All campaigns for change work on one basic premise. If people know what is good for them, they will choose it. But do consumer choices really work like this?
Daniel Goleman, a psychologist whose earlier book Emotional Intelligence was on the New York Bestseller list, turns his psychological understanding to the way consumers make choices, in the book Ecological Intelligence.
The lack of information about products we consume is misleading he says, pointing out that in most cases manufacturers that do give out details limit them to what sells.
All life species are born with a range of abilities that allow them to survive in their natural environments. This natural intelligence varies as their skills and abilities vary but the aim of it is survival in the wild. Goleman points out that humans have all but lost such an ecological intelligence which we may have had before ‘civilisation’ disconnected us.
To survive now, without our intuitive intelligence, we need information. But where intuition can work with multiple data simultaneously, processing it and coming to a usable conclusion, the rational mind will need this data to come externally and also needs help to analyse it.
In a world increasingly filled with toxic chemicals, such information has become almost a matter of life and death. Cancers caused by carcinogenic cosmetics, neural disorders by pesticides and birth defects in unborn babies are some of the impacts of these chemical products. Goleman says there are four ways that humans deal with knowing or not knowing, and this defines our levels of ignorance and information. What we know and how we talk about it and what we don’t know and how we talk about this too.
Misinformation by manufacturers about the products they put out into the markets confuse consumers and even if lengthy Latin names of chemicals are revealed it is almost impossible to understand wholly the impact of these chemicals.
Information technology will come to the rescue according to the author. The increasing connectedness between consumers through the world wide web will demand that companies become ‘radically transparent’, meaning that they openly share all the information demanded of them. This data when fed into a mobile application should make it easier for the consumer to compare apples with oranges and come to a quick decision. Happy or irate consumers can quickly send in feedback and alert other across the world. Such radical transparency when enforced by market demand will bring in a world of change believes Goleman. GoodGuide is one such application that seems to be answering this need for data analysis.
The Right to Information Act in India has definitely changed the way corporations or the government responds to demands for information by ordinary citizens. This was a radical change to the earlier monopoly held by companies but now is routine as more and more people enact this right to know.
Yet at a consumer level, will knowledge of what is ‘right’ ensure that consumers choose it? Will social and environmental concerns affect consumption of the masses in India who are simply happy to be able to afford a packet of milk, no matter who is selling it? Or does this apply only to ‘Price Sensitive Affluents’, people who can choose and have the financial luxury to do so?
Dr Vandana Shiva at a talk in Mumbai, pointed out a very key contradiction in the claim of the Indian government that using chemical pesticides allowed them to feed more people. It didn’t seem to matter that what they were feeding them was not food but equivalent to poison and has led to the deaths of thousands, she noted. For the poor villager, who cannot afford medicine it is even more imperative that what he eats does not make him sick, but nourishes him. Governments that are currently subsidising chemical fertilizers need to be shifting to ensuring that healthy food is supported and enable it to become affordable.
The ‘costs of virtue’ as Goleman calls them need not necessarily be high and health and environment safety are not the prerogative of the rich.
The benefits of such a radical transparency will be widespread says Goleman, since it will bring accountability and a pressure for change in companies. He cites the case of Coca Cola who were forced to review their hitherto ignorance of the water situation in villages they were making Coke in, such as Plachimada in Kerala. While the villagers suffered drought 10,000 bottles of Coca Cola were being shipped out every day from the same region. The irony of this situation hit them hard when villagers demanded that the plant be shut down and sales plummeted. Apparently when they turned to WWF to find a more viable solution for the situation, it was pointed out to them that the water used for growing the sugar they used was even larger in magnitude than the water used for bottling the Coke, nearly 200 plus litres of water went into making 1 liter of Coke.
How do companies respond to such revelations about the impacts their products are having on the environment and on people around them?
They can either go into denial, or open their minds to the fact that change is imperative. This change Goleman feels will be driven by the demand for full disclosure.
Yet to be able to integrate such a shift in paradigm, may cost millions of dollars and may question the basic premise of the company itself. When Al Gores father finally accepted that tobacco caused cancer, it was too late. He had lost his daughter to it. This shook him to the extent that he took the brave decision to shut down the tobacco factories after years of denial. But will all companies be able to do this?
While a new generation of entrepreneurs begins to build in social and environmental responsibility into their bottomlines, the aim is not just sustainability but restoration. ‘Restorative enterprises’ take nothing from the earth that cannot be replaced regenerated or recycled. Companies built in this way are nourished by transparency. Companies that are not solely focussed on present net value and who create long term benefit for the environment they work in and the world they cater to.
In the globalised world we have created, the entire supply chain will have to change. Pressure from large buyers in industries will avalanche a change in suppliers who compete for these orders and this lifts the bar for everyone along the chain.
And how does all this affect profit? One of the effects of such a paradigm shift in business is the savings it brings in its wake. Minimising packaging saves material costs and transportation costs, especially when half of the packet of cereal is usually just filled with air! The quality of products improves when there is a point source supply rather than when you buy off the trade markets.
A rupee saved is effectively a rupee earned.
Yet fundamentally the notion of profit that the current business scenario is working with, takes little note of the costs to the environment. Nature has highly subsidised industry and the moment you start building these costs into the final cost of the product, ‘profits’ dissolve substantially.
Are sustainability and profitability mutually exclusive or can they coexist in a radically transparent world? Can doing good lead to doing well for a business? Goleman believes this is possible if we ‘make goodness pay’. He feels that it would create markets where ethics, innovation and initiative are rewarded by growing sales.
Such markets balance power between manufacturers and consumers, allowing the consumer to decide, based on all the information it makes available, what kind of a world she wants to create. The book builds this vision, in the faith that an individual consumer when endowed with this power, will choose for a more compassionate world.