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Change Agent

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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And yet marketing isn’t what it used to be, he notes. No longer can companies control their message. More than a decade ago, O’Rourke learned firsthand how putting a spotlight on corporate malfeasance can drive change. As a graduate student at Berkeley in 1997, he was researching pollution from factories in Vietnam when he came across a leaked internal document about a Nike shoe supplier. It showed that workers were exposed to carcinogens that exceeded legal standards, suffered from respiratory problems, and were forced to work 65 hours for just $10 a week. He provided his findings to The New York Times and posted a report on the Internet, setting off a controversy that led to a turnaround at Nike, which is now seen as a corporate leader on environmental and social issues.

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His experience with Nike “showed both the potential of a new way to distribute information, and, for me, how important it is to get my research out to the public,” O’Rourke says. “GoodGuide is basically an extension of that.” 

GoodGuide began with a mobile phone app that required consumers to photograph bar codes to get data on individual products. It then posted reams of information on its website. Now it offers a popular iPhone app, as well as software called a Transparency Toolbar that attaches to a Web browser. When shopping online at Amazon, Walmart, Target, and other sites, shoppers can see how products perform, according to GoodGuide, on issues they care about. A GoodGuide app can also ride atop Facebook, rating the products and companies in any ads that appear. GoodGuide intends to make money by providing specialized data to retailers or institutional buyers, such as hospitals; it currently generates revenues when consumers go through GoodGuide’s website or toolbar to make purchases on Amazon.

The company’s goal is to “get into the flow of the shopping experience and try to provide the right information at the right moment,” O’Rourke says. GoodGuide has offered to make its data available for display on supermarket and drugstore shelves, but so far it has found no takers. Some retailers may worry about how their store brands would perform; others make money by selling prime shelf space to specific brands, so negative ratings could get in the way of that business.

Still, it’s only going to get harder to keep consumers in the dark. Environmental groups and consumers are pressing to learn more about how and where things are made. Campaigns around palm oil in Kit-Kat bars, BPA in baby bottles, and, most recently, the ammonia-treated ground beef extender known as “pink slime” have all triggered rapid reactions from business.

“Spikes of information, or misinformation, in social media can pressure business practices in a big way,” says Jonathan Yohannan, an executive vice president at Cone Communications.
 In such instances, the consumer doesn’t need to act. Merely the fear of exposure and a backlash can spur change. Says O’Rourke: “Transparency is moving forward. That’s unstoppable. Our big bet is that transparency is going to motivate change.” It’s too soon to say whether that bet will pay off.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Marc Gunther is a contributing editor at Fortune, a senior writer at Greenbiz.com and a blogger at www.marcgunther.com. His book, "Suck It Up: How Capturing Carbon From the Air Can Help Solve the Climate Crisis," is available as an Amazon Kindle Single.

This article originally appeared at the blog Yale Environment 360.

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