Sustainability is the possibility that humans
and other life will flourish on Earth forever.
Reducing unsustainability, although critical,
will not create sustainability.
In my daily screening of my Internet subscriptions (links to all the blogs I want to scan), I came upon two articles back-to-back on the Daily Green. The dissonance of the headlines is loud and clear. The first is on a familiar subject in this blog, GoodGuide, "GoodGuide Becoming Essential Green Shopping Buddy.". The second is becoming all too familiar, but in an entirely different vein, "January Marks New Record-Low for Arctic Sea Ice."
GoodGuide is a, Internet-based system of rating consumer goods designed to assist buyers concerned about the specific product's impacts. The heart of the message in the first of these stories is:
"Our whole mission is to drive transparency to the marketplace so consumers can make more informed decisions," Josh Dorfman, the Vice President of marketing at GoodGuide (and The Lazy Environmentalist) told TDG. "This is a pretty hefty challenge since we live in a non-transparent world where companies often intend to hide their doings instead of offering free information to the public," he added.
The basic idea is to give consumers credible third-party, science-based information that they can use to assess products. Good Guide's ratings are developed by a team of specialists and scientists who base their research methodology on informatics, health and environmental risk assessment, life cycle assessment and social impact analysis. The site generates four ratings for each product: a health rating, an environmental rating, a social rating and an overall rating composed of the previous three. GoodGuide has over 80,000 ratings that help people decide from the endless array of choices.
The second, with disturbing news about the state of Arctic Ice, includes a summary of data obtained by monitoring satellites belonging to the National Snow and Ice Data Center.
Arctic sea ice extent averaged over January 2011 was 13.55 million square kilometers (5.23 million square miles). This was the lowest January ice extent recorded since satellite records began in 1979. It was 50,000 square kilometers (19,300 square miles) below the record low of 13.60 million square kilometers (5.25 million square miles), set in 2006, and 1.27 million square kilometers (490,000 square miles) below the 1979 to 2000 average.
Is there a connection between these? Ummm--yes and no. The yes is that buying the green goods that GoodGuide points buyers to is probably better than random shopping choices driven by other tastes and preferences. I add "probably" because the scientific method used by GoodGuide is, at heart, not scientific at all. It is an expert opinion of the additive impact of a large number of health, social, and environmental factors arbitrarily weighted by these experts judgments. Is this a good idea? Yes, it is better than the uninformed judgments of ordinary customers. It allows them to find a product ranked better in any one of these three categories. Users have been most interested in the health dimension. It got its start when Dara O'Rourke was looking for safe products for his young child.
No is also an appropriate answer. The second article points to the shortcomings of GoodGuide and other rating or ranking systems that come with any of the following labels: green, environmentally friendly, eco-friendly, sustainable, or sustainability. Major changes are taking place in the world regardless of whether one buys a product with a rating of 9 or of 10. The choices being made using GoodGuide have little or no impact on climate change, the condition of humanity, or even on the health of the family. All of these depend on a large number of factors not reflected in the purchases. Some of the factors may be outside of the ambit of the buyer. In many cases the buyer does have the ability to make other choices directed toward the same ends implicit in the GoodGuide methodology, but arrives at home in a self-satisfied mood created by the experience using GoodGuide. It's not the use of GoodGuide alone; any purchase labeled green, sustainable, or the like can have the same result.
I would not be so critical if GoodGuide (or anyone using green or its equivalents to advertise its goods) added a warning label to its ratings that ran something like this:
"The product you are choosing may be the best in its class, but your purchase is still adding to the burden on the Earth. The product may avoid some unhealthy outcome, but your health depends on also following many other good practices. The product may lessen some relative negative social impacts, but producing flourishing everywhere takes many other positive actions. If you do care about sustainability, you should not leave the store satisfied that you are doing your part by relying only upon GoodGuide. Examine your life and see what else you need to do. Refer to our on-line website for a list of other actions you would need to take."
I know this is a mouthful and would blunt the message that GoodGuide does carry. Without being completely open and honest about the real effects of consuming, next year's news about Arctic melting will in all likelihood be equally disturbing. Some people may and do argue that there is no connection between the impacts of consumption and signs of climate change. If not, my arguments above would not be valid. I think I am correct. The science used to make the connection between our activities and the global environment is better grounded than that used for this objective in the rating systems of GoodGuide and others like it.
(Images courtesy of TheDailyGreen)