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Difference Maker

People making a difference: Dara O'Rourke

This consumer advocate teams up with analysts and rates products to make shoppers smarter.

By Michael B. FarrellStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / August 30, 2009

Dara O’Rourke is the cofounder of GoodGuide, a website and iPhone app that taps the expertise of scientists and engineers to analyze the environmental and other impact of consumer goods.

Tony Avelar/The Christian Science Monitor

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San Francisco

Dara O'Rourke wants to change the way we shop. He already is spurring a growing number of cautious consumers to think twice about what they buy – from soap to soup, detergent to deodorant. Mr. O'Rourke is cofounder of a website and iPhone app called GoodGuide, a sort of CliffsNotes to the confounding and complex world of ingredients typically – but not always – found listed on the back of everyday products.

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In less than a year, O'Rourke and a team of scientists and engineers working out of an office in downtown San Francisco have analyzed the ingredients in more than 75,000 products. And they have rated them from 0 to 10 – with 10 being the best score – based on their environmental impact, as well as on health and social factors.

It's all in the name of transparency, O'Rourke says. Even the savviest shopper knows little about most ingredients listed on the most common grocery store items. With GoodGuide providing better information, the public "will make better choices about what they buy," says O'Rourke, a professor of environmental and labor policy at the University of California, Berkeley. "Transparency will make the world better."

For instance, who knew that aluminum starch octenylsuccinate, an ingredient often found in men's grooming products, was a neurotoxin – or that an active ingredient in most sunscreens is oxybenzone, which, when exposed to sunlight, is potentially carcinogenic?

"We basically don't know anything about the products we buy. In some ways, we live in the Dark Ages when we go shopping," he says.

For most of his academic career, O'Rourke has analyzed the environmental and social impact of the massive global supply chain by which most goods end up on American shelves. He's worked in Chinese factories and with major American corporations.

But when he began thinking about the products in his own house, he realized he knew very little about what he was actually using.

O'Rourke began by investigating the contents of the sunscreen and shampoo he purchased for his daughter. He was surprised about what he found – skin irritants and carcinogenic properties.

Along with his Berkeley students, he started examining other products. They found that a fruit drink, which advertised itself as healthy, contained more sugar than a soft drink. They found toys covered in toxic lead paint. And they developed a database – which sparked the idea for GoodGuide.com. While they were discovering bad stuff, they also started looking for alternatives. "Almost immediately I moved from the bad news...," O'Rourke says. "I wanted to find the good products."

Items are rated from 0 to 10, but few land at those extremes. A rating between 6 and 8 would be good, while 3 to 5 would be not-so-good. GoodGuide says it uses more than 600 criteria to evaluate products. When considering environmental impact, for instance, it looks at data on the product's entire life cycle – from how it's manufactured to how it decomposes in a landfill. In terms of corporate social values, GoodGuide looks at worker pay, disclosure policies, and charitable contributions.

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