I’m strongly committed to buying products that are free of toxic chemicals and made by socially responsible companies that care about the environment. But sticking to this plan isn’t easy. It takes time and attention to detail to do research on the companies and their products. And sometimes, even though I know what I want to buy, the product isn’t in my local store. So I leave empty-handed to do MORE research to figure out where I can buy it online.
I kept thinking there had to be an easier way. Why hadn’t someone developed a website that would compile all this information for me? I knew I wasn’t the only one trying to shop this way.
Thankfully, there are now two websites — GoodGuide.com and EWG.org — that rate products. Neither one of them rates every single product available, but they give me helpful information on products I want to buy as well as where I can get them. Both sites also have smart phone apps, so I can check them while I’m shopping.
EWG.org is the website of the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit founded in 1993 by Ken Cook and Richard Wiles to protect people from health problems linked to toxic contaminants.
You’re probably familiar with the EWG’s Clean 15 and Dirty Dozen lists of conventionally grown produce (not organic). The Clean 15 are the 15 types of fruits and veggies that are lowest in pesticide residues. The Dirty Dozen are the 12 fruits and veggies that have the most pesticide residues. The EWG recommends that people buy organic versions of produce on the Dirty Dozen list to minimize pesticide exposure.
The EWG also created the Skin Deep cosmetics database, which allows you to search more than 74,000 products, including shampoo, nail polish, fragrance, soap, and acne treatments. The EWG gives each product a hazard score, from zero to 10 (zero is the lowest). If you find that your favorite toothpaste has a high hazard rating, you can quickly find an alternative with a lower score.
The EWG also has developed a sunscreen safety guide, a national drinking water database, a U.S. farm subsidy database, a meat eater’s guide to climate change, a guide to healthy cleaning products, and tips on avoiding cell phone radiation. In addition, the EWG maintains a chemical index that’s searchable by the chemical’s name, health effects, and routes of exposure. So if you wanted to see all the chemicals in food that you could possibly be exposed to, you can do that.
Plus there’s more: The EWG guides and indexes are developed by teams of scientists, engineers, policy experts, lawyers, and computer programmers using government data, legal documents, research studies, and lab tests done by EWG scientists.
The EWG aims to give consumers information while also advocating for government policies that protect health and shift subsidies through the EWG Action Fund, which was created in 2002.
GoodGuide.com was founded in 2007 by Dara O’Rourke, professor of environmental and labor policy at the University of California, Berkeley. GoodGuide offers information on the health, environmental, and social performance of products and the companies who make them.
Because GoodGuide is relatively new, I called O’Rourke and talked to him about GoodGuide’s goals and how the site rates products. He told me that GoodGuide wants to cover products that make up the top 80% of sales in the United States. “The goal is to give people more information on the products they’re buying,” O’Rourke said. “We started with the grocery store and expanded out to pet food, apparel, appliances, and electronics, based on feedback from our users. People also can set up filters to sort products by what’s most important to them, like the company’s environmental policies or ingredients that raise health concerns.”
Like the EWG, GoodGuide employs scientific and technology experts that review data from more than 1,000 different sources, including government agencies, manufacturers, product labels, and non-government agencies. GoodGuide offers three scores ranging from zero (the worst) to 10 (the best) for each product. (Please note: This rating system is the opposite of EWG’s. With GoodGuide, the higher the number, the better it is. With EWG, the higher the number, the worse it is.) GoodGuide takes into account:
- health: takes into account potential health effects associated with using or eating a product
- environment: takes into account the potential environmental impact associate with the making, sale, use, and disposal of the product
- society: takes into account the social impact associated with the making and sale of a product
I was initially a little concerned because GoodGuide allows companies to advertise on their products’ rating pages. But O’Rourke was quick to assure me that this advertising in no way influences the ratings. The ratings are done completely separately from the advertising.
“The ads are a test,” he explained. “We’ve only done them for a handful of companies and our users have reacted positively. The ads aren’t designed to sell the products. They’re to provide more information about the company so consumers can make better decisions. We’re trying to figure what’s most helpful for our users.”
O’Rourke told me that GoodGuide has about 600,000 visitors per month and that the mobile app has been downloaded more than 1 million times.
So how do I use these sites? When I’m buying food, especially produce, I consult the EWG’s Clean 15 and Dirty Dozen lists. I also consult the Skin Deep database before I buy personal care products. If two products I’m considering have similar EWG ratings, I hop over to GoodGuide and check out the products’ social and environmental ratings. I look at GoodGuide ratings for packaged foods, as well as clothes and electronics. The GoodGuide mobile app is especially nice for a quick check when I’m trying to decide between two items of clothing. With a few clicks, I can see which company’s social rating is higher and make my choice accordingly.
What about you? Are there other rating sites that you use when deciding what to buy?