Getting Ecological Transparency Right

Call it death by Froot Loops. The food industry’s much-ballyhooed, and hugely expensive, Smart Choice campaign was launched last August and pulled just months later. Why? Questionable products like Froot Loops and Cocoa Crispies got a Smart Choice green check of approval. The New York Times slammed the campaign in an article headlined, “For Your Health, Froot Loops.”

To be sure, these cereals have fiber and vitamins — but, as the Times reported, about 40% of Froot Loops’ weight comes from the 12 grams of sugar per serving. The Times quoted the chair of the nutrition department at the Harvard School of Public Health, who derided the ratings as “horrible choices.”

The attorney general of Connecticut announced he was investigating Smart Choice as consumer deception. The FDA began a sweeping investigation of such product claims, seeking clear standards for health claims. Two days after the FDA announcement, the Smart Choices program said they would suspend their operations.

As one FDA adviser put it, “We don’t want front-of-package information in any way based on cherry-picking the good and not disclosing adequately the components of a product that may be less good.” Past practices, such as when industries set standards too low for one or another “healthy” or “green” certification, cannot survive in the new climate of eco-transparency. That’s the danger in companies buying a place at the table to sway standards and evaluations in their favor.

On the other hand, if such a sustainability index is truly objective and comes into wide use in the marketplace, its positive impacts would be profound. Analysis of transparency systems by the Harvard John F. Kennedy School of Government’s Transparency Policy Project established three criteria for transparency systems: they should be authoritative, impartial, and comprehensive.

Two transparency product-rating systems already operate staunchly following these principles. SkinDeep, a website that ranks personal care products for potential toxicity, searches for each of a products’ listed ingredient in medical databases to see if they might, for example, cause cancer in lab mice, disrupt the endocrine system in fetuses, or play a role in other biological maladies. The system itself is transparent; any user can dig down to find how the ratings were arrived at.

GoodGuide aggregates databases like SkinDeep’s into a single score. It rates tens of thousands of consumer goods and foods (and the companies that make them) on their environmental, health, and social impacts. GoodGuide, too, offers transparency to users (though a few of the databases remain “black box”).

Neither SkinDeep nor GoodGuide are for-profit ventures, and both fiercely protect their independence. GoodGuide’s founder Dara O’Rourke tells me that more and more companies are coming to him asking for help in rethinking their brands to make them more desirable in a greening marketplace. O’Rourke says, “They’re often shocked when they realize we are not some consulting company that they can hire to massage our data or lower our standards to give them a better rating.”

GoodGuide has begun to offer companies the ecological equivalent of Google Analytics for websites: an analysis of why a given product or the company as a whole ranks as it does, what the worst impacts are, and suggestions for upgrading their policies or processes to get a better ranking.

Other strategies for meeting the need for transparent, impartial ratings include industry-wide disclosure of ecological impacts. An article in Chemical and Engineering News shows how such a proposed green certification standard for the chemical industry would see full disclosure on product labels akin to the familiar food nutrition panels. A notebook computer, for example, would have a label listing its carbon footprint, recycled content, power use, heavy metals, and chemicals that are candidates for phasing out under the rigorous assessments of chemical toxicity being undertaken by the EU.

“The world of marketing is changing,” a marketing consultant tells me. “Brands are desperate to control how they’re evaluated, but you can’t just buy the score you want. You’ve got to make the smarter choices that will earn a better rating.”

Meanwhile, marketplace ecological transparency continues to increase. Some retailers are in conversation with GoodGuide about putting its ratings next to the price tags of products on their shelves. Others are starting to use GoodGuide ratings as a screen in deciding which products to stock. But the prize for truly going green will go to the first company to put GoodGuide ratings right on their own products. That will raise the product-greening competitive bar for everyone.

Originally published at Harvard Business Review

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