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Lions Roar : March 2010
60 SHAMBHALA SUN MARCH 2010 That view of interconnectedness can help us understand the sup- ply chain: a company gets its stuff from such and such a place, which gets components from other places, which employs immigrants from yet other places. The history of any given item likely extends throughout the world. it can also make us rethink what local really means. some researchers, for example, did a life-cycle analysis on locally grown tomatoes in Montreal. it showed that the seeds were developed in france, grown in China, then flown to ontario, where the seeds were sprouted. The sprouts were trucked to Montreal, sold in a nurs- ery, planted, and sold as local. Apart from asking how green is green, then, we also need to ask how local is local. Considering the scope of the life cycle for any given item, and the vast interconnectedness of the supply chain, may make the shopping decision seem overwhelming and daunting, but we are not alone in our efforts to become mindful, socially engaged consumers. We can get help. There now is a way to know the relative ecological mer- its and demerits of many competing products through a website and an iphone app called goodguide, started by an independent group at the university of California at Berkeley. it aggregates 200 databases and compares 60,000-plus consumer items—toys, foods, personal care products, and so on. They’re adding new categories continuously. This kind of tool helps us to pay attention to the kar- mic virtues of one competing choice versus another. even Wal-Mart has announced that it wants to develop a sus- tainability index for all its products. it may take four or five years for this concept to reach the shelves of Wal-Mart and other retailers, but if it becomes an industry standard it will make it easier to be a mindful shopper. Another wonderful resource that’s avail- able now is skin deep, a web database that reports on toxic chemicals in personal care products. skin deep looks at the fifty differ- ent ingredients in a given shampoo through the lens of a medical database, and sees if there are any negative findings. it then ranks the products in terms of safety. one of the lowest on the list was one of the most expen- sive. even though it had a greenish looking label and a botanical name, its ingredients were really bad. That moment when we are about to be drawn in by the label and the name—the buy- ing moment—is critical. As a psychologist, i would call mindfulness at that moment “look- ing into the back story.” it means looking into it down into the discrete steps that result in the product that you and i buy at our neighborhood store, mall, car dealership, or restaurant. Take the example of a drink- ing glass. if you did what industrial ecologists call a life-cycle assessment, you would find that there are 1,959 discrete steps in the life of an average drinking glass. it begins with all the processes involved in the extraction of raw materials and continues through various manufacturing, transportation, and retail processes, culminating in our use and disposal. each step of the way can be examined to determine the myriad impacts of the glass on the environment, in the form of emissions to the air, water, and soil; contribution to greenhouse gases; the energy tied up in it; its embodied toxicity; its embodied water, etc. industrial ecologists look at every angle and determine the ecological impact of each step in the life of the glass. The sum total gives you a kind of karmic score for the glass, the debt to nature that you take on when you buy it. When we begin to understand things in this more global way, it challenges what we tend to think of and call “green.” it’s often a mirage. An organic cotton T-shirt may be called green because they didn’t use pesticides or chemical fertilizers when growing the cotton. That’s on the good side of the ledger, to be sure, but if we look into the life cycle of the T-shirt, we discover that organic cot- ton fibers are shorter than other fibers, so you need to grow a lot more cotton per T-shirt. Cotton is typically raised in arid parts of the world, and it’s a very thirsty crop, so a lot of water is implicated in the production of the T-shirt. Also, if it’s a colored T-shirt, we have to take into account that textile dyes tend to be carcino- genic. When we consider all these angles, we may come to see that if you change one thing about a product and leave 999 unchanged, it’s not green. it’s just a little bit greener. understanding the life cycle in this way is a means of directing our contemplative mind to the true impact involved in our buying deci- sions. it offers us a lens on the karmic weight of any given object. Therefore, it’s a way of helping us buy in a more socially engaged way, in a way that takes more responsibility for our impacts. Another ancient metaphor from the Bud- dhist tradition can also help shed light on what’s involved in becoming a mindful shopper. it’s known as indra’s net. At each connection point in this infinite web is a jewel, and each jewel re- flects every other jewel in the web. everything is interconnected and everything is reflected in ev- ery other thing. nothing is totally independent. The moment you realize the bigger picture surrounding your purchase, you are led to a more mindful buying decision. Daniel Goleman is an inter- nationally known psychologist and science journalist. His seminal book emotional intelligence inspired new ways of thinking about emotion, suc- cess, and human nature. This essay is based on his new book, ecological intelligence: The hidden impacts of What We Buy. phoToByfrAnkWArd