Online Tools for Mindful Consumerism

For many people, mindful consumerism starts with questioning the desire to buy Stuff. The reason might be to save money or avoid clutter — maybe both. It's the first part of a journey to differentiate needs from wants and make mindful decisions about where to spend our hard-earned money.

But at some point, most of us will consume. We'll buy food or clothing or household items. We'll need to replace something, fix something, or upgrade something. When we make these purchases, we're playing a role in a process. Much goes into creating a product and getting it on the shelf, though as a consumer, we don't see that process. We don't know if the companies involved in bringing it to us have decent working conditions for employees, pollute water systems, or include additives that pose health risks to our families.

Daniel Goleman, author of Ecological Intelligence: The Hidden Impacts of What We Buy, wrote about considering the global effects of our purchases in his essay, Making the Right Choice:

An organic cotton t-shirt may be called “green” because they didn't use pesticides or chemical fertilizers when growing the cotton. That's on the good side of the ledger, to be sure, but if we look into the life cycle of the t-shirt, we discover that organic cotton fibers are shorter than other fibers, so you need to grow a lot more cotton per t-shirt. Cotton is typically raised in arid parts of the world, and it's a very thirsty crop, so a lot of water is implicated in