Daniel Goleman's Ecological IntelligenceFeel good about that organic cotton T-shirt you bought? Don’t. Sure, your T-shirt may mean less pesticide pollution, but you’re ignoring all the other horrible ecological impacts of your “quasi-green T-shirt.”

That’s what Daniel Goleman of Emotional Intelligence fame writes in his latest book, Ecological Intelligence: How Knowing the Hidden Impacts of What We Buy Can Change Everything. “To tout a product as green on the basis of a single attribute — while ignoring numerous negative impacts — parallels a magician’s sleight of hand,” Daniel says. He wants you to know your organic cotton T-shirt required 2700 liters of water to grow — a thirst that’s creating ecological disaster in some areas. Don’t forget also that “simply tilling the soil has its own ecosystem impact” — and that the impacts don’t end at the farm:

Cotton yarn gets bleached, dyed, and finished with industrial chemicals that include chromium, chlorine, and formaldehyde, each toxic in its own way. What’s worse, cotton resists absorbing dye, and a large amount rinses off into factory wastewater, which can end up in local rivers and groundwater. Some commonly used textile dyes harbor carcinogens….
Depressed yet? I was. The beginning of Ecological Intelligence is a barrage of discomfiting assertions, with Daniel portraying many would-be ethical consumers as ensconced in a “green bubble,” lulled by “comforting cover stories.”

Despite its rather hardline beginning, however, Ecological Intelligence is an optimistic book. In fact, perhaps Daniel’s more stringent eco standards for T-shirts and everything else points to the fact that the consumer marketplace has, in fact, gotten greener overall — allowing us to set higher goals and standards, demand even more eco-friendly products, dream greener dreams.

“We are past the day when one or two virtuous qualities of a product qualify it as green,” Daniel writes. “Green is a proces, not a status — we need to think of ‘green’ as a verb, not an adjective.” After all, in an age where bargain-priced organic cotton T-shirts can be found everywhere from Wal-Mart to Forever 21, shouldn’t we set higher standards for what we consider a green T-shirt?

Of course, figuring out whether one organic T-shirt’s greener than another is no simple business. Making that evaluative task easier for the average person is what Daniel believes will allow us to drastically change the consumer marketplace — and consequently, the ecological health of ourselves and our world. “We need to master a new kind of math to answer these questions, one that spells out the consequences of our everyday choices and purchases more deeply than ever before,” Daniel writes. Get that math right and we’ll have radical transparency about the environmental impacts every product that’ll help consumers confidently make better choices without having to wait for government regulation or for companies to green their own products.

The problem right now, Daniel says, is an “overall lack of authoritative indicators.” However, websites and applications like Good GuideSkin Deep, and Climate Counts are crunching data to help consumers to make better choices. Daniel also highlights many more initiatives that are in the works. Therein lies the heart of Ecological Intelligence, which argues that by making such eco-comparable data easily accessible and understandable to the general public, we can, indeed, bypass greenwashing and hype and put our dollars towards changing the world.

Thus the book with the downer beginning ends in optimism. Are Daniel’s predictions in fact too optimistic? We’ll soon find out. In the meantime,it’s up to you to set your own high standards for your next organic cotton T-shirt.

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