Most consumers say that they want to buy products that are better for the environment. But it’s difficult to tell when sustainability claims on a package are greenwashing—does it matter if your shampoo came in a refillable container if the shampoo itself is made with palm oil linked to deforestation? Few of us have the time to do the research. But a new Chrome extension called Finch will help rank your potential purchases when you’re browsing on Amazon.
“I realized that content online was very difficult to sift through,” says Finch founder Lizzie Horvitz, a climate activist who started fielding sustainability questions from friends while working on the sustainability team at Unilever, the consumer goods giant. “On the one hand, you have these wonky academic papers which weren’t really meant for normal people to be reading,” she says. “And then on the other side, you have these very well-intentioned bloggers who often are talking not in terms of data or facts—they’re saying things like, this is ‘eco-friendly,’ or ‘all natural,’ and that’s not really based in any type of science.”
As it launches, the new tool includes ratings for tens of thousands of products in 41 of the most popular product categories on Amazon, from toilet paper and diapers to toothpaste and mattresses. For each category, the team starts with detailed research about the challenges that type of product faces. For paper towels, for example, they studied the current literature on how paper towel manufacturing can cause deforestation and runoff from paper mills. Then they manually rate 10 or 20 products in the category, and feed that information into a machine learning tool that scrapes product details from Amazon for all of the other products in the category and automatically rates them. They also pull details from other groups that study the environmental performance of companies, such as CDP, a nonprofit that asks companies to disclose details about climate risks.
“Supply chains are incredibly tricky,” Horvitz says. “They’re not as transparent as they need to be. Part of what’s helping is we’re not reinventing the wheel here: We’re using a lot of datasets that are already existing . . . which are right now mostly geared towards companies and brands, and not to the end consumer. We’re really just aggregating all the information that’s already out there and putting it in one centralized place.”
After installing the browser extension, when you pull up a product, you’ll see a rating. Anything with a score above 6.5 is one of the least harmful in its category. Nothing scores a perfect 10, she says. “If it’s physical and out there, it’s probably having some sort of negative impact on the environment. So what’s important to us is to show where it falls, given the relationship to the other products out there.” The answers also aren’t always simple; using reusable cloth rags, for example, might actually produce more greenhouse gas emissions than paper towels if someone has an old and inefficient laundry machine and isn’t washing many rags at a time. The startup also has a blog that talks through some specific scenarios.
As it continues iterate the design of the tool, Finch is only working with a small group of consumers, so you might initially end up on a waitlist. But the startup aims to soon expand to hundreds of other categories on Amazon. Then it plans to rank products on other large retail websites, and eventually, “any ecommerce site out there,” Horvitz says.