of law, religion, or decorum : insolent

3: marked by originality and verve