If you’re reading this column, then chances are you’re concerned about your impact on the planet. Most of us here would like to think that we are making some kind of positive impact through our work. But at the same time, we know that, as American consumers, our lifestyle, before we even get to work, has an impact far larger than any other in the world.
We live in a world of choices like a fish lives in a world of water. But how do we know which choices will have a greater or lesser impact on our poor overstressed Mother Earth? Some of them are obvious, but most are not. If only we had a little green angel sitting on our shoulder that we could ask. Okay, not likely. Then how about an iPhone app?
For those of you not familiar with Good Guide, this is a good time to find out about them. They are a group of scientists who have been toiling away in relative obscurity since 2007, putting together a massive database of consumer products with a rating system which evaluates each product with regard to health, environment and society. You could imagine that if Consumer Reports and LEED got together and had a baby; it might look something like GoodGuide. The Guide currently has close to 80,000 products evaluated in categories like personal care, food, household chemicals, paper products, and toys.
The company has just hired a new batch of market minded executives with the intent of bringing their green product database out of the laboratory and onto the street where it can do some good. Their new CEO, George Consagra, was former president of Scribd.com, the world’s largest social publishing site. They also have a new VP of marketing and two new business development executives, all with Ivy League MBAs and experience in a mix of high tech and green companies. These guys mean business. Their founder and Chief Sustainability Officer is former MIT professor, Dara O’Rourke.
So, the idea is, as you are walking down the aisle of your favorite store, trying to exercise your purchasing power in the most responsible fashion, you stop in front of the dishwasher detergent to mull over your choices. You pick up Cascade, your usual brand and scan the barcode with your iPhone. You find that it gets a respectable rating of 7.1 out of ten. A perfect 10 for health (no issues), but a more average 5.5 for environment and a 5.9 for society. Curious, you drill down and see that it gets dinged on biodiversity with a meager 1.9 for habitat conservation. Thirty-five people recommend it, nine say to avoid it. A little disappointed, you set the box back down. It had always done a good job getting the dishes clean, but you like animals, so you look around to see what else there is. You pick up a bottle of Seventh Generation Automatic Dishwasher Gel and scan its barcode. It gets an 8.2, including an 8.4 for environment and 7.6 for biodiversity. A whopping 293 people recommend it and only 3 said to avoid it. Even though it costs a little more, and it only got an 8.0 for health, you decide to give it a try.
This just might be a more effective way to move our American society in a more sustainable direction than anything that’s likely to come out of Washington. In fact, it is precisely because of the power that so many corporations exert over our legislative process through their lobbying and campaign contributions that has kept Congress at a stalemate and prevented any meaningful legislation from getting through. But these same powerful and wealthy corporations that have been forcing the hands of Congress, as well as others who haven’t been, have an Achilles heel that they don’t want you to know about. And that is the simple fact that if you, the consumer, stop buying their product, that mighty tiger or elephant or dinosaur or whatever corporate mascot you like, turns into a squeaky little mouse.
But the kind of radical transparency that consumers have begun to demand, made available through tools like this one, right in the heart of the shopping experience, can force the hands of companies to choose a greener path far more effectively than any loophole-riddled government regulation ever could.
When you consider that these ratings include categories for corporate ethics, labor rights, working conditions, and community engagement as well as environmental and health impacts, it becomes clear that this can be a very powerful force for good. The rating system evaluates more than 1500 distinct data points for each product, and while there probably is no perfect rating system there are certainly systems that are good enough, and without having analyzed it in every detail, this one seems to be one of them.
I spoke with Josh Dorfman (aka The Lazy Environmentalist), now GoodGuide’s VP of Marketing. He told me that GoodGuide is ready to start moving aggressively into the marketplace. Their plan is to introduce a new product category every week for the next several months. You can expect to pet food, coffee and tea, candy, apparel retailers and airlines in the near future. The goal is to grow the number of products rated to 150,000 by the end of this year and 300,000 by the end of 2012. And watch out for new functionality that will eventually link the online community with the shopper in the store in real time.
RP Siegel is the co-author of the eco-thriller Vapor Trails. Like airplanes, we all leave behind a vapor trail. And though we can easily see others’, we rarely see our own.
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