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GoodGuide and others use technology to help turn consumers green

A host of companies and nonprofits are using technology – from smartphones to social networking – to make it easier for consumers to choose environmentally friendly products.

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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. 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.)

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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.

This debate isn’t new. Joel Makower, the founder of media company GreenBiz, is skeptical about the power of green consumers – to whom he has been paying close attention since 1991 when he was co-author of a book, The Green Consumer. “A small percentage of consumers, by changing their habits, can move markets,” Makower says. “It’s an incredibly compelling notion. I just haven’t seen it in the market.”

The idea of buying green simply doesn’t seem to drive consumer behavior, Makower notes. “Why we can’t move people to a greener household cleaner or a recycled bathroom tissue or an energy efficient light bulb in greater numbers than we’ve seen so far is one of those enduring mysteries,” he says.

In an interview at GoodGuide’s offices in San Francisco, O’Rourke admits that the company still has a lot to prove. (The 44-year-old academic is now chief sustainability officer at GoodGuide; the board hired George Consagra, a longtime technology executive, as CEO last year.) “I want to be honest about hard this is,” O’Rourke tells me. “Originally we thought that information will set you free. But we’re going up against millions of dollars of marketing.”

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