How can a manufacturer reformulate a cleaning product to contain fewer harmful chemicals, and how can a retailer stock its shelves with more eco-friendly merchandise? UL (Underwriters Laboratories), a product safety testing and certification company, thinks it may have a solution: a set of data tools that helps businesses search and choose ingredients and products based on their environmental and social responsibility profiles.
Managed by UL’s recently launched Information & Insights division, the collection of tools build upon several databases with information on product ingredients and the consumer product index GoodGuide – all of which UL acquired – to allow manufacturers and retailers to essentially track products and materials across the supply chain.
UL’s search engine Prospector allows engineers and designers to look up materials they might want to use to create new products or reformulate existing ones – like developing a shampoo that rinses faster or a toothpaste that also whitens teeth. But, in addition to searching for ingredients that change the abilities or characteristics of a product, engineers can also identify materials that are more sustainable – ingredients that are free of certain chemicals, have received an environmental certification or comply with environmental regulations.
“Our grand vision [with Prospector] is to help people make healthier, safer products,” said Mathieu Guerville, director of strategy and business development at UL Information & Insights.
The Prospector database is especially suited for chemical-containing products at this time, he said, including personal care products, household and industrial cleaners, lubricants, and sealing and binding agents. But in the future, Guerville said that the company will be adding a platform for conflict materials and a search engine for materials used to make electronics and appliances.
The second component of UL’s tool set is PurView, a new cloud-based software that allows manufacturers and retailers to choose products based on sustainability criteria that is important to their company – if the product was tested on animals, if it contains a certain chemical or if it was made with fair labor practices, for example. PurView works for businesses much in the way the GoodGuide works for consumers – and that’s because the data platform is powered by the guide.
“[This] allows purchasers to decide what products to put on their shelves, which ones not to put on the shelf, and which ones to put on a green shelf and give preferential treatment,” Guerville said.
The software-as-a-service data technology can also help businesses respond to customer demand, according to Guerville. UL can review consumer searches on GoodGuide, inform retailers and manufacturers of search trends and they can change their purchasing behavior accordingly. For example, Guerville said, if UL sees an increase in searches for personal care products without microbeads – those nano-sized plastic particles that end up polluting oceans and waterways – the company could let its clients know, and they could avoid buying microbead-containing products to sell to their customers.
Overall, UL’s data tools can be viewed as technology that both pushes and pulls the market towards sustainability, Guerville said. Prospector is the push mechanism, assisting manufacturers in designing more eco-friendly products and propelling more sustainable goods into the marketplace. PurView works as a pulling mechanism, Guerville said, enabling retailers to choose environmentally responsible products to sell in their stores and therefore, creating an increased demand for sustainable merchandise.
But will companies be willing to invest in this new suite of data tools to help them manufacture and purchase more eco-minded goods?
Guerville thinks UL’s tools will be important to businesses looking to respond quickly to their clientele, especially as interest for sustainable products grows.
“We’ve started to see manufacturers and retailers realizing the importance of the consumer perspective and that consumers are expecting more transparency, as they become more educated about the health and sustainability aspects of the products they buy,” Guerville said.
Guerville also noted that for many companies, sustainability is not about cost anymore; it’s becoming a standard practice.
“We’re seeing an interesting trend: Companies are not trying to compete on cost as much as before, but they want to be sure that at least some degree of sustainability is the minimum expectation for everybody,” he said.
Image credit: UL Information & Insights
Passionate about both writing and sustainability, Alexis Petru is freelance journalist based in the San Francisco Bay Area whose work has appeared on Earth911, Huffington Post and Patch.com. Prior to working as a writer, she coordinated environmental programs for Bay Area cities and counties. Connect with Alexis on Twitter at @alexispetru