Making the Right Choice as a Consumer

Daniel Goleman says the key to becoming a socially engaged consumer is to be mindful at the moment we’re deciding whether to buy something. Knowing the full range of its impacts is one of the best things we can do for ourselves and for the Earth.

Daniel Goleman1 March 2010
Composite of photos by Lasse Keistensen (right) Ilia Scherbakov (left) /Dreamstime.

Daniel Goleman says the key to becoming a socially engaged consumer is to be mindful at the moment we’re deciding whether to buy something. Knowing the full range of its impacts is one of the best things we can do for ourselves and for the Earth.

Mindful shopping is a potentially important practice, a socially engaged act that could collectively help us save the world from its greatest threat: us.

It seems likely that if we practice mindfulness, we will become more in tune with our world ecologically. We will get more in touch with our actual needs and will be driven less by our desires. As a result, we will consume less and decrease our overall impact on the environment. But I think there is a level of mindfulness, or ecological intelligence, that goes beyond just decreasing our acquisitiveness. It relates to what happens when we buy something. So the question is, When we consume, how can we consume more mindfully?

The key step in socially engaged shopping is to be mindful in the moment we’re about to make a decision about whether to buy something, rather than going through the store in our usual trance. At the very point of buying, we need to pay attention, rather than act on impulse. Our mindfulness can then allow us to take in the bigger picture.

To become mindful shoppers, we need to start by reviewing some of our common unexamined perceptions and paradigms, beginning with our way of thinking about “stuff”—the material things we buy, use, and throw away every day. Turning our minds to stuff and how we use it opens a vast opportunity for practice that, to my knowledge, few of us have taken advantage of.

One of my favorite Buddhist teachings is the metaphor of the chariot. It asks, Where is the chariot? Is it in its wheels and axle? Is it in the spokes? Is it in the poles that connect it to the horse and the frame? In the carriage? The answer is that the chariot is found in none of these. It is nowhere. The chariot is an illusion. It’s not a thing ; it’s a process. The chariot is just a frozen moment in time when those parts come together. It’s one moment in a long history of each of those parts, and each of them will continue in some way after the chariot is no longer used.

This ancient metaphor shows us the very kind of shift we need to make in thinking about the things we buy and use. We’re not buying products. We’re participating in a process that started often long before the moment of purchase. The modern version of the metaphor of the chariot can be found in a very technical, but nonetheless extremely relevant field called industrial ecology. It is a discipline carried out by chemists, engineers, physicists, and other scientific researchers who look in a very fine-grained way at the life history of a consumable and break it down into the discrete steps that result in the product that you and I buy at our neighborhood store, mall, car dealership, or restaurant.

Take the example of a drinking glass. If you did what industrial ecologists call a life-cycle assessment, you would find that there are 1,959 discrete steps in the life of an average drinking glass. It begins with all the processes involved in the extraction of raw materials and continues through various manufacturing, transportation, and retail processes, culminating in our use and disposal. Each step of the way can be examined to determine the myriad impacts of the glass on the environment, in the form of emissions to the air, water, and soil; contribution to greenhouse gases; the energy tied up in it; its embodied toxicity; its embodied water, etc. Industrial ecologists look at every angle and determine the ecological impact of each step in the life of the glass. The sum total gives you a kind of karmic score for the glass, the debt to nature that you take on when you buy it.

When we begin to understand things in this more global way, it challenges what we tend to think of and call “green.” It’s often a mirage. An organic cotton T-shirt may be called green because they didn’t use pesticides or chemical fertilizers when growing the cotton. That’s on the good side of the ledger, to be sure, but if we look into the life cycle of the T-shirt, we discover that organic cotton fibers are shorter than other fibers, so you need to grow a lot more cotton per T-shirt. Cotton is typically raised in arid parts of the world, and it’s a very thirsty crop, so a lot of water is implicated in the production of the T-shirt.

Also, if it’s a colored T-shirt, we have to take into account that textile dyes tend to be carcinogenic. When we consider all these angles, we may come to see that if you change one thing about a product and leave 999 unchanged, it’s not green. It’s just a little bit greener.

Understanding the life cycle in this way is a means of directing our contemplative mind to the true impact involved in our buying decisions. It offers us a lens on the karmic weight of any given object. Therefore, it’s a way of helping us buy in a more socially engaged way, in a way that takes more responsibility for our impacts.

Another ancient metaphor from the Buddhist tradition can also help shed light on what’s involved in becoming a mindful shopper. It’s known as Indra’s net. At each connection point in this infinite web is a jewel, and each jewel reflects every other jewel in the web. Everything is interconnected and everything is reflected in every other thing. Nothing is totally independent.

That view of interconnectedness can help us understand the supply chain: a company gets its stuff from such and such a place, which gets components from other places, which employs immigrants from yet other places. The history of any given item likely extends throughout the world. It can also make us rethink what local really means. Some researchers, for example, did a life-cycle analysis on locally grown tomatoes in Montreal. It showed that the seeds were developed in France, grown in China, then flown to Ontario, where the seeds were sprouted. The sprouts were trucked to Montreal, sold in a nursery, planted, and sold as local. Apart from asking how green is green, then, we also need to ask how local is local.

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 ( and the Association for Contemplative Mind in Higher Education ( Daniel Goleman’s audio conversations on ecological awareness can be heard at

Daniel Goleman

Daniel Goleman

Daniel Goleman, Ph.D., is the author of Emotional Intelligence and Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships. Working as a science journalist, Goleman reports on the brain and behavioral sciences for The New York Times.