One large set of pressing problems our nation and the world face—ranging from growing rates of childhood asthma to global warming—stem in large part from a shared root cause: the cumulative impacts of our habits of consumption. The asthma and global warming, for example, both stem largely from the build-up in the air of particulates from the production (through, say, coal-burning power plants) of the energy we use in our homes and the exhaust of autos. Yet most of us make little or no connection between our own buying habits and concerns like our children's asthma or the warming of the planet.
The reason: Virtually none of us can give a precise answer to the question,"What are the impacts for health, the environment, our planet's resources, the gap between rich and poor, of the products we buy? The answers are potentially available, but now are hidden by a fog about the consequences for ourselves and the world of our own actions as consumers.
Yet the multiplier effect—the vast number of people who buy those same products—creates a vast network of inadvertent, adverse consequences. This goes on because we have little or no information about the hidden links between what we buy, and how it impacts our world, our health, our climate, our children. So those of us who complain about or suffer from these problems still continue to be part of their very cause.
My proposal: surface the hidden links between what we buy and the consequential impacts of those products. Then let consumers make choices based on this new information—in a sense,"voting" every time we purchase goods—and let the power of the free market, rather than government policy alone, become a force for improvement.
So, Mr. President, I urge you to deploy the forces necessary to fill in the hidden links between the goods we consume and their impact in the world. Then create a website that consumers could access at the point of purchase—perhaps by passing a palm pilot-like device over the barcode to get to the product-relevant area of the website.
That website should provide immediate data comparing a product to others in its category on any of several dimensions, such as working conditions in factories where components or the product was manufactured; wages (weighted for national norms, etc.); how much energy was used in producing and transporting the product to market; impact on the environment of its production (this alone involves multiple factors, from industrial byproducts like heavy metals and other toxins, to polluting micro-particles); and so on.
Ideally, consumers could determine which of such dimensions were most important in their personal decision to purchase, and so have a built-in logarithm that would pop out the best choices as they wander down the aisles of a store.
As we've seen in the diamond industry—with the industry wide effort to certify the source of diamonds to keep from market "blood" diamonds that finance corrupt regimes and civil wars in Africa—consumer preferences can become forces for social, political, environmental and economic good. But this can only be only true if consumers become aware of links that are now hidden.
Such transparency could alter the buying habits of substantial numbers of consumers, and so create a new marketing advantage for some companies. Ethically driven (or simply nimble) companies could find market advantage in becoming the"good guys" in their category, and so gain market share. This could then open up an entirely new arena for competition between companies, creating a financial incentive to find ways to improve the environmental; health, and other consequences of everything from their manufacturing processes to their wage structures.
Of course, gathering the required data poses a formidable task. It can begin modestly, focusing on the easier dimensions of information. But ultimately filling in the missing links could require a Manhattan Project-like intensity of research, that would draw on findings from fields as diverse as industrial engineering and sociology, environmental sciences and economics, biochemistry and systems theory. It might also require the creation of an impartial body to gather and vet the data—something like a mega-Consumer Reports. Perhaps a new cabinet post for transparency, Mr. President?
Author of the international bestsellers, Emotional Intelligence; Working with Emotional Intelligence; (with Boyatzis & McKee) Primal Leadership.