"Vote with your dollars" has become a common refrain among proponents of products ranging from renewable energy to all-natural shampoo. But for the average consumer trying to avoid certain chemicals or business practices, finding info can be overwhelming. A new crop of databases packed with information about the social, environmental, and health effects of consumer products--and the rise of mobile devices that allow on-the-spot access--could change that.
For the Web site goodguide.com, academics and technologists have devised an algorithm to rank personal-care and household products based on data from U.S., European Union, and California regulators, as well as nonprofits and research institutions. Tokyo-based start-up Rinen is developing an environmental-load calculator (opentrace.org) based on manufacturing inputs. However brilliant the algorithms, Jeff Hohensee, CEO of the consulting firm Natural Capitalism Incorporated, says the biggest challenge for Web sites like GoodGuide and OpenTrace may be reducing consumer effort to zero. "People are not doing backflips for things that are sustainable," he says, but as these new tools evolve, you may not have to. "If [businesses] are not way out ahead of the curve," Hohensee says, "they're going to be way out of business."