Friday, May 8, 2009

10 Things I Learned About Ecological Intelligence

Psychologist Dan Goleman (“Emotional Intelligence”) and Stonyfield Farm Yogurt CEO Gary Hirshberg got together at the Y this past week to talk about new ways to think about being green -- focusing mostly on businesses and consumers. Below are a few things I learned from their talk, but you can read more in their new books, “Ecological Intelligence: How Knowing the Hidden Impacts of What We Buy Can Change Everything,” and “Stirring It Up: How to Make Money and Save the World.”

1) Walmart is progressive. Apple? Not so much. A lot is changing ecologically in the corporate world – businesses are starting to realize the consumer demand for responsible, green products – and respond to it. I’ve been boycotting Walmart since seeing “The High Cost of Low Price” a few years ago, so I was surprised to learn that Walmart is actually very high on the list of top companies that are changing their policies to become more green – and pressuring their suppliers to do the same. Apple, which has a very progressive image, is not at all green.

2) The goal is to “eat the cup”. Recycling is at the wrong end of the green chain. Rather than focusing on recycling waste, we need to think about producing less of it, which means buying less. The negative impact of what we buy usually overshadows any green activities that we do post consumption. Demand less packaging, greener (compostable, even edible!) packaging and more options to buy in bulk.

3) Soil replacement is key. Did you know that there is 50% less topsoil available for growing now than there was when America was discovered? The soil is being depleted -- use of nitrogen fertilizers creates runoff that kills off the estuaries and hurts the ecosystem. Practices like burning sugar cane fields put carbon into the air and wipe out organisms that contribute to soil fertility. Agribusiness needs to come up with inventive organic ways to build up soil without chemical fertilizers.

4) There are more obese people than simply overweight. Our nation has moved from being mostly overweight with a few obese people, to being mostly obese with a few who are overweight. 64% fall into one of these categories, the highest percentage ever. The way food is marketed in our country has had a big impact on this statistic.

5) We need to re-think waste and the myth of “away” (a neighboring state?) where we send it. Stonyfield farm created an anaerobic waste treatment plant that produces a gas that helps power their manufacturing. Although it was expensive to build, it ended up saving them half a million dollars a year.

6) Toxins are everywhere. Dan shocked us with the fact that a typical baby is born with 287 toxins, half of them being known carcinogens. This number has almost doubled in the last decade. Companies like Ikea are demanding formaldehyde and flame-retardant free materials. (But I still can’t find my daughter a flame retardant free cotton nightgown in any of the 167 stores in my local mall!) Many toxic chemicals that would no longer be approved are still in use because policy has ‘grandfathered’ them in.

7) We can find better choices at every price point. The green, organic products aren’t always the most expensive. Organic sugar is beginning to match white sugar in price because there is increased consumer demand and responsible business practices have proved themselves cost effective. Websites like can help you find a better product, whatever your budget.

8) Local is not always greener. Gary talked about an organic powdered milk from New Zealand that was obtained from grass fed cattle. A typical product has hundreds of industrial steps that impact the environment in some way. Consumers should demand that companies be more transparent about these steps and the carbon footprint of each of them.

9) The U.S. & China need to get together. Together, we create 42 percent of the world’s CO-2. A carbon tax isn’’t politically viable, but some kind of incentives for businesses should be put in place. China isn’t likely to sign on to any emission reduction targets unless the U.S. follows suit.

10) Nature inspires efficient design. Gary talked about how engineers, architects and designers can look to nature for ideas on how to design green buildings and products. Termite mounds have inspired efficient temperature regulation systems in buildings. Trains and planes are sometimes made like a bird’s beak to cut down on wind resistance. Molllusks take carbon out of the atmosphere to form their shells. How can we use this idea to our advantage?

Above all, the talk emphasized that as consumers, we need to investigate. It’s always good to research your purchases, but even better to avoid making them in the first place. When you do need to buy, here are some places to start:

Goodguide - ratings of natural, green and healthy products
Skindeep - cosmetics safety reviews and database
Climate Counts - vote for responsible companies with your dollars
Caring Consumer - find cruelty-free companies and products


Anonymous said...

Great post! Very thought provoking. I hope we really are on a course of progress now with the new administration.

our friend Ben said...

Great post, but geez, Jen! Wal-Mart?! I don't know. Maybe it's greener, but it's still driving all the diverse, independent little local businesses out. I'd rather see Mom & Pop standing proud in their own store than working as Wal-Mart greeters! And nobody needs to tell me that our soil is eroding---all I have to do is walk to the back of my property and see how the soil line drops a foot where it meets the farm behind! Y...I...K...E...S!!!!!

Joanne said...

It seems like we're becoming more and more aware of green options, a good thing! I love the idea of getting green ideas for products and buildings by observing nature, the root of all green. I would think it's the best place to begin looking for ideas.

Have a wonderful Mother's Day weekend!

Pam J. said...

Thanks for this (and BTW, I'm envious that you either work at the 92nd St Y or you have good contacts there). Another excellent book on this subject, and a very non-preachy one, is "Confessions of an Eco-Sinner" by Fred Pearce. I almost didn't read b/c the title sounded like I was in for a scolding. But the author is very non-judgmental.

tina said...

So right about reducing waste in the beginning of the 'consume' cycle, instead of the end. Very important.

JGH said...

wormandflowers, I hope so too. And I hope that the way we are perceived overseas changes soon also!

I know Ben -- I'm not quite ready to start shopping at Walmart again, but it is good to know that the many people who do will be a little greener now!

Joanne, hope you have a wonderful Mother's Day, too.

Pam, I do work at the Y and have for 17 years. Hope you can visit sometime! I'll keep an eye out for that book.

Tina, so right -- we should figure out some better ways to package stuff. Recyclable is good, but reusable containers are what we need! Wouldn't it be great to bring a container to the store and put the cheerios in it ourselves. I know food co-ops are doing this but it needs to become more mainstream.

Anonymous said...

Some people think that when NC started focusing on our dwindling snail population that we'd gone off the deep end. But it's just for the reasons you mentioned above--responsibility.

I love my state for the active roll it has taken to stop damaging run-off, clean up the waters and bring back the snails--who feed the birds and attract more wildlife, and attempt to find alternative fuel sources.

We're also developing a bio based soil replenisher so tired soil is made whole. Lots on the horizon in NC. It's driving our tourist dollars. Apparantly---folks like to visit a clean place!

Excellent post and very well written.

Brigit said...

Great post. We live rurally and have to pay for a private contractor for rubbish removal and have to take the recycling in to town. So as consumers the pressure is on to be very careful and conscious of what we buy. But where is the pressure on the manufacturer? There is sooo much excess packaging.