The Coming Age of Radical Transparency

Bill Walsh | October 22, 2009 | Policies

In his new book, Ecological Intelligence: How Knowing the Hidden Impacts of What We Buy Can Change Everything, Pulitzer Prize-nominated writer Daniel Goleman describes an imminent “informational sea change” that will fundamentally alter green business practices as “the control of data shifts from sellers to buyers.”[1] The green building movement will soon join the vanguard of this paradigm shift, which Goleman calls “radical transparency,”and which Time Magazine called one of the "10 ideas changing the world right now.”[2]

What Goleman discerns is this: the assortment of eco-labels and certifications that define green products today is a transitional stage, soon to be eclipsed by an unprecedented convergence of better information and better information technology. There are now more authoritative sources - governments, universities, companies and watchdog groups - generating more information than ever about the impacts everyday products have on the environment, health and quality of life for people all along the product supply chain. Effective methods for gathering, managing and communicating this information to consumers in real time are, in Goleman’s words, “already in the pipeline,”[3] descendent from technologies as varied as Facebook, Google and the iPhone, whose Good Guide app he calls the “seminal application” of radical transparency.[4]

In the age of radical transparency, buyers will be able to look beyond labels, certifications, green marketing and greenwash. They will be able to find information about product ingredients, manufacturing facilities, and corporate citizenship, and align this information with their own values and priorities before making a choice.

No sooner had Ecological Intelligence reached bookstores last April than a new wave of transparency hit, this time in the cleaning products market. Until then, only Seventh Generation disclosed ingredients in its cleaning products. But in Spring 2009, SC Johnson began listing ingredients on consumer-friendly websites, and the Clorox Company soon followed suit, finding that even its highly-touted “Green Works” brand was not exempted from consumers’ demand for information beyond a green label.[5]

Expect this trend to continue, says Dr. Richard Liroff, Director of the Investor Environmental Health Network: “It's no longer adequate to say ‘the regulators say our products and chemicals are safe’ or ‘we are in compliance with all applicable rules and regulations.’ Such declarations simply are not good enough in the competitive marketplace, especially when regulators are not trusted.”[6]

The green building movement is poised for its own wave of radical transparency. This summer, 18 of the nation’s leading architecture, design, construction and health care firms, along with a number of their suppliers, participated in the Healthy Building Network’s Pharos Pilot Project.[7] Together, these partners helped test and refine the Pharos Project, an online system that evaluates and compares product content, certifications and life-cycle data about building materials against key health and environmental benchmarks. Most importantly, the Pharos Project offers complete transparency of product ingredients as well as evaluation criteria. Users can review a step-by-step process explaining each score and access supporting documentation for each manufacturer claim.

The results of this summer’s pilot project were so positive that at Greenbuild next month, HBN will open Pharos to the general public. Evoking its namesake, the lighthouse that once towered over the harbor of ancient Alexandria, the Pharos Project is a beacon of transparency amidst the “informational sea change” that Daniel Goleman describes.


[1] Goleman, Daniel. Ecological Intelligence: How Knowing The Hidden Impacts of What We Buy Can Change Everything. Broadway Books / Random House 2009, p.11.

[2] "10 Ideas Changing the World Right Now." Time.,28804,1884779_1884782_1884776,00.html.

[3] Goleman, p. 6.

[4] Ibid, p. 83.

[5] Athavaley, Anjali. "Household Products Start to Come Clean on Ingredients." Wallstreet Journal, April 2, 2009.

[6] Bogart, Paul. "Did You Know that aggressive green purchasing policies are currently advancing the public health and sustainability agenda faster than federal law?" Healthy Building News, 3/24/09.

[7] The 18 Pharos Pilot Project partners are Anshen + Allen, BNIM, Boulder Associates, Catholic Healthcare West, Cleveland Clinic, E2E Global Sourcing, Gensler, Green Building Alliance, HDR, HKS, Kaiser Permanente, NBBJ, Partners Healthcare, Perkins+Will, Saint Joseph Health Systems, SERA, Stantec, and Taylor Architecture.