Daniel Goleman's blog post ("The Age of Eco-Angst") at the New York Times is interesting reading. Citing GoodGuide.com, SkinDeep.com, and the announcement of Wal-Mart's sustainability index, he writes: "These rating systems herald the death of “greenwashing,” the advertising sleight-of-hand that plucks a single virtue from a multitude of a product’s ecological impacts and touts its environmental goodness. We will no longer be impressed by an organic T-shirt if its cotton was grown by hogging water in an arid and impoverished land, or if its dye puts workers at heightened risk for leukemia, or if it was stitched together in a sweatshop where young women suffer from needless injuries."
I am not so sure that consumers can sort out the pros and cons of each product that easily and then somehow buy the best product. Of course, a retailer like Wal-Mart could give us a single number to grade the goodness of a product (somehow weighting and combining a slew of environmental and social impacts), and consumers could rely on this single number while comparing products. A more realistic and effective scenario would be for Wal-Mart and other big retailers to establish minimum standards (covering various key impacts) for product categories, and then stock only those products that pass that threshold. Anything to lessen the burden on consumers and relieve them of some of the eco-angst would be a good thing. Products that are measurably worse than the best (within a category) should never reach the stores in the first place.
Here is a case in point (not a retail example) where the choice isn't that easy. It turns out that large solar farms -- which are typically located in places that get a lot of sunlight -- may use a huge amount of water to cool the power plants. The New York Times reports that two solar farms slated to be built in Amargosa Valley, Nevada, would consume 1.3 billion gallons of water per year -- 20% of the desert valley's available water. The Times reports that conflicts over water could shape the future of many energy technologies, and the most water-efficient renewable technologies aren't necessarily the most economical. Water shortages and conflicts would of course drive the development of more water-efficient technologies, but in the short term we may have to live with a lot of angst over the renewable energy that we've waited so long to use.