Radical Transparency: The Key to Shopping Our Way to Sustainability

04/22/2011 05:14 pm ET | Updated Jun 22, 2011

Consumers say they want to shop their environmental values. Many claim to already be doing so. But the sales figures don't lie. When organic food comprises less than 2% of the total U.S. food market (see organic food sales and total food sales) and hybrid car purchases comprise less than 2.5% of total U.S. car sales, it's clear that good intentions aren't really translating into greener decisions.

I've been advocating green products professionally for a while now. In 2003, I founded Vivavi to assemble a collection of modern design green furniture and furnishings for retail. In 2005, I created The Lazy Environmentalist to spread the message of how leading a green lifestyle is increasingly easy, attractive and affordable. There's no doubt that the green marketplace is growing and that green consumer spending is increasing. The problem is that it's happening so slowly that it will never -- at least not in my lifetime or even within this century -- lead to a sustainable economy functioning in balance with nature. We're moving at a snail's pace.

So for the past year, I've been asking myself -- what comes next? What nascent trend or technology could catalyze green consumer spending and thus accelerate economic sustainability on a mass scale?

Like others such as Daniel Goleman, I've come to believe that the answer is radical transparency -- that is, revealing the full story to consumers about the environmental, health and societal impacts of every consumer product on every store shelf. Not just so-called green products, but everything. Like which is greener, healthier and more sustainable: Fruit Loops or Cap'n Crunch? Crest toothpaste or Aquafresh? Ragu pasta sauce or Prego? Which of those are better for me, the planet and the workers making them?

This is what I believe millions of people would potentially like to know because these are the kinds of products that the vast majority of people actually buy. As much as I wish it were so, average Americans really aren't wondering whether Burt's Bees soap is better or worse for the planet than Dr. Bronners. But they might be interested to know whether Dove soap is healthier and more sustainable than Ivory soap.

Naturally, the next question is -- what technology would enable us to quickly compare products on these criteria at the precise moment I want the information? Which, of course, is when I'm standing in the shopping aisle deciding what to buy.

The answer for me is a mobile app from a company called GoodGuide. Backed by a team of scientists -- chemists, nutritionists, toxicologists, lifecycle analysis experts, and the like -- GoodGuide scientifically rates the universe of consumer products based on their environmental, health and social impacts. GoodGuide's mobile shopping app lets you scan product barcodes while shopping to instantly discover those impacts that, until now, had been hidden from view.

Last fall, I got so excited about GoodGuide and its potential to vastly accelerate positive change that I flew to San Francisco to meet with the co-founder, Dara O'Rourke, to discuss joining the management team. Several months later, I'm now running marketing for GoodGuide and in the process of implementing the lessons I've learned about a making a sustainable value proposition appeal to mainstream Americans. In just a few years since its inception, GoodGuide has rated over 100,000 consumer products evaluating everything from food, to personal care products, to household products along with categories such as cars, apparel and baby products.

Depending upon where you sit, transparency is either exciting or daunting. Exciting if you're the consumer and you finally get to understand what exactly you're putting in, on and around your body and what the broader impacts of your choices are upon the world. Daunting if you're a consumer products company and you'd like a little more time to get your house in order before consumers start peeking inside. Either way, transparency is already here and more of it is on the way. I believe it offers the best opportunity yet for a consumer-led transformation to a more sustainable world.