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Ecological transparency

Radical ecological transparency

Something needs to change

My interest in environmental matters goes back to sometime in my early teens. It started with saving electricity by turning off lights at home when growing up in Ireland, to getting more into recycling when I moved to Germany in early adulthood. It has continued to evolve over the years as I became more conscious of the ecological impact of my ways and found alternative and more sustainable ways of living.

By the beginning of 2007 I held the belief that the environmental situation was getting steadily worse and that if we didn’t start to address some of the issues in a more concerted manner our lives were going to get uncomfortable, retirement in 30 years time would not be pleasant and our children would be asking us why we didn’t act sooner.

A wake up call

The film from Al Gore that helped push the Climate Change centre stage

The film from Al Gore that helped push Climate Change centre stage

Then I picked up a copy of Al Gore’s film entitled ‘An Inconvenient Truth’. While watching this film I realised that a number of these environmental degradation processes are not at all linear and that the degradation process is not a steady one. I understood that we have set in motion a number of vicious circles (e.g. the melting of the permafrost which releases methane – 21 times more damaging than CO2 – into the atmosphere) and potentially even a number of tipping points (e.g. the Atlantic heat conveyor).

This new realisation encouraged me to redouble my own efforts to reduce my ecological footprint. I sold my car, reduced my flights and switched to green electricity. In 2006 I produced 12 tonnes of CO2. Two years later I had reduced that figure to 7 tonnes. I had increased my percentage of organic purchases and I had encouraged a number of initiatives at my workplace which were starting to take effect.

But I could also see that these efforts were not enough for several reasons:

  • As a inhabitant of a developed country my 7 tonnes of CO2 was below average but disastrously high compared to the world average;
  • My 7 tonnes only included the energy related carbon footprint component. If I were to calculate the carbon footprint from my consumption we are talking about a multiple of this; and
  • I still wasn’t including the toxicity generated through my consumption nor it’s social impact.

In addition when I looked around at my family, friends, colleagues, neighbours and the world at large I still felt very much part of a minority community who was seriously concerned with ecology. I figured that this minority was not enough to have the impact that I believed we needed.

In search of solutions

Daniel Goleman

A type of intelligence whose time has come

This year it was Daniel Goleman’s book – Ecological Intelligence – that captured my imagination. Goleman presents the concept of radical transparency which in my view will create one of the critical virtuous circles required to slow, halt or even reverse the current process of ecological degradation. I bought into his concept for three reasons:

  • I can already see examples of radical transparency developing in the world around me;
  • It addresses issues broader than just global warming by adding health and social impacts into the equation.
  • It intuitively made sense to me;

In this blog I would like to share Goleman’s concept with you.

The need for radical transparency

Why is the concept that Daniel Goleman has put forward so crucial? How do we manage to bring more citizens of the world, in particular those producing the largest ecological footprints – namely the developed world – into the environmental boat?

Well, have a look at this statistic:

Procter & Gamble’s market research found that up to 10 percent of shoppers will ‘ inconvenience themselves’ – for example, pay more – to get an environmentally superior product.

While this figure gives cause for concern, the next figure gives cause for hope:

But up to 75 percent will buy sustainable products if they have no adverse trade-offs like higher price and poorer performance.

One of the main issues preventing the citizens in both the 10% and 75% segments of P&G’s research findings is the lack of understanding about which are the most sustainable products to buy. For example, should one purchase:

  • reusable glass bottles which can be put through a cleaning process;
  • disposable glass bottles which can be recycled through a process of melting and remoulding the glass;
  • reusable or recyclable plastic bottles; or
  • recyclable plastic and aluminum coated paperboard containers.

We may have our intuitive views on this but do we have a definitive answer that we can trust to guide us in our purchasing decisions? In fact, there isn’t a definitive answer. It depends very much on the whole recycling process. And this will vary from product to product, from manufacturer to manufacturer and from region to region.

The components of radical transparency

So how do we make an in-transparent system, transparent?

