I recently read Daniel Goleman’s “Ecological Intelligence. How Knowing the Hidden Impacts of What We Buy can Change Everything.”. I’ve been interested in the idea of transparency or what Goleman calls “radical transparency” that mobiles connected to databases on health, social and ecological effects of products can bring to how we think about consumers and markets. As readers of this blog are aware, I’m not very enthusiastic about the use of the word consumer and find it overly burdened with cliches and short on analytical insight on actually existing subjectivities in the marketplace. I find Andrew Barry’s work that provides insights into the development of “technological citizenship” or Adriana Petryna’s work on “biocitizenship” quite relevant to many things going on in the sustainability movement despite what the market researchers say. Goleman’s book does not delve into the politics of sustainability but he has some insights into how the platforms that foster radical transparency may work in the near future.
Pointing to the complexities of doing Life Cycle Assessments of products and the challenge of dealing with multiple framings of these assessments, Goleman, is interested in how we can get the right level of information to consumers at the right time so that consumption behaviors change and produce outcomes. Industrial ecologists who work in the area of LCA such as Dara O’Rourke, the founder of GoodGuide.com, are leading the charge in this arena through the creation of platforms that are capable of collecting the most important data and then finding ways to lower the costs of information access. Goleman quotes Nobel economist George Stigler who pointed out that information has a price and that is the “cost” of searching for it. When you’re looking at the impact of a product on the environment, the social costs of global supply chains or sorting through the health data on every component of a consumer product these costs remain extremely high, unless you have a Good Guide to do this work for you. GoodGuide.com currently has information on over 70,000 products that comes from hundreds of databases with over 80 million bits of information. Good Guide now has an iPhone ap that enables consumers to retrieve ratings of products as well as make lists based on the filters-social, ecological and/or health-that they prefer. They’re looking to the next generation of the service that will rely more heavily on sensors (RFID) and automatically alerts the shopper to the status of a product or an alternative route that analyzes one’s credit card purchases. While platforms and approaches may vary, the point is that new forms of transparency are making their way into the marketplace so that citizen-consumers will find it increasingly easy to consume through whatever normative filters they chose.
Some of the other chapters focus on the work of neuroeconomics and the experience of shopping, factors that Goleman claims need to be considered beyond just the provision of information or addressing information asymmetries for ecological outcomes to arise out of services such as GoodGuide.com. These platforms are proliferating with cosmetic examples such as Skin Deep and the Hannaford supermarket chain’s Guiding Stars nutritional guide (or see Adam Drewnowski’s Nutrient Rich system).
One of the key insights about the success of these platforms speaks to the criticism I have of the use of the word consumer. O’Rourke and others see the scaling up of these platforms as likely to work through engagement with small communities of activists and people passionate about a cause. He interviews Harvard’s Archon Fung who points out that the first and second generation transparency efforts were largely regulated approaches, or top-down. Third generation, as seen in Good Guide, are driven by vigilant, active consumers, or citizens as I would have it. This need not be an adversarial, hostile relationship either. Progressive companies can engage with these citizens and innovate through engagement with feedback. I would add that many of the current clean tech/green business innovations are precisely this form of innovation–through an engagement with activist and critical discourses that were once adversarial in nature but companies adopting a more constructivist/open approach who actually embraced permeable boundaries of the firm stand a better chance of innovating.
Goleman argues that while we see many examples of consumers exhibiting purely price sensitive shopping patterns that this will begin to change as these transparency platforms continue to grow and this will have profound effects on industries dependent on industrial chemicals. The chemical industry has a very different perspective on toxicity than consumers, particularly consumers demanding more access to data on the environment and their health, ie. biocitizens. And it is getting easier to find other biocitizens sharing your values and to amplify one’s voice. One of the key disruptors in development is Earthster, a B2B, free, open-source, web-based program that enables businesses to obtain a snapshot of their LCA-supply chains. This enables businesses to benchmark themselves against industry averages. Here information becomes power for purchasers who can use this data as leverage with suppliers. The public sector can use this data to combine efforts to exert more power in the marketplace. In essence, you have a data commons for LCA that becomes the market maker! There will be tremendous opportunities for companies able to take advantage of this information and drive disruptive innovation.
I’ll close with an idea. What would this look like in the health space, one that is notorious for information asymmetries and irrational pricing. What if we brought together the right mix of collaborators to develop the radical transparency platform for healthcare and work with employers tired of paying more and getting less in return? Not one purely focused on hospital reveiews and rates but one that focused on performance around prevention or who keeps people healthy? Who would benefit and who would lose? The beneficiaries of the current dysfunction would have much to fear….Now, listen to the hisses of the policy wonks who can tell us again, why it wouldn’t work…..