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.
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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. GoodGuide has discovered that retailers and manufacturers are interested in its data for market and product-development research—and about a dozen of them are already paying to use it.
Experts say that GoodGuide’s ratings are the best available—for now. Wal-Mart announced in July 2009 that it plans to assess the ecological footprint of its supply chain and produce a product-rating system aimed at consumers. Green products and transparency are “not only good for the environment and society but a good business strategy,” says Matt Kistler, a senior vice president at Wal-Mart. “The customer of tomorrow will seek more information about the products they buy, and providing more information will make manufacturers more competitive in the future.” Yet Kistler says Wal-Mart’s consumer ratings are at least two years off.
Meanwhile, GoodGuide has made a splash disproportionate to its small size. Major manufacturers, including Clorox, have reached out to GoodGuide to either provide data or to get a better idea of what information consumers want to know about their company and products. “We were shocked by how quickly big companies have realized the relevance of GoodGuide,” says William Rosenzweig, managing director of Physic Ventures, a GoodGuide investor.
GoodGuide recently brought in a new CEO with experience growing Web businesses to help guide the company through its next phase of development. It is adding a social-networking component that will allow users to consider both the hard data and opinions of trusted friends when making a purchasing decision. And the company claims thousands of people have switched brands as a result of the site and app. It seems that the company is doing good—but it remains to be seen if it can do well.
Best brands, according to goodguide; a perfect score is 10
7.2 Fa 24h Stick, Sport for Men
7.0 AXE Body Spray for Men, Essence
7.0 Degree Anti-Perspirant, Sport
7.0 Mitchum Anti-Perspirant, Clear Gel
6.9 Ban Anti-Perspirant, Original Roll-On, Unscented
8.7 Miessence Organic Lemon Myrtle
8.3 Nurture My Body
8.2 Terressentials Fragrance-Free Pure Earth
8.0 Sea Chi Organics Tasmanian Lavender
7.9 Gourmet Body Treats Vanilla Mint
8.3 Seventh Generation Delicate Care
8.0 Green Works Natural
8.0 Ecos Free and Clear Liquid
7.9 Method Squeaky Green Sweet Water
7.4 Ultra Purex Natural Elements Apple & Melon
8.7 Miessence Organic Mint
8.1 Tom's of Maine Whole Care Peppermint
7.9 Lavera Basis
7.7 Weleda Plant Gel
7.5 Biotene Antibacterial Dry Mouth With Calcium
How we calculated this year’s Green Rankings.
Frequently asked questions about our fourth annual environmental ranking.
As part of a continued effort to improve our transparency, we are providing a deeper dive into scoring.
Back in June, Newsweek and its research partners presented an online workshop about the methodology behind Green Rankings. Re-watch it here.
How green is a smartphone? Andrew Blum looked into the iPhone—and it turns out the news is good.
An in-depth look at each of the 20 industry sectors.
Companies ignore the magnitude of their supply-chain environmental impacts—and the environmental and financial risks and opportunities that they represent—at their own peril, writes James Salo.
Changes in ranking methodology have led to a shakeup in the results, and have brought welcome transparency and empiricism to a complicated analysis. John Elkington reports.
Many firms that rank high on environmental lists also lobby for non-green policies, say Aaron Chatterji and Michael Toffel.
Even companies with broad and aggressive environmental commitments are neglecting a core component of sustainability: worker health and safety. Heather Lang reports.
The move toward sustainability is upending the old ways of doing business. These days, less really is more, says David J. Vidal.
Several notable companies moved up or down in the rankings since 2011.
We are offering a new rating option for companies not eligible for our U.S. and Global 500 lists.