September 23, 2014

Is Your Shampoo Trying to Kill You? GoodGuide’s Got Your Back.

It seems like every few months, we hear about a new, harmful chemical in things we use and consume every day. In a world with yoga-mat bread and cancer-causing soap, what’s a sustainability-minded and health-conscious consumer to do? 

After pondering the chemical makeup of kid’s sunscreen (spoiler alert: it’s not good), Dara O’Rourke started GoodGuide in 2009. His app and web-based platforms use over 1,500 scientific sources to rate the health and environmental impacts of everything from shoes and shampoos to crackers and cleaning supplies. We chatted with Dara about what the future looks like for sustainable shopping. 

The guy behind the guide: GoodGuide’s founder, Dara O’Rourke.

Zipcar: How did you start GoodGuide?

Dara: I’m a professor at UC Berkeley, where I researched global supply chains for many years. My academic work focused on better ways to measure and monitor the environmental, health, labor, and social impacts of the products that we consume across multiple categories. But I had a personal epiphany a few years ago when I was putting sunscreen on my 3-year-old daughter. I stopped to wonder what was in this chemical formula I was smearing all over her every day. So I went back to campus, did some research, and found four problematic chemicals in the #1 selling kid’s sunscreen in the U.S. That made me realize I didn’t know anything about the products I was bringing into my own house, didn’t really know what I was putting in, on, and around my own family, and that most Americans didn’t know either… and that they wanted to know. That personal experience made me realize I wanted to move my research off of campus and into a tool that normal people could use to help them find safer, healthier, and greener products.

Do you think that products are getting healthier or dirtier in the last 10 years?

One amazing step over the last 10 years is that more people care about these issues. They want to know what’s in their food; they want to know where it came from, they want to know how it was produced. Now that everyone has a supercomputer in the form of a smartphone in their pocket, people not only want to know more, but they share more than ever before.

We’re moving into an age of radical transparency where the consumer can find out more about the products and the supply chain behind them. What were the conditions in the factory in China where they produced it? We know because the workers have camera phones and they’re uploading pictures of the factory and the conditions. That has gotten the attention of leading brands and retailers, so we’ve seen a big shift in transparency because consumers are demanding more and brands are being forced to disclose more than they ever have before.

How are companies responding to this demand?

I think that we’re beginning to see interesting changes in big brands reformulating their products to get rid of the worst toxins. Just in the last 12 months, we’ve seen Procter & Gamble announce that they’re phasing out triclosan, a really problematic chemical that’s in hand sanitizer, soaps, toothpastes, and antimicrobial products. Johnson & Johnson announced that they’re phasing out formaldehyde-releasing compounds in baby shampoo and their top products. Walmart and Target hosted a meeting recently where the biggest retailers are demanding transparency in what’s in the products on their shelves.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that we’re starting from a place where there are lots of problematic products on the market. There are lots of products that people buy every day that are bad for them — bad for their health, bad for the environment — so we have a long way to go, but we’re moving in the right direction. 

Dara scans a bottle to learn its eco secrets; the GoodGuide crew gathers to strategize.

What’s the science behind your rating system?

The goal of our team of scientists is to rate the comprehensive impact of a product — so we rate the product, the company behind the product, and then the supply chain behind that to try to understand the full picture. This includes the health impacts of using the product and the social impacts of the product and the company.

We’ve built a complex rating system that uses the latest science. For environmental impacts, we use a technique called life cycle assessment to try to understand the full impact of a product, from extracting raw materials to manufacturing the product to using the product to disposing of the product. In each product category, we have a different algorithm. 

Then, we run that data through our algorithms to rate products within a category (toothpaste against other toothpastes) on a scale of 0 through 10, (10 being best) and give each a health, environment, and social score, and then aggregate those three into a total score.

What’s the scoop on your new customizable filters?

We want to do the heavy lifting of rating and analyzing the science behind the scenes, but we want to enable consumers to make their own values, concerns, and ethics clear in the marketplace. We created filters so, for instance, if you are morally opposed to animal testing, you can filter for animal testing. Consumers can't change the science, but they can choose which issues they care about more than others, filtering all of our data through their personal preferences so they can find the products and companies that best match their own values or health concerns.

Consumers can’t change the science, but they can choose which issues they care about more than others.

Has GoodGuide motivated any community building or spawned any community initiatives?

We have our own robust community of GoodGuide users, and it’s growing by 500,000-600,000 every month on the site. We’ve had over a million people download the iPhone app. We also have an API that we offer to non-profits and aligned groups so they can create their own tools for their own communities. For instance, we powered a website for a cancer group where they used all of our data and ratings to screen for potential carcinogens, and as a way to educate and enable their community to talk about products and recommend products to each other, but with the power of science behind them. 

What’s next for GoodGuide?

We have had a big pivot recently. In the beginning, we were entirely focused on consumers, and we now have a second strategy of building very similar tools for retailers and institutional purchasers, like hospitals and state and local government. The original idea was that a mom or dad at Target would use GoodGuide to choose between three baby shampoos for the best option for their family. The second tool we’re building is when the buyer for Target is choosing between 1,000 baby shampoos to decide which 100 go on the shelves this year.

We think those two together, consumers plus retailers, have a huge potential to move the whole market towards healthier, more sustainable, more socially responsible products and companies.