Joel Makower and Daniel Goleman‘s debate in Joel’s recent column on the likely effect of how “unfettered information about the environmental impacts of our world (will) smoke out the bad guys and help the good guys win,” is a wonderful and critically important dialogue.

As a huge fan of radical transparency, I eagerly read the exchange between Joel and Daniel, which I’ll summarize below:

Goldman writes in Ecological Intelligence,

“Psychologists conventionally view intelligence as residing within an individual. But the ecological abilities we need in order to survive today must be a collective intelligence, one that we learn and master as a species, and that resides in a distributed fashion among far-flung networks of people. The challenges we face are too varied, too subtle, and too complicated to be understood and overcome by a single person: their recognition and solution require intense efforts by a vastly diverse range of experts, businesspeople, activists — by all of us.”

“Radical transparency promises to create a marketplace mechanism that takes the consequence of shoppers’ choices to scale: each individual purchase, aggregated with all the others, becomes tantamount to votes on the nature of the goods they buy. As businesses respond by making more of the improvements that shoppers want, shoppers can feel empowered by seeing that their ethical choices matter.”

Joel responds,

“Like Goleman, I am a steadfast believer in the power of transparency: the more we know, the smarter decisions we can make. But I’m more skeptical than Goleman about how willing and able consumers are to actually harness such information to make changes in the way they shop and live. At least, not at the scale and speed needed to transform the marketplace toward one that embraces sustainability, in all its many forms.

“Here’s what I see as the central flaw in Goleman’s case: While he is correct in stating that the complexity and sheer number of products and manufacturing processes requires the collective intelligence of the global village, actual shopping choices are still made at the individual level. And it’s here that saving the Earth often takes a back seat to simply saving the day.

“In reality, this positive feedback loop hasn’t worked very well. On the one hand, when it comes to green business practices, many companies are walking more than they’re talking — that is, they’re making more green improvements than they’re taking credit for. One reason is that many of their green achievements are about “doing less bad” — using fewer toxic ingredients, creating less waste — which are tough stories to tell. Moreover, a lot of their most significant efforts don’t end up directly in the products or packaging — they’re embedded in their suppliers, perhaps far upstream — or aren’t part of the value proposition for those products. (If I’m buying potato chips, should I care that the potato processors are recycling their rinse water, thus saving millions of gallons of water and hundreds of thousands of dollars a year? Or do I just want a salty, crunchy underpinning for my guacamole dip?)”

So I must disagree with Joel (nothing new here). While we are just beginning to see the fruits of the emerging trend towards radical transparency, a) the trend is unstoppable, b) far too few companies have even begun to pursue it to make a judgment, c) disclosure that you are creating less waste has nothing to do with radical transparency, and d) over the next decade it will completely reshape the behavior of consumers. The failure of this trend to have fully manifested itself is not proof that the trend won’t continue to emerge.

The trend toward radical transparency is at the very foundation of what separates Seventh Generation from its competitors. Combine our commitment to transparency with our commitment to operating our business according to a higher standard and you have one of the most important clues to our success.

Please take the time to check out the complete dialogue.

Daniel Goleman recently sent me a copy of his new book, Ecological Intelligence: How Knowing the Hidden Impacts of What We Buy Can Change Everything, which is next on my reading list.

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