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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 merits 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 karmic virtues of one competing choice versus another.

Even Wal-Mart has announced that it wants to develop a sustainability 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 available now is Skin Deep, a web database that reports on toxic chemicals in personal care products. Skin Deep looks at the fifty different 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 expensive. 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 buying moment—is critical. As a psychologist, I would call mindfulness at that moment “looking into the back story.” It means looking into the ecological truths about the things we’re considering buying. One hair dye may have lead in it, while another doesn’t—that means something. One sun block might have a chemical that becomes a carcinogen if it is exposed to the sun. An “organic” dairy product might come from an industrial-strength dairy that employs some of the worst feedlot practices. The moment you realize the bigger picture surrounding your purchase, the moment you find your preference for a brand turning to disgust, you are led to a more mindful buying decision.

For example, I've taken to using a stainless steel water bottle rather than buying plastic bottles of water and then throwing them away. The new math of industrial ecology helps me to understand the impact of such a decision. If you bought a stainless steel bottle and used it only sparingly, from an ecological standpoint it would be better to buy the plastic, because the stainless steel is very ecologically intensive at first. The steel is made from a combination of pig iron, nickel, and chromium, all of which have to be mined or obtained from recycling. Also, raw chrome ore, it turns out, is itself a carcinogen, and tends to be mined in parts of the world such as Kazakhstan, South Africa, and India where the workers may not be well-protected. You have to calculate that into the karmic load of the stainless steel bottle.

However, if you use the bottle repeatedly, each time saving a disposable plastic bottle, the math will switch over in favor of the stainless at a certain point. At various points along the way, the ecotoxicity becomes less for the stainless, the greenhouse gases less, and so on. By five hundred or so uses, there is no measure left that favors the plastic bottle—including overall metal depletion, which is surprising for something made of metal. Where is any metal depleted in making a plastic bottle? The industrial ecologists include the metal used up in the machinery that manufactures the plastic, which gives us an idea of just how finely industrial ecologists make these measures.

By drawing on the ongoing work of industrial ecologists and using the guides and indexes that are increasingly available for products, we can become mindful shoppers, not only decreasing our acquisitiveness through mindfulness, but also taking into account the bigger picture when we do buy. I see three key steps to mindful shopping. Step one: pay attention to your impacts. Step two: buy the ecologically better product. Step three: share what you know as widely as you can. Any organized group could collectively improve their buying habits and create a broader impact.

To the extent that more people shop mindfully, it will have a telling impact on the market. Market share will shift toward the more ecologically virtuous products. Brand managers will pay attention, creating a virtuous cycle whereby our choices based on sound, transparent information shift the market. It will pay for companies to innovate, to change their practices, to go after our dollar by upgrading the ecological impacts of what they’re trying to sell us.

Finally, our mindful shopping habits could shift the debate within the corporate world about sustainability, which is stalled right now. Most voices for corporate social responsibility say that companies should pay attention to ecological impacts because it’s the morally and ethically correct thing to do. The counterargument is that the first duty of corporations is to their investors. But if doing good also becomes what is most economically advantageous, that debate will be over. They will make the better choice because we’ve made the better choice.

Adapted from “Mindful Shopping: How Smart Consumption Can Benefit Beings,” a “webinar” presented by Daniel Goleman based on his book Ecological Intelligence, and sponsored by the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society (www.contemplativemind.org) and the Association for Contemplative Mind in Higher Education (www.acmhe.org). Daniel Goleman’s audio conversations on ecological awareness can be heard at www.morethansound.net/index.php

Originally published in the March 2010 issue of the Shambhala Sun.



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