Goleman puts forward four components that need to come together:

  1. Life Cycle Assessments
  2. Linked data
  3. Social networks
  4. Devices

In the following sections I will describe how companies and environmentally groupings are assessing the ecological footprints of products by linking and compiling data from many sources. Information about these product assessments are then spread via social networks and made available to consumers at the point of sale through devices such as smart phones.

Life Cycle Assessments (LCAs)

Environmental impact of the product life cycle

P&G illustration of their Life Cycle Assessments

Michael Porter popularized the concept of value chain analysis in his 1985 best-seller, Competitive Advantage. This methodology gauges how each step in a product’s life cycle, from the extraction of materials, to manufacturing and through to distribution, adds value to the end product. What Michael Porter’s method does not calculate is the value subtracted throughout the life cycle through damage to the environment. And this is where Life Cycle Assessments come into play:

A Life Cycle Assessments (LCA) is a method that allows us to systemically tear apart any manufactured item into its component and their subsidiary industrial processes, and measure with near-surgical precision their impacts on nature from the beginning of their production through to their final disposal.

For example, an LCA reveals that in terms of global warming effluents everything in a car’s life cycle from manufacture to getting scrapped, pales in comparison to the emissions while it is driven. Or another example – Apple has published the results of their Life Cycle Impact studies so I can now read that the MacBook Pro which I am using to write this blog on, has a life cycle carbon footprint of 490 kg CO2. Such information can help me compare several ecological indicators when making a purchase decision. I can also check to see whether nasty toxins such as lead, mercury, cadmium, hexavalent chromium, brominated flame retardants and arsenic are used in the manufacturing process.

So the Life Cycle Assessments, which we could also call ‘devalue chain analysis’, can be seen as a natural complement to Michael Porter’s value chain analysis.

To understand product life cycles better, have a look at a 20 minute animated activist video entitled The Story of Stuff.

Linked data

Binary code

Linking data to build accurate ecological assessments

To increase the accuracy of LCAs, companies need to compile actual LCAs of the sub-components that they purchase from suppliers. This process is facilitated when companies make their data available by opening up their databases for others to query on demand. The querying of open databases is made more efficient by the use of open data standards

One of the leading examples in the area of ecology is GoodGuide, which at the time of posting, contains information on 70,000 food, toys, personal care and household products. It draws on data from over 200 databases which in turn draw on data from hundreds more databases. For each product it provides an overall 1 to 10 score with 10 being the positive end of the scale. If you want to know how they came to this score, you click to reveal a breakdown in the health, environmental and social impacts of the product, also scored on a 1 to 10 scale. For example if you take a look at Kellogg’s Corn Flakes you will see that they receive a score of 5.7. This breaks down into 4.4 for health impact, 7.9 for environmental impact and 4.9 for impact on society. And as you drill down from there you will see for example that the poor health score relates primarily to the use high-fructose corn syrup.

Another similar example is the website Skin Deep run by The Environmental Working Group:

In 2004 we launched Skin Deep, an online safety guide for cosmetics and personal care products. Our aim was to fill in where companies and the government leave off: companies are allowed to use almost any ingredient they wish, and our government doesn’t require companies to test products for safety before they’re sold. EWG’s scientists built Skin Deep to be a one-of-a-kind resource, integrating our in-house collection of personal care product ingredient listings with more than 50 toxicity and regulatory databases.

Now in its fourth year and third major update, our Skin Deep database provides you with easy-to-navigate safety ratings for nearly a quarter of all products on the market — 50,950 products with 8,753 ingredients. At about one million page views per month, Skin Deep is the world’s largest and most popular product safety guide.

Social networks

Social networks

Social networks - efficient channels for spreading ecological information

So by linking data from many sources including the Life Cycle Assessments, the information available to support our ecological decision making has increased dramatically. But how do we get to know about the existence of such information. And how to we find out when new studies on topics like safer sun creams get released? Well this is where the growing world of social networks is lending a helping hand.

