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Making the Right Choice

DANIEL GOLEMAN says the key to becoming a socially engaged consumer is to be mindful at the moment we’re deciding whether to buy something. Knowing the full range of its impacts is one of the best things we can do for ourselves and for the Earth.

Mindful shopping is a potentially important practice, a socially engaged act that could collectively help us save the world from its greatest threat: us.

It seems likely that if we practice mindfulness, we will become more in tune with our world ecologically. We will get more in touch with our actual needs and will be driven less by our desires. As a result, we will consume less and decrease our overall impact on the environment. But I think there is a level of mindfulness, or ecological intelligence, that goes beyond just decreasing our acquisitiveness. It relates to what happens when we buy something. So the question is, When we consume, how can we consume more mindfully?

The key step in socially engaged shopping is to be mindful in the moment we’re about to make a decision about whether to buy something, rather than going through the store in our usual trance. At the very point of buying, we need to pay attention, rather than act on impulse. Our mindfulness can then allow us to take in the bigger picture.

To become mindful shoppers, we need to start by reviewing some of our common unexamined perceptions and paradigms, beginning with our way of thinking about “stuff”—the material things we buy, use, and throw away every day. Turning our minds to stuff and how we use it opens a vast opportunity for practice that, to my knowledge, few of us have taken advantage of.

One of my favorite Buddhist teachings is the metaphor of the chariot. It asks, Where is the chariot? Is it in its wheels and axle? Is it in the spokes? Is it in the poles that connect it to the horse and the frame? In the carriage? The answer is that the chariot is found in none of these. It is nowhere. The chariot is an illusion. It's not a thing ; it's a process. The chariot is just a frozen moment in time when those parts come together. It's one moment in a long history of each of those parts, and each of them will continue in some way after the chariot is no longer used.

This ancient metaphor shows us the very kind of shift we need to make in thinking about the things we buy and use. We’re not buying products. We’re participating in a process that started often long before the moment of purchase. The modern version of the metaphor of the chariot can be found in a very technical, but nonetheless extremely relevant field called industrial ecology. It is a discipline carried out by chemists, engineers, physicists, and other scientific researchers who look in a very fine-grained way at the life history of a consumable and break 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 drinking 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 cotton 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 carcinogenic. 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 decisions. 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 Buddhist 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 reflects every other jewel in the web. Everything is interconnected and everything is reflected in every other thing. Nothing is totally independent.

That view of interconnectedness can help us understand the supply 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 nursery, planted, and sold as local. Apart from asking how green is green, then, we also need to ask how local is local.

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