This is a glossed 2017 review of his essay originally published in The Mindfulness Revolution and edited by Barry Boyce with my comments added in brackets. Reading this text in 2021, I feel that the burden on the shoulders of consumers it to heavy. Goleman forgets that consumption is to a large extent driven by compulsive compensation. As long as our culture pushes individual members into isolation and competition, we need to expect such behavior.
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 do 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.
[One could of course argue that we should avoid consumption themed spaces altogether. Let’s be straight forward here: if I do not want to get bitten by a snake, I don’t step deliberately into a snake pit. A friend of mine from Vienna law school times has moved several years ago to the small village like town of Salzburg, where his wife practices medicine. He himself has changed his law job for a career as sheep shepherd reminding me of Daniel Sharma’s little book The Lawyer Who Sold His Ferrari. When we last met, he told me that he couldn’t imagine to live again in larger cities, because cities are just about consumption. What he likes most about his new profession is the productive aspect and being able to perceive the entire value chain of raising lambs and eventually delivering meat. Whether one is vegetarian or not, one has to agree there is something healthy about being productive rather then consumptive. Rearing sheeps and producing animal protein without antibiotics and growth hormones which is purchased by grateful clients is surely a sound productive act, which serves to me as just one example of how rural lifestyle choices can enable humanity to engage again in purposeful action. I would personally prefer such a lifestyle over being a frustrated urban vegan fashion designer; but that’s just my personal preference.]
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 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 often started 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 soul; the contribution to greenhouse gases; the energy tied up in it; its embodied toxicity; its embodied water, and so on. 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 the growers 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 on thing about a product and leave 999 unchanged, it’s not green. It’s perhaps a little bit greener.
Understanding the life cycle of products in this way is a means of directing our contemplative mind to the true impact involved in our buying decisions. It lets us know the karmic weight of any given object. Therefore, its’ a way of helping us buy in a more socially engaged way, in a way that takes more responsibility for our impacts.
[It is in particular complex industries like textiles, which are globalized and made up of several sub-industries that are far from transparent for the end consumer making it almost impossible to purchase mindfully in regard to products offered in traditional B2C sales channels. The social responsibility of manufacturers therefore seems to outweigh in some industries the possibilities of consumer empowerment. With about 2/3 of our global annual fiber consumption being supplied by crude oil turned into synthetic fiber, but only marginal volumes left for traditional fiber crops like hemp, jute or flax, we need to reassess the entire textile industry system and are as consumers forced to pretty radical decision which are not easy to take in a world of psychological peer pressure reinforced by the advertisement industry.]
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 place, which employs immigrants form 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 nee to ask, “How local is local?”
[The so-called practice of greenwashing has been established by many enterprises and government entities in order to sell inconvenient truths, as Al Gore would say. Whether Chinese eco-cities or IBM’s smarter planet campaign, most large scale organizations do engage in fraud campaigns of massive scale and are supported by two main allies: the financial and the advertising industries, which cash in the short term profits, but make the global ecosystem at large pay the debt, which continues to build up. I recommend to watch two documentaries hereon to understand the scope and scale of how this triangle of governments and large coorporations as contractors and financial service institutions like banks and global accounting firms and the advertising industries must be identified as the main crooks in a sick profit driven system.]
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 is now a way to know the relative ecological merits and demerits of many competing products through a website and an iPhone app called Good Guide, started by an independent group at the University of California – 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 competitive choice versus another.
Even Walmart 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 Walmart and other retailers, but if it becomes an industry standard, it will make it easier to be a mindful shopper.
[Such an approach despite it good intention seems to be completely unrealistic; if large trading and wholesale companies like Walmart have corporate social responsibility at the center of their business strategy, they would have started long ago to implement such a sustainability index, and if they do only now so, they would not only indicate the results on their shelves, but remove critical suppliers altogether.]
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 shampoos on the list is one of the most expensive. Even though it has a greenish-looking label and a botanical name, its ingredients are really bad.
[What we truly have to ask here though, is why cosmetics are used in the first place. I remember once plowing through a 15 story cosmetics mall in Hong Kong searching for a product my sister in law had asked me to buy; I felt like a famine struck fugitive in a warehouse full of candies and could not stop thinking that a society which can spend space, time, money and effort on purchasing such products must be sick to the bones. It is vanity only that motivates such social behavior, yes, sometimes it might be nicely packaged into health, hygiene, etc. but in the end its only vanity that drives in particular women to such temples of narcissism.]
The 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 the moment “looking into the backstory.” 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 sunblock might have a chemical that becomes a carcinogen if it is exposed to the sun. An “organic” dairy product might come from an industrial-sized dairy farm that employs some of the worst feed-lot 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.
[Shouldn’t the buying decision not be triggered by our needs, not by brands? I feel that Goleman speaks here too much out of the perspective of consumption conditioned Americans. It is not about which brand propagates which information, false or true, its about reflecting on our needs first and foremost. Do I really need yet another XYZ? Or do I actually need something quite different, social interaction, being cared for, being appreciated, being hugged, etc? Aren’t we in many of our modern consumer decisions compensating an emotional vacuum with materialism? Our societies resemble more and more a shiny set of teeth, shiny because of gold fillings hiding the rotten caveats beneath.]
- Good guide: a guide to sound consumer choices
- Excellent article by Wolfgang Uchatius in the German weekly Die Zeit about the how the Western political system has deprived the citizen of its voting power and why consumer decisions are the only voting powers left in any societies: Soll ich wählen oder shoppen?
- Brilliant article on Greenwashing by August Rick in Forbes: The Eco-Friendly Scam Winning over China’s 1.3B Consumer Marketplace
- Collapse of insect populations: The equation is very simple: no more insects = no more humans.
- Momo by Michael Ende: A book and namesake film about how more stuff deprives us from relationships
- Matthieu Ricard on chocolate cake
- The Story of Stuff: 20min online documentary and nonprofit which started in 2007 to promote “better” rather than more. Meanwhile there are a number of animated videos available which tell different stories.
- Delicatessen: a classic movie about gluttony