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Are Your Holiday Purchases Naughty or Nice? Cal Prof’s App Aims to Help Millions Be Good

December 19, 2014
by Michael Kershner

If you are looking to make ethical gift-giving decisions this holiday season, UC Berkeley environmental sciences professor Dara O’Rourke can help.  O’Rourke is the co-founder of GoodGuide, a free app and website where close to 30 million consumers have gone for product ratings based on the items’ impacts on health, the environment and society.

“We were committed to the idea that information on its own could really change the marketplace,” says O’Rourke, whose team of environmental scientists, computer scientists, nutritionists and sociologists built the first version of the GoodGuide app in 2007—outfitted for a Nokia smart phone.

The latest version of the app is easy to use, allowing consumers to scan the barcode for a given product and receive a rating of one through ten for the product as a whole, as well as how it performs in the three subcategories.  Though the database is not exhaustive, O’Rourke and his team are constantly monitoring what products people search for, and adding new companies to their system. I was able to look up and find most of the products in my medicine cabinet and fridge—and I must say, it was a bit disheartening.

My deodorant got a 4.0 health rating, dinged for containing a chemical suspected of causing skin toxicity. My milk received a society rating of 4.6 because the local creamery I buy from isn’t so good at disclosing its employment practices. Most alarming of all was my soap, which did poorly across the board, receiving a measly overall score of 3.5.

These low ratings shocked me. I try to buy all-natural and local products, and here I am inadvertently supporting companies that have little to no green policy, don’t disclose how they treat their workers, and put me at high risk of an armpit rash.

Despite the fact that many users of GoodGuide have a similar experience, O’Rourke and his team have come to believe that the consumer likely won’t change his or her purchasing habits simply because of these ratings. GoodGuide is able to track when products searched for on its site are placed in the user’s Amazon shopping cart. Simply put, their conversion rate is very low. (For users who go to directly, there are only 1.2 additional items added to baskets out of every 100 page visits.) That’s a tough pill to swallow for a company that set out believing information alone could change the marketplace.

“We have not achieved our goals by any means,” O’Rourke says bluntly. But he isn’t ready to give up on his brainchild just yet. Instead, he is digging deeper to find out why his app isn’t leading to greener, more conscientious consumers.

O’Rourke and Berkeley doctoral student Abraham Ringer analyzed a 12-month period in which received 41,398 product page visits, searching for the key features that turned those page visits into actual product purchases. The results of their study were collected in a paper titled,  “The Impact of Sustainability Information on Consumer Decision-Making,” which is under final revisions for The Journal of Industrial Ecology.

Not surprisingly, they found that “consumers who have expressed previous commitment to sustainability issues appear to make use of this information as part of their purchasing process.” However, this doesn’t address GoodGuide’s goal of reaching beyond niche groups of green-minded consumers. The study references “non-direct” users of GoodGuide, or those who arrive at their site though a generic search, such as “best baby shampoo,” as opposed to looking up directly. Among this group, there is “essentially no response.”

Though consumers do seem more willing to bend on issues relating to personal health, the draft states, “Decisions around products that ‘just have to work’ such as deodorant or hair dye, are very resistant to influence via sustainability information.” So while that rash may change my deodorant choice, the company’s green policy likely will not, especially if the product keeps my armpits dry when I’m working against a tight deadline.

O’Rourke and Ringer also argue that the focus should be placed on products that are used publicly: “Even products displayed on your kitchen counter, like dish soap, may be more open to influence from information campaigns.” In a way, O’Rourke is learning the same tactics marketing agencies use to sell the products he is rating. By playing off our cognitive biases, GoodGuide will be more capable of shifting our deeply ingrained purchasing practices.

GoodGuide is also figuring out that the presentation of information might matter more than the ratings themselves. For instance, telling app users that their baby shampoo might irritate their little tykes’ skin changes their buying behavior more than informing them that another shampoo is organic or green.

Meanwhile, the folks at GoodGuide, undeterred by their lack of success at transforming users’ purchasing decisions, are working diligently to overcome another main obstacle: transparency.

“The vast majority of information on mainstream consumer products is coming from companies that are publicly traded,” says O’Rourke, but “a privately owned firm doesn’t have the same public disclosure requirements,” he added. So it might be best not to assume that local necessarily means more virtuous.

To account for the dearth of information available for small, local businesses, the GoodGuide team has approached these companies directly and used the Global Reporting Initiative to perform an assessment similar to the one publicly traded companies endure. They go as far as to track a firm’s recalls, scandals, lawsuits, and controversies. It’s tedious and arduous work.

O’Rourke admits there are times where his undertaking seems overwhelming: “About once I week, I think this is an insane proposition—that we have a Sisyphean task.

“I wish the government would do this. I could go back to my office and drink a latté.”

Until then, determined to ensure that his creation doesn’t perish in the purgatory of our unused iPhone apps, he intends to keep pushing his boulder up the hill.

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