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GoodGuide: Site Exposes Goods, and Bads, on Food

Mary Catherine O'Connor | Monday March 16th, 2009 | 3 Comments

header_logo.pngWith so much alarming information about harmful ingredients in consumer products – from bisphenol A (BPA) in plastics to Salmonella in peanut butter – a trip to the grocery store has become an anxiety-producing event. To calm our nerves and sell more product, many makers of consumer packaged goods label their products “green.”
But what’s “green?” Is bottled water that touts a new design with less plastic a “green” product if that plastic contains BPA? Is a food product really organic if only a portion of its ingredients is organic? And how do you know whether a products’ squeaky-clean image matches the corporate policies of its manufacturer?
Late last year, a new website called GoodGuide.com emerged. It is designed to help consumers find answers to those types of questions. Until now, the products reviewed fell into categories such as personal care, household chemicals, and toys. Today, GoodGuide.com has launched a food category, which rates 30,000 products by 5,000 food brands.


Rather than hire a huge team of scientists, nutritionists, and social responsibility experts to investigate each product based on the site’s three rubrics – health, environment, and social impacts – GoodGuide relies largely on data already generated by a gaggle of socially responsible investment research firms as well as food safety, consumer interest, environmental, and fair-trade groups. GoodGuide takes information on the ingredients in the products and the environmental and social track records of the manufacturers and calculates a score for each product, from a 10 (best) to 1 (worst) score. Products and companies are rated relative to the performance of similar products or companies in the same industry. (More on its ratings and methodology here.)
GoodGuide also offers an application for mobile phones that’s quite handy for looking up details on a product once you’re in a store and have it in your hands.
Dara O’Rourke, the site’s founder, is an associate professor of Environmental and Labor Policy at UC Berkeley and has a long history as a whistle-blower, having penned a report for the United Nations Industrial Development Organization that exposed poor working conditions in Vietnamese factories producing Nike shoes in the late 1990s. He has devoted much of his career to studying supply chains and how to better inform consumers about the back-story that comes with each and every product they purchase. In fact, the GoodGuide grew out of O’Rourke’s work on a research project at Cal called the Sustainability Information Laboratory
It’s interesting, given that concentration on the supply chain, that the product ratings pages don’t describe in better detail the sourcing and transportation and disposal practices of the vendors that the manufacturers employ. Perhaps that information is too difficult to obtain and keep up to date? Or maybe that data is all boiled down to the ratings each product receives in terms of overall environmental and social impacts. These are good questions for O’Rourke, who will participate in a panel discussion on the role of the Internet in the green movement at Green : Net event on March 24 in San Francisco. (Register for this even through TriplePundit.com–look for an ad under Events in the left-side column–and receive a 15% discount.)

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  • http://www.goodguide.com Jodie Van Horn

    Thanks for the great post on GoodGuide. Your last paragraph brings up a really great point, to which I have a couple of answers.
    1. It is VERY difficult to obtain information on where products come from. Product supply chains are disturbingly non-transparent, although some progress is being made, particularly in relation to food. See Dara’s blog on the new Country of Origin Labeling laws: http://blog.goodguide.com/2009/3/16/america-gets-a-little-bit-cooler
    2. Our environmental scientists are working on a life-cycle assessment of products. We will soon tell you as much as we can about the impacts of the products we rate, all along the chain of production.
    We love feedback! Thanks for posting.
    Jodie at GoodGuide

  • mcoc

    Jodie:
    Thanks for the info on supply chain data. I’m not surprised to hear that information is hard to come by. I know producers tend to be very guarded with that info.
    Did you time the release of the food section with the Country of Origin labeling kickoff or was that a coincidence?

  • Jennifer

    Thought you might like this fun quiz.
    http://www.humanitarianiq.com/
    Jennifer

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