The Scientist in Your Pocket 

Eco geeks and safety nerds team up to help consumers shop their values.

So there you stand in the aisle at Toys "R" Us or Longs Drugs, dazed, confused, and wondering if that "Dora the Explorer" doll or kiddie sunscreen you are about to buy is really all that safe. Paranoid thoughts skip through your head: Wasn't there a big scandal last year about toys from overseas covered in lead paint? Which toys are deadly, which ones are safe? And what's in that sunscreen anyway?

Now you can find an answer to those and other questions at GoodGuide.com. The web site is a free online product evaluation service — the brainchild of Dara O'Rourke, an associate professor of Environmental and Labor Policy at UC Berkeley. GoodGuide.com offers independent safety, toxicity, environmental, and social benefit evaluations on 63,249 personal care, makeup, medical, and household chemical products and the companies that make those products.

And on December 10, just in time for the holiday shopping season, GoodGuide will go live with product safety and chemical content reviews of 1,500 toy brands, among them the Spider-Man, Star Wars, and Indiana Jones action lines; Kung Fu Panda; Matchbox; My Little Pony; Nerf; Sponge Bob Square Pants; Tonka; Fisher Price; and Disney. Toys are analyzed for the presence of lead, mercury, cadmium, arsenic, chlorine, and phthalates — a potentially toxic chemical used as a softener in plastic toys. (Remember the Nalgene crises? Same stuff, bisphenol-A.) Manufacturers also are judged on their environmental and social records.

Here's how it works. Flip open your cell phone, call 41411, text in "gguide" and the bar code number of the product in question, and hit send. You also can text in product names or categories. In two to five seconds you'll have product safety information. iPhone users can download a free program at the iPhone App Store and use it while browsing in the aisles.

"This is our first foray in getting information into your hands while you are in the store," exclaims O'Rourke, whose fresh, smiling face belies the hard-core researcher and data freak lurking inside: "We can get information to you the retailer never wants to tell you!"

Jumping up from his desk in downtown San Francisco — a former financial services company office rented for a song — the energetic O'Rourke gestures between his face and a bookshelf two feet away. "Industry spends billions of dollars in this space figuring how to get you to buy their product. You are highly marketed. All we are trying to do is cut a little hole through that wall of marketing money. Here, in your hand, you can have independent information, a personal scientist in your pocket to help you live your own values in the marketplace."

O'Rourke's eleven-strong GoodGuide startup team is drawn from the tech sector and academia, or "geeks" and "nerds," as he affectionately calls them. They wrestle vast amounts of data gleaned from a variety of sources, including respected analysts like the Environmental Working Group and RiskMetrics, into a clean, well-designed, user-friendly format. GoodGuide works with numerous academic sources, a bakers dozen of science advisors and a variety of nonprofits whose purviews range from environmental issues to child safety and women's rights.

"People are hungry for this information, they are ready to change their buying based on this information," says Joel Lewenstein, a software designer and GoodGuide front-end designer. "Right now it is hard to get; it is either expensive, not easily accessible, or hard to understand."

GoodGuide translates that hard-to-understand information into easy-on-the-brain graphics: a 0 through 10 rating system with green for highly rated, tan for moderate, and brick-red for sub-par products. An added bonus on the site is information on political donations. Want to find out exactly how much money Southwest Airlines or The Body Shop (!!!) gave to the Republicans? At GoodGuide.com/contributions you'll find a vertical split screen that is blue on the left and red on the right. Corporate logos are arrayed across it based on the money donated. The further to the left or right the logo is, the more money was donated.

The GoodGuide is an idea whose time has come, but O'Rourke wasn't so sure when, with great trepidation, he entered GoodGuide in TechCrunch 50 in July or in last month's prestigious Web2.0 conference in San Francisco. The site won awards and rave reviews at both conferences. "The amazing thing is the overwhelmingly positive response," he said grinning. "They said this thing should exist and why doesn't it exist already?"

GoodGuide is a very personal endeavor for O'Rourke, both in career terms and his personal life. One day he was putting sunscreen on his five-year-old daughter, and realized he had no idea what was in it. "I am a tenured professor. I have studied this and I barely know what I am exposing my daughter to! ... This is more than academic. I just found one of my daughter's favorite toys is covered in phthalates. Last year I discovered lead in Dora the Explorer and found a photo carcinogen in her sunscreen — that's a chemical that has a carcinogenic effect when exposed to sunlight. Not the most logical thing to put in a sunscreen!"

The GoodGuide, however, was no sudden epiphany. O'Rourke spent many years investigating product supply chains for the UN Environmental Program in Thailand and Vietnam. His research asked questions like where exactly do those overpriced sneakers come from? Are they made in sweatshops? Do their manufacturers engage in rampant environmental destruction? That work inspired a front-page story in The New York Times, which in turn inspired Doonesbury cartoons satirizing Nike sweatshops in Vietnam.

The problem, says O'Rourke, is that his research never really filtered down to consumers, many of whom were his students. "People ask us which is better, Starbucks or Peet's? Apple or Dell?" When he responded with typical academic caution and caveats, they would get annoyed saying, "'Just tell us what we should buy. We don't care about supply chains.'" That led O'Rourke to wonder if there was a way he could make all that information useful for the public. He started research in 2004 and spun it off campus in 2007.

The eventual result was a new kind of startup company, not a for-profit, but a for-benefit chartered in New York state: a startup with a social mission where the stakeholders are consumers, not stockholders. But that also meant a move to San Francisco to find angel investors. Why? For Silicon Valley investors, the Bay Bridge was a near insurmountable cultural divide. Hence a Battery Street office that looks like a classic dotcom startup, complete with toys, white boards, couches, and a Razor Scooter to get to and from the kitchen. In typical Internet form, the revenue model is still being fashioned.

While fiscal backing comes from San Francisco and Silicon Valley's tech savvy culture, that is not GoodGuide's target audience. Given the toy scandals of last year and the discovery of melamine in US baby formula a few days ago, it is pretty clear that many Americans, regardless of their political leanings, want independent product safety information. That gives O'Rourke hope his web site can nudge corporations toward more responsible behavior with his ratings. "This has moved from the Whole Foods crowd to the Trader Joe's crowd to the Costco crowd to the Wal-Mart crowd."

O'Rourke pointed out that a couple of companies with low ratings on GoodGuide have already contacted him and are engaged in quiet negotiations about how to improve their rating. Having said that, O'Rourke doesn't think that consumer purchasing can save the world. There are a huge number of unnecessary products, such as air fresheners. His advice: open a window, or if you need to unclog a drain, try baking soda and vinegar.

But most people won't do that, so he says it makes sense to purchase the least dangerous chemicals, while encouraging corporations to use less toxic ingredients. "We want to make it super easy to find safe, healthy, green products," says O'Rourke. He adds that the market can potentially be redirected. "We can go from the dark ages to much more transparent system. That is exciting. We don't think shopping will lead to sustainability, but it is a small step to shifting the balance of power through shifting access to this information."

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