True Green

Article excerpt

Byline: Ian Yarett

GoodGuide's mission is to help shoppers pick the greenest shampoo or toothpaste. But is that a business?

One sunny morning in 2004, Dara O'Rourke was putting sunscreen on his 2-year-old daughter's face when he had a disturbing thought. As a professor of environmental policy at the University of California, Berkeley, he'd spent years studying the global supply chains for products like electronics and shoes. But he had no idea exactly what he was smearing on his daughter.

The thought spurred O'Rourke--who'd made headlines in 1997 for exposing problems with Nike's labor practices--to action. Back in his lab at Berkeley, he found that the sunscreen--a top-selling brand--included a hormone-disrupting chemical, a suspected carcinogen activated by sunlight, and several skin irritants. "I'm a total nerd--I not only read ingredient lists but study factories in China, Vietnam, El Salvador," he says. "Yet I still didn't know what I was bringing into my house every day."

O'Rourke enlisted the help of some of his students and launched GoodGuide, a Web-based system that rates consumer products--personal care, food, household cleaners, and toys, so far--on their health, environmental, and social impacts. O'Rourke's idea is to take academic-quality research and make it accessible to average people, empowering them to find healthier, greener products. Today the company provides ratings for more than 75,000 items. Last month 300,000 people visited its site, and its free iPhone app--which lets consumers scan bar codes to pull up product ratings--has been downloaded half a million times.

Most U.S. consumers say they want environmentally responsible products--69 percent by one recent study. Yet far fewer actually buy them, and higher cost isn't the only obstacle. As the number of "green" products on store shelves explodes--up 72 percent over the last year at a representative group of big-box retailers, according to the environmental marketing firm TerraChoice--consumers are increasingly wary of greenwashing. "There's massive confusion about what it means to be green," says Chuck Maniscalco, the CEO of Seventh Generation.

GoodGuide's initial challenge was a scientific one: to develop a useful ratings system based on credible science. The company's product information--and the software it built to process it--is highly respected by industry experts. The GoodGuide system draws data from 300 sources--including firms that do socially responsible investing research, scientific institutions like the EPA, academic studies, company Web sites, and others--to score products on up to 1,500 individual criteria. GoodGuide's scientists determine the relative importance of each of these metrics for evaluating each product category, and those weightings are used to boil down the raw data into simple ratings on a 10-point scale. "It's the current state of the art," says Daniel Goleman, author of Ecological Intelligence, a book about the hidden impacts of what we buy.

Now GoodGuide's challenge is to turn its science into a business. O'Rourke is committed to keeping the service free to consumers, but that means the company, which is supported by $9.2 million invested by venture capitalists, must find other ways of generating revenue. …