Choice is a great thing. But with the number of products that have exploded onto the marketplace in recent years, choice has made picking something simple — like a socially responsible brand of shampoo — a conscientious consumer's worst nightmare. Enter GoodGuide, a website that helps consumers find safe, healthy and green products easily with the click of a mouse or, more conveniently, a text message.

"One of our goals is to empower the public with better information so they can make better decisions about products," says Dara O'Rourke, founder and CEO of GoodGuide.

As a professor at the University of California-Berkeley who studies the various impacts of global production systems, O'Rourke knows there's more to a product than what's on the label. But it wasn't until a few years back, after discovering a toxic chemical in his daughter's sunscreen, that O'Rourke realized he knew very little about the products he was bringing into his own home.

"I'm a professor who studies this all day long, and I realized that I basically don't know anything about what I'm putting in, on and around my own child," O'Rourke says.

This realization led to the creation of GoodGuide, a site that allows consumers to look up the environmental, health and social impact of more than 75,000 consumer products in categories like food, toys, personal care and household products. Consumers can also access GoodGuide ratings away from home by either using text messaging or the new GoodGuide iPhone application, which was downloaded about 96,000 times in the month it debuted.

The beauty of GoodGuide is in the details. Using a scientific set of algorithms, GoodGuide pulls together and filters a plethora of data taken from private research firms, government and nonprofits and then makes sense of it all with easy-to-understand numerical ratings that show the product's impact. The end result is a comprehensive and scientifically credible database that covers basically any product-related issue an average shopper might be concerned about.

"We use the science to say what matters scientifically and then go out and get the best data in the world on those issues," O'Rourke says.

In addition, GoodGuide serves as a beacon in the fog of a marketplace continually flooded with "green" labels and misleading marketing messages by using life-cycle analysis to go beyond the label, thereby giving consumers the full story of a product's impact.

For example, though many eco-conscious consumers simply look for the EnergyStar rating when buying a laptop computer, O'Rourke explains that the real environmental impact of a computer is actually found in details like the materials used during the pre-manufacturing stage and the end-of-life disposal options, so it's important that GoodGuide can provide consumers with this information as well.

"It's nice that the laptop is EnergyStar-rated, but that's not nearly as important as if the company has a good recycling program, because a laptop doesn't really use that much energy," he says.

Up until now, getting companies to disclose this type of information to the public has been akin to pulling teeth. But the success of consumer advocacy sites like GoodGuide, coupled with the public's growing frustration about inadequate chemical regulation, has prompted many big-name brands such as Clorox Company and SC Johnson to voluntarily disclose their ingredients in fear of driving away a premium marketing base — the über-conscientious consumer.

"There's a huge movement now towards greater transparency in the marketplace," O'Rourke says. "We're just riding this tidal wave of public interest where people want to know more about their products."

MNN homepage photo: jml5571/iStockphoto

Good to go
With GoodGuide, a website and iPhone app, consumers can instantly see through greenwashing and know how the contents of their shopping carts will affect the env