Empowering Consumers To Shop Their Values With Dara O’Rourke of GoodGuide
The Trailblazers for Good Q&A Series sits down with the most world shaking individuals leading the movement to align impact, profit and purpose. Here we pick the brains of top social entrepreneurs to learn first hand from their stunning accomplishments, utter failures, and stiff challenges in leading the revolution of doing well by doing good. Join us as we explore the collective consciousness that drives and inspires these individuals.
Dara O’Rourke is the co-founder and Chief Sustainability Officer of GoodGuide and an Associate Professor of Environmental and Labor Policy at the University of California, Berkeley. Dara has spent the last 20 years researching the environmental, labor, and health impacts of global production systems. Dara’s work has been featured in The New York Times, The International Herald Tribune, The Boston Globe, The Los Angeles Times, The Economist, Business Week, Newsweek, Time, CBS, ABC, NPR, and even O — the Oprah Magazine. Dara has served as a consultant to the World Bank, the United Nations Development Programme, the Otrganization for Economic Cooperation and Development, and a wide range of non-governmental organizations. He was previously a professor at MIT. Dara holds an MS and Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley and a BS from MIT.
What is the GoodGuide and what inspired you to start it?
GoodGuide provides information about the health, environmental and social performance of products and companies. Our mission is to help consumers make purchasing decisions that reflect their personal values. We believe that better information can transform the marketplace: as more consumers buy better products, retailers and manufacturers will face incentives to make products that are safe, environmentally sustainable and produced using ethical sourcing of raw materials and labor. GoodGuide’s science team – comprised of chemists, toxicologists, nutritionists, sociologists, and lifecycle assessment experts – has rated over 120,000 consumer products on their health, environmental and social performance.
The idea for GoodGuide came about while I was putting sunscreen on my then 3-year-old daughter’s face. I started wondering about the ingredients in her sunscreen, so I went back to campus at UC Berkeley, where I teach, did some research, and found out that the sunscreen contained traces of potentially toxic chemicals. I then researched the rest of my daughter’s stuff and found that her shampoo, her favorite toys, and even her furniture contained ingredients with potential health hazards. This surprised and angered me. I realized that even though I have a Ph.D., and study products and supply chains full-time, I knew almost nothing about the products I was bringing into my own house. This motivated me to create GoodGuide, to give consumers the information they need to make better decisions about which products best match their health, environmental, and ethical concerns.
How do you determine a good or bad product?
GoodGuide’s rating combines product- and company-level information to characterize a product’s health, environmental and social impacts. We rate products and companies on a scale of 0 to 10. A score of 10 means the product or company performs very well relative to other products in a category. A score of 0 means the product or company performs very poorly.
GoodGuide’s rating is compiled from three sub-scores addressing Health, Environment and Society. Each of these sub-scores are based on an analysis of a set of indicators that GoodGuide has determined are the best-available measures of performance in these areas. Our Health score characterizes the potential impact that use of a product may have on a person’s health. Our Environment score characterizes the potential adverse environmental impact associated with the manufacture, sale, use and disposal of a product. Our Social score characterizes the social impact associated with the manufacture and sale of a product. You can learn more about our ratings methodology at: http://www.goodguide.com/about/ratings
One obstacle in effectively ranking products is ingredient transparency on the part of companies. Has this been a big challenge to growing the GoodGuide, and what do you think individuals and institutions can do to increase the level of ingredient transparency of companies?
This has been a huge issue for GoodGuide. One of our mid-term goals is to incentivize firms to disclose the critical facts about their products and supply chains that matter most scientifically (from a life-cycle perspective) and that matter most to consumers.
We have actually seen very positive movement in this regard since we first launched. For example, back in the fall of 2008, the companies that produced household chemicals (such as cleaners, laundry detergent, dishwashing soap, etc.) by and large did not disclose the ingredients in their products. In our first rating of this category, we had to create a “transparency score” and we dinged companies that wouldn’t tell their customers what chemicals were actually in their products. After six months of back-and-forth with these companies (they didn’t like being dinged for non-transparency), and great work by a network of NGOs and consumers, virtually all of the major brands now disclose their ingredients “voluntarily” even though it is not required by law. GoodGuide’s users played an important role in motivating companies to be more transparent.
I believe individual consumers absolutely have an opportunity to motivate brands and retailers to be more transparent. Institutional purchasers have an even bigger opportunity – and responsibility – to promote product and supply chain transparency.
If someone were planning to build a consumer product today, what are some basic guiding principles they should consider?
I would think about four or five big issues. First, a product needs to be designed with the full life-cycle impacts of the product in mind – from raw materials used, to manufacturing, to use, to end-of-life. With this life-cycle perspective, a product should be designed to minimize the most important impacts. Companies should focus on the hot spots in their product supply chain, not peripheral issues (that often lead green marketing): avoid toxic chemicals, reduce materials use, make sure a product is recyclable, etc. We also recommend companies design their products and processes for transparency. Consumers increasingly want to know the full story behind a product and supply chain. Finally, I think companies can really benefit from designing in feedback and learning. Companies should include their customers in the product cycle, get them thinking about their impacts, and learn from them.
What’s the vision for GoodGuide? How can our readers help you push forward your mission?
GoodGuide.com is still in its early days. We see a trajectory — in the not-too-distant future — of fully personalized, localized tools that empower consumers to shop their values whenever and wherever they shop. I believe in the next two to three years, people will be able to walk into any retailer, or land on any e-commerce site, and get instant advice on the products that best match their own values. We see long-term potential to really cut through marketing and advertising to provide consumers with exactly the information they need to make the best possible decisions, and ultimately to not only support a more transparent marketplace, but also a more sustainable one.
Care2 readers are obviously at the forefront of “conscious consumers.” We would love for Care2 readers to try out our website, our mobile apps, and our newest tool – the Transparency Toolbar, and tell us how we can make these tools even more useful and empowering.