Greening, Greenwashing, LCAs, Chariots and Radios

Greening, Greenwashing, LCAs, Chariots and Radios


The second in a series reviewing Daniel Goleman's Ecological Intelligence discusses the concepts of Life Cycle Assessments, greenwashing, using "green" as a verb, and the applicability of ancient conceptions of complex objects to greening.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009 - 11:00am


I find myself wanting to quibble with Goleman. Maybe it's because I've cast myself as a "book reviewer" and I'm under some obligatory contentiousness. Or maybe I'm just argumentative by nature -- but when Goleman introduces the subject of Life Cycle Assessment (more on LCA later) by the ancient chariot story and concludes that the chariot is merely an illusion, I'm in full quibble mode.

The Visudhimagga, a 5th century Indian text, we are told, poses a riddle: "precisely where is what we call a 'chariot' located? Is it in the axles, wheels, the frame?" The answer is "nowhere" since what we mean by "chariot" is a mere temporary arrangement of its components: "It's an illusion." Until it runs over you; then your pain says "that was no illusion."

I prefer the representation of synergy presented by George Leonard in Mastery. Leonard uses the example of the radio, another amalgam of parts, to suggest that the schematics of the radio are every bit are "real" as the functioning radio (and better in the sense that schematics are easier to modify and more effective at transmitting the details of the notion). And, if the schematics are as real as the radio, then the idea of the radio is also as real.  For LCA, there is power in Leonard's presentation.

Every product we purchase is comprised of many components, each with its own set of industrial processes for extraction, synthesis, packaging, shipping, combining, and disposal. Each process for each component has a measurable environmental impact.  For the glass jar for pasta sauce, for example, there are 1,959 distinct component processes. For the Zulu baskets offered by Elegant Roots, for example, there are far fewer; there is the native grasses harvested by hand, the ilala palm leaves harvested by hand, the fruit and vegetable dyes harvested locally, yes, by hand, and there is the hand weaving -- all accomplished in the weaver's locale. Of course, the one-of-a-kind museum quality basket by Laurentia Dlamini exists in another category from mass produced glass pasta sauce jars. The same is true for the hand-brushed yak down, hand-knitted into a soothingly soft, undyed baby hoodie by Shokay.

For industrial products, though, the LCA can show us the true effects of what we buy and use. Even recycling warrants scrutiny, simply so we see the effects of how we're doing things. If LCA information were available to all of us, we'd see that "green" and "eco-friendly" are charged terms. "Greenwashing" is the labeling a product "green" by focusing on only a single, or very few, of the hundreds or thousands of a product's component processes.

The danger of Greenwashing, Goleman suggests, is that we are lulled into thinking we've done all we need to do if we buy an organic cotton t-shirt. That's paternalistic. And it makes the good the enemy of the perfect. Just give us the information, we can deal with it. This fear is, "don't feel good about what you're doing because it can never be enough."  But every little thing we do when multiplied by a billion makes a difference. And feeling good about doing one thing, under the principles of positive reinforcement, should encourage us to do more good things -- feeling good is a strong positive reinforcer, so we will repeat the behavior. So, hey, feel good all the time.

Want to feel even better, buy organic cotton shirts for baby that are not bleached or dyed. EvokeBaby's Grow with Me Set

Buy Less But Buy Better. That's the motto at ElegRoo.

I'm finished quibbling with Goleman. Let's end on a note of complete agreement: "Green" is best used as a verb. "Green is a process not a status." We've got to be thinking about "greening" every step in a product's value chain.




Rob Favole
Elegant Roots