Betting On Technology To Help Turn Consumers Green

Editor’s Note: EarthTechling is proud to repost this article courtesy of Yale Environment 360. Author credit goes to Marc Gunther.

The way Dara O’Rourke tells the story, the idea for GoodGuide came to him when he was slathering some suntan lotion onto his three-year-old daughter’s face. O’Rourke, an associate professor of environmental and labor policy at University of California, Berkeley, wondered about the ingredients in Coppertone Water Babies; he did some research and learned it contained oxybenzone, a potential skin irritant. Later, O’Rourke found out that Johnson’s Baby Shampoo contained trace amounts of 1,4-dioxane, a probable human carcinogen. “It shocked me,” he says, “that I basically knew nothing about the products I was bringing into my own house.”

O’Rourke started GoodGuide to plug that information gap. A five-year-old company backed by $10 million in venture capital, GoodGuide employs about 20 people, including environmental scientists, chemists, toxicologists, and nutritionists, who rate more than 165,000 products, including personal care items, household cleaners, food, toys, appliances and electronics. Each product gets a numerical rating from 1 to 10 in three categories — health, environment, and society; the ratings are then made available on GoodGuide’s website, on Facebook and on smartphones.

image via Good Guide

O’Rourke describes GoodGuide as a social enterprise, meaning the firm has a purpose that goes beyond making money: It aims to persuade consumers to vote with their wallets for environmentally-friendly products and companies, and thereby help tackle big problems, including climate change, biodiversity loss, and industrial pollution.

“There definitely is a growing percentage of consumers who are aware and who care and who are seeking out products that have better environmental, social, and health attributes,” O’Rourke says. “We view those consumers who care as point of leverage over these big, big systems.” These “conscious consumers,” as they’re sometimes called, are important to the work of activist groups who bring pressure on corporations to reform their environmental or social practices; companies feel compelled to respond because they don’t want to alienate even a small share of their customers or potential customers.

It’s a reasonable theory of change. But does it work? Are there enough conscious consumers to make an impact? Shoppers may tell market researchers that they want to buy “greener” products — but can they be motivated to act?

Questions like those face not just O’Rourke and GoodGuide, but many companies and nonprofits that are betting on the power of green consumers. Greenpeace, for example,rates the world’s largest electronics companies on their sustainability practiceswith the hope that consumers will reward leaders and punish laggards. (This tactic is known in the NGO world as “rank ‘em and spank ‘em.”) Similarly, nonprofit Climate Counts scores big corporations on their efforts to mitigate climate change and urges consumers “to use their choices and voices” to pressure more companies to act. Taking a slightly different approach, BuyGreen.comis a shopping website that positions itself a “trusted source for green products.”

The most ambitious effort of all, a global initiative known as The Sustainability Consortium — which was received startup money from Walmart and now includes retailers, consumer products companies, and universities — is building scientific tools to measure and report on the lifecycle impact of thousands of products; but its progress has been painfully slow.

No one doubts that green consumers can make difference. They can be credited for the success of a slew of small and mid-sized U.S. companies like Annie’s Homegrown, Seventh Generation, and Stonyfield Farm that have built brands imbued with environmental goodness. (Annie’s, best known for its organic mac and cheese, had sales of nearly $120 million in 2011 and had a successful IPO last month.)

Jeffrey Hollender, the former CEO of green-cleaning company Seventh Generation, says the success of these socially-responsible insurgents has changed the practices of big companies. SC Johnson, for instance, listed all of the ingredients in its products only after Seventh Generation had done so. “Successful companies have learned to be incredibly sensitive to consumers,” Hollender says.

Since the launch of GoodGuide in 2007, O’Rourke says, more than 12 million people have visited the company’s website and used its mobile applications. Companies are paying attention, too, and taking steps to improve their product scores. “Basically, all of the consumer products companies are calling us up and want to interact,” O’Rourke says. While it’s difficult to trace any specific change to GoodGuide, Johnson & Johnson and Procter & Gamble have reformulated their shampoos to reduce toxins, including 1,4-dioxane. And Clorox created Green Works, a line of cleaning products on which it has partnered with the Sierra Club.

In opinion surveys, large majorities of consumers consistently tell researchers that they care about environmental and social issues. But the numbers that really count — those at the cash register — tell a different tale. While hybrid cars are trendy, their market share peaked in 2009, at less than 3 percent of all new vehicles sold. Green laundry detergents and household cleaners make up less than 5 percent of sales in their categories, industry insiders say. Organic foods provide an impressive growth story — their sales have ramped up from $1 billion in 1990 to $26.7 billion in 2010,according to the Organic Trade Association; but their popularity is driven more by health concerns than by environmental awareness.

Yale Environment 360 is an online magazine offering opinion, analysis, reporting and debate on global environmental issues. We feature original articles by scientists, journalists, environmentalists, academics, policy makers, and business people, as well as multimedia content and a daily digest of major environmental news. Yale Environment 360 is published by the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies and Yale University. We are funded in part by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation and by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.