Let’s say that the GoodGuide releases on their website an article on the health impacts of high fructose corn syrup in our diets. To accompany this release GoodGuide tweets an announcement about this article to their 2,000 followers on twitter. Let’s say that 2% of their followers think the article could be of interest to their followers and therefore re-tweets the announcement. Now as the average twitter user has 120 followers, the original 2,000 tweets just produced 4,800 more tweets. And since twitter users usually follow other users who are interested in similar topics, the relevance of these tweets to the receiver is higher that many conventionally marketing channels.

As some twitter users automatically replicate their tweets onto facebook, the tweet now enters into the world of facebook status updates. From there some users might read the article and decide to email the link to some friends or family members. And perhaps some of these people on twitter, facebook or email decide to read up on the subject and right a blog on it. The blog gets posted, generating more announcements via twitter, email alerts and rss and the cycle continues.

So social networks are now providing a highly efficient and effective way to increase the transparency of ecological information.


The GoodGuide

The GoodGuide on the iPhone

And finally, the fourth component that is helping to drive this radical ecological transparency is devices. The transparency which is developed through LCAs and linked data, and spread through social networks, need to get into the hands of the consumers at the point of sale. Some supermarket chains are starting to push their own product ratings through product labels on the shelving. But with an intelligent device such as a smart phone in the hand, any consumer can chose to pull the information that they find most informative, objective and convenient.

So already today you can type a product name into the GoodGuide app on an iPhone and you will get back a product scoring within a few seconds. Shortly IBM will release an app called Breadcrumbs which with make use of the iPhone’s camera to scan a product’s bar code and return information such as a summary of the ingredients in a food item, along with when it was manufactured.

After that we could have smart phones reading Radio-frequency identification tags. Or perhaps the till receipts will contain barcodes which link each basket of goods to their point of sale database. By scanning the barcode with your device you could receive aggregate information on the health, environmental, and social impact of your entire shopping basket. The possibilities are endless.

So pulling it all together:

As the P&G research revealed, 75% of citizens would be prepared to make more ecologically responsible decisions if these decisions did not inconvenience them. Nowadays we have a wider choice of ecologically sound products readily available and at competitive prices. We just need to work out which products are ecologically sound and then find a way to put buyers into informed decisions at the time they plan or make their purchases.

To achieve this we are now able to link massive amounts of data together to build up Life Cycle Assessments and then spread this information using social networks and devices at the point of sale.

The combination of these four factors is creating what Daniel Goleman calls radical transparency. In my view this societal shift will make a key contribution to reversing the current process of environmental degradation. The question is – will it happen quick enough?

I wish you many hours of happy ecological shopping!

  1. 10 November, 2009 at 21:43

    Finally ! Well done. It is really helpful that people like share their personal views and commitment and spread the feeling that each one of us is a key actor in the various debates that you propose. I wish your ideas and your blog fruitful encounters with both like and non-like minded. The truth is in the debate at the collective level. Thanks for standing for your vision. It gives me and surely many others much strength and inspiration.

  2. 14 November, 2009 at 06:46


    I never thought that your first blog post would be on ‘shopping’! Still, a good read.

    A couple of thoughts I had from reading this:

    – a big question on whether ecological concern will ever reach its Tipping Point is whether it can become ‘cool to care’; I’m sure Malcolm Gladwell would have lots to say on what would require the Tipping Point to be reached (connectors, mavens and salesmen, etc. in his brilliant book), but the statistics you show suggest that we might have to wait; things like Annie Leonard’s very engaging ‘Story of Stuff’ (and blogs like yours) can help in that

    – your quote that “… up to 75 percent will buy sustainable products if they have no adverse trade-offs like higher price and poorer performance” worries me – who are the 25% that despite there being no meaningful difference? (eg, on price or quality) still choose to buy a less ecologically sound product (isn’t that just negligence??). I am guilty of sometimes choosing a higher quality, or lower price product instead of the more ecological one, but all other things being consistent, I’ll of course choose the environmentally friendly option

    – earlier this week I was in Paris, and one day was given a joghurt for a take-out lunch – it came in a high-quality pottery jar, and when I asked what I was supposed to do with the jar afterwards, the response was “well, you can take it home with you if you want, but most people just chuck it – this isn’t Germany you know!”; this reminded me how varied the world’s response to the environmental challenge; aside from the economic cost of the nice jar, the environmental cost is unnecessarily raised (although I suppose it might be more degradable than plastic joghurt pots, the logistics cost of transporting all the heavy pottery jars must be high, as well as the resulting higher CO2 usage …) – all that aside, the joghurt was excellent!

