Image credit: Methodhome.com
The wisdom of crowds is urgently needed in assessing the greenness of products and companies. Today, if you want to validate the social and environmental quality of a product or company, you have a plethora of choices—all with their distinct limitations, and with the result that consumers remain as confused as ever when trying to identify more sustainable products. Consumers can look at a product's green certifications, read company literature, or go to a litany of green ratings sites, one of every shape and size for every industry. Some appear very credible, with ratings that go to a tenth of a point (two significant digits, my fellow engineers out there). Some have cool applications that allow you to scan products in the store. And some come with a name and non-profit status that implies scientific rigor. Unfortunately, what is behind the shiny veneer is often anything but rigorous.
The reason is simple math. Evaluating social and environmental quality requires assessing factors such as sourcing, farming practices, biodegradability, recyclability, toxicity, water usage, and the potential to bioaccumulate, sensitize, or irritate; just to name a few. At my business, Method, we have a team of people whose main job is to assess every material that goes into every Method product. We have all the data we could ever need to do the job, and we only have a few dozen products.
Many of these popular ratings web sites contain tens of thousands of product ratings. It's simply impossible for these sites to go to any level of depth rating so many products with a handful of people conducting the assessment process.
The result is a false sense of credibility coming from a slick front end and a shoddy back end. Method has repeatedly encountered confused consumers misled by this lack of depth, as well as by simple data management errors and oversights. In one example, Method was rated 0 out of 10, "terrible," on ingredient transparency, even though every Method product has ingredients listed on package and detailed listings on our web site. Still today, you can visit an online database of cosmetic products and see errors ranging from incorrect ingredient lists for our products, different scores for the same product in different places, or our fragrance-free hand wash being dinged for containing fragrance. In another instance, a site listed a product we have never made - hair conditioner. Not to mention that the product was poorly rated!
This is particularly frustrating because Method is transparent about our products and practices. Everything from detailed ingredient lists to how we assess, source, make, and ship each of our products is in plain view on our web site. Do these ratings sites even check the web sites of the companies they score?
This presents a grave danger to environmentally conscious consumers. People want to know the social and environmental quality of the goods and services they buy, and there is big business in providing it in an accessible form. But as long as a site appears credible, its development dollars are often spent building the brand to get more eyeballs than developing the rigor needed to be scientifically and technically accurate.
One could foresee a tipping point when one of these ratings sites will win and become the de facto standard of social and environmental quality. When this happens, companies will design products to optimize their scores rather than design for what is truly greener and more responsible, and the green movement will take a huge step backward.
I think there is a logical solution to all this: let the crowds decide. Nowhere is the task better suited to an open-source model than tackling the enormous complexity and sheer volume of data needed to evaluate the social and environmental performance of products and companies. Imagine a Wikipedia for green credibility. The open-source model inherently ensures the integrity of data and enlists an army of interested individuals as its labor force. All industries and product categories could be approached simultaneously as people self-select for where their interests lie. It would also create a huge incentive for companies to be more transparent, or they would run the risk of having erroneous information published about their products.
So perhaps there is a budding entrepreneur out there, ready to take up the task of starting just a service. I believe there is a huge business to be done giving consumers what they need in a credible and rigorous way. And crowd-sourcing unlocks the ability to do it. If I had the time I would do it myself, but alas, there is soap to be made.
For more on this topic:
From Wood to Fish, Green Label Wars Are Spreading -- but Which Ones Can You Trust?
Green Buying Guides
Readers' Choice Winners for Treehugger's Best of Green Awards - Business and Politics