Growing up in Modesto, California, in the 1970s and 1980s, Ellis Jones, Ph.D., seemed to be on a path to becoming either a mathematician or a computer programmer. While other kids were winning sports trophies, Jones was winning math awards. But everything changed when, while attending his private Catholic high school, he decided to spend a year abroad studying in Thailand as an exchange student.
“That turned everything around for me,” says Jones, founder of Better World Shopper, a research project that gives consumers social and environmental data so they can use their dollars as votes to help build a better world. “I was suddenly thrown into Thai culture and history and Buddhism. I received a real global education by being with people from different parts of the world.”
Jones graduated high school a year early and got a full ride to the University of Southern California. He wasn’t sure what he wanted to major in but quickly discovered international relations. Not long after he declared his major, he became disillusioned with the way the subject was being taught in the 1980s.
“It was the realist paradigm of international relations, which essentially claims that you should do whatever is in your own country’s national interest,” he recalls. “That rang very false to me. I thought, That’s not really what I signed up for. What I was interested in was asking, ‘How do we bring these ideas and cultures and countries together to help each other and make things better for all of us?’”
In his junior year, Jones discovered the program he had been looking for: a peace and conflict studies minor. This led him to later pursue a master’s degree in international peace studies at the University of Notre Dame. After serving in the peace corps in Panama for two years and realizing there were no Ph.D. programs in peace studies in the United States, he earned a Ph.D. in sociology at the University of Colorado Boulder.
Making the World Better
During his graduate studies, Jones had discovered a book called How to Make the World a Better Place: A Guide to Doing Good (William Morrow, 1990) by Jeffrey Hollender. The year before the book was published, Hollender had cofounded Seventh Generation, a company that manufactures a line of eco-friendly household and personal care products.
“It was a real practical guide to making the world a better place,” Jones says. “As soon as I read it, I thought, Oh wow, he’s on the right track. Somebody has got to follow up on this way of thinking and create a comprehensive, practical guide to make the world a better place.”
Jones waited—and waited. When no one wrote the follow-up, Jones decided maybe he was supposed to write it. At the time he was meeting with his doctoral thesis advisor, who asked why Jones hadn’t yet written his thesis. When Jones told him he had a book idea, his advisor was initially excited.
“He said, ‘That’s amazing! Show me your notes and I’ll give you my best guidance,’” Jones relates. “I gave him all my stuff to look over and he said, ‘It’s a terrible idea. Nobody’s going to read this book. It’s just a huge distraction from your thesis. You’ve got to let this go.’”
Instead, Jones let go of his advisor. He turned to his graduate school friends and together they wrote the book. In 2001, New Society Publishers put out The Better World Handbook: Small Changes That Make a Big Difference, and in 2002, it won Spirituality & Health Magazine’s Best Book of the Year under the category of “Hope.” It sold more than 25,000 copies.
“It was the book I’d always wanted to read,” Jones says. “It was a treatise on, ‘If we think about the world and the challenges we face, what are the things that are stopping us from trying to make things better?’ We wanted it to be practical, not for activists but for everyday people.”
After the book was published and he finished his Ph.D., Jones and his wife-to-be moved back to California. There, he taught sociology and service learning at Sacramento City College and later at the University of California, Davis. Along the way, he became clinically depressed.
“Something was not sitting right with me about academia,” Jones says. “I couldn’t quite nail it down. I wasn’t doing what I felt like I had to do.”
He followed his wife’s advice to quit his job and focus on what he wanted to do: write another book.
Of all the feedback The Better World Handbook received, 90 percent of the comments focused on a minor, two-page section that contained a brief shopping guide rating companies that made everything from ice cream to gasoline.
Fueled by that feedback and inspired by yet another book that lacked a follow-up, Shopping for a Better World: A Quick and Easy Guide to Socially Responsible Supermarket Shopping (Ballantine, 1989) by Alice Tepper Marlin, Jones decided to write a comprehensive guide to socially and environmentally responsible shopping that rated companies on an A-to-F scale. He wrote The Better World Shopping Guide: Every Dollar Makes a Difference in 2006, published by New Society Publishers. The process lifted him out of his depression.
Ironically, the publisher initially balked at the idea.
“Their first reaction was, ‘This is a terrible idea. There’s no way people are going to go for this,’” Jones recalls. “We went back and forth, and they finally agreed to publish it—and it became their best-selling book.”
To date, the book has sold more than 200,000 copies and is in its seventh edition. The free Better World Shopper app is also available through both the Apple and Android app stores.
“It really is me essentially carrying on somebody else’s work again, which is my theme,” Jones says. “I was just wanting to help consumers make good choices with their dollars so they could feel good about the companies they were supporting.”
Passing the Baton
Jones did return to teaching, but it took some time for academia to be interested in the work he was doing. “It was almost disloyal for me to pursue these things that were geared for the public, not for other academics,” he says, “writing books that were not steeped in intellectual rhetoric and scientific citations.”
But in time, the academic world came around, offering corporate sustainability and ethical consumerism as areas of study. Jones is now an associate professor at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he researches and teaches about corporate sustainability, media literacy, lifestyle movements, craft beer, and ethical consumerism.
He says he is glad he ignored the naysayers and instead did what he knew was his to do.
“I feel very lucky to have this calling,” Jones says. “Everyone deep down wants to find meaning and live a meaningful life. Part of that is finding a calling to connect with something. People might have six or seven or 10 callings, and if you can manage to get a hold of just one of them, that’s great.”
Now, he says, his hope is “that somebody takes the baton from me and says, ‘Wow, that’s an amazing start, but I bet we could go a lot further with it.’”
Learn more about Ellis Jones and his work at betterworldshopper.org.
This article appeared in Unity Magazine.