    – I like the idea of ‘Breadcrumbs’ (IBM); I wonder if it will be a worldwide concept, or whether it will start in the US first; nevertheless, I think IBM’s “internet of things” concept could develop into some other interesting concepts also

    – I’d be interested to know how you calculated your CO2 usage (“7 tonnes”) – maybe that’s the material for a next blog post …


    • Tony O'Grady
      14 November, 2009 at 16:15

      When looking at ecological transparency from Gladwell’s ‘Tipping Point’ perspective, I see the ‘Maverns’ as being the people who pull together some of the original concepts (e.g. Daniel Goleman) as well as organisations that collate and present collective knowledge (e.g. GoodGuide). These ‘Maverns’ launch their ideas into the public arena with the help of social networks.

      The social networks allow the ‘Connectors’ to spread their messages throughout their respective networks using tweets and wall postings.

      And then some of the ‘Connectors’ within the social networks absorb these ideas and take on Salesperson roles by actively encouraging others to modify their behaviours. An example of a ‘Salesperson’ could be an employee influencing the company leadership to introduce ecological criteria into their public procurement tendering requirements. A ‘Salesperson’ could also be a child asking his or her parents why they don’t separate out the rubbish.

      I see ‘The Power of Context’ as having a mixed impact on ecology. On the one hand ecology, and in particular climate change, are by now well covered in the media so it is hard for citizens in the developed world not to be aware that there is a problem. On the other hand we as human beings have not developed the ability to sense the micro-changes that contribute to the large-scale ecological degradation. Goleman described the phenomena as follows: “Psychophysicists use the term ‘just noticeable difference’ to describe the merest amount of shift our sense can detect in sensory signals like pressure or volume. The ecological changes that signal impending danger are sub-threshold, too subtle to register in our sensory systems at all. We have no ready-made detectors for, nor instinctive responses to, these hazy sources of harm. The human brain adapted to spot dangers within its sensor field. But to survive today we must perceive threats that are beyond our thresholds for perception. We must make the invisible visible”. Put another way – some say that climate change is happening too fast but at the same time its happening too slow for many individuals to notice it.

      I’m less clear on how ‘The Stickiness Factor’ comes into play. Some of the applications such as Skin Deep and GoodGuide have something catchy about them, but they need to be easier and quicker to use if they are to increase their Stickiness.

      I suspect that the residual 15% from P&G’s research are people who simply do not have ecology on their radar screens. This could come from being stuck in an egocentric stage of personal development or because their life conditions don’t allow for much else. For example you are a single parent, without work, with no savings and facing an eviction notice, you may not be overly concerned about ecology. You simply have other needs to attend to. These are certainly not people who would come to consider the ecological impact of high-quality pottery jars in Paris.

      To measure my own carbon footprint I have put together a spreadsheet that adds up the impact from heating, electricity, petrol and flights. The calculations are based on rough assumptions that I picked up on the internet. For example I apply a different CO2/kilometer factor depending on whether it was a short, medium or long-range flight. This is an attempt to factor in the impact of take-offs, which is where a disproportional amount of kerosene is burnt. The formula doesn’t take into account how many seats were occupied or whether it’s a newer aircraft built with lighter composite materials and more fuel efficient engines. But it is good enough to tell me that I should focus more on reducing flights than turning off my computer monitor rather than leaving it in standby mode.



  3. 21 November, 2009 at 11:35

    Just felt like posting this one here

    It gives some perspectives. Polution, consumerism or vision…do not know but worth reflecting about.

  4. Declan
    9 May, 2010 at 23:38


    have just browsed your blogs. Great reading. I am a long way behind, but want to catch up!


  1. 9 November, 2009 at 05:37
  2. 9 November, 2009 at 07:28

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