Ocean Spray 100% Cranberry Juice has more sugar than a can of Coke? Beef has a carbon footprint three times the size of chicken? Companies like Nestle and Dole have been implicated for labor rights violations recently? That's what Dara O'Rourke wants you to know, the founder of GoodGuide.com, a public-private partnership that brings transparency to consumers by rating products based on 140 criteria that factor in health, environmental, and social practices. Last year O'Rourke launched the site rating hundreds of personal care items, cleaning products, and toys. Today, GoodGuide is unveiling its new food section, which evaluates 5,000 food brands—primarily the ones you feed your kids.
The goal of GoodGuide is to distill complex information into a simple 1-10 point rating system that helps consumers make more informed buying decisions (check out the GoodGuide's handy iPhone app for when you're out shopping at the drug store or supermarket). To do that O'Rourke, a Berkeley environmental science professor who's been studying supply chains for more than a decade, has pulled together a small cast of science geeks and technologists from Google, Amazon and eBay to analyze hundreds of governmental, academic, scientific and corporate reports. Eveything from whether an ingredient has been banned in another country to whether a company has had chemical spills is considered, then funneled into an algorithm that calculates a rating (for those who want to see the data, the site allows consumers to dig down into the specifics). "People want a simple way to choose better so I decided to translate all this academic work into something useful for the public," says O'Rourke, who helped uncover the labor scandal around Nike's factories in the 90s.
As a supply chain junky (and concerned parent), O'Roarke has another agenda too: to get consumers so fired up about what's in their products that they put pressure on companies once they discover its nefarious ingredients and practices. Look up your favorite products and you'll be shocked—Suave ranks higher than Method?! To complete the communication channel between consumers and corporations, next to each GoodGuide product rating is a link for consumers to email their complaints directly to the company. Of course best way for companies to listen is to also vote with your dollar.
Even though the site is still in Beta, it's already proving its potential for impact. After GoodGuide went up last year, Clorox contacted O'Rourke, dissatisfied with its products' low ratings which were being dragged down because of its lack of ingredient transparency (except for its new "eco" Greenworks line, none of its other brands historically have revealed their ingredients). Then, two weeks ago, Clorox suddenly posted all its brands' ingredients on its site (O'Rourke concedes, "They'd never admit they submitted to pressure from us."). Now GoodGuide can dive into Clorox's never-before-disclosed ingredients, re-rate their products, and the consumer pressure cycle continues. Then, just last week, SC Johnson announced they are going to disclose all their brands' ingredients and phase out phthalates. Of course, transparency is just the first step. Now that GoodGuide has access to these ingredients, it can then analyze them and recalculate their rating.
In the age of crowdsourcing, where consumers seem to have a bigger pedestal than corporations with million dollar ad budgets, I challenge outraged consumers to rechannel their energy to websites like GoodGuide. Over the past few months there have been passionate instances of consumer activism: the mommies who demanded Johnson & Johnson kill their baby-slinging Motrin ads, the millennials who protested that Facebook changed its terms of service, and of course the OJ-guzzling design snobs who rallied that Tropicana revert back to its old logo. All three companies submitted, and changed their ways. However, I wonder why the same doesn't happen when it comes to issues that really matter, like toxic ingredients in our shampoos, food, and clothing? Why aren't consumers—the LOHAS, the enlightened Obama-galvanizing Gen Ys, the green MBAs—expressing equal outrage at the corporations who design products that are way more damaging to our bodies than a generic-looking OJ brand logo is to the eye?
I suggest the next time you decide to lambast your friends on Twitter about the latest superficial corporate faux pas, try to make sure it's over something worthwhile.
*Note, for more productive Twittering, check out GetSatisfaction.com, where companies often respond to brand complaints. I know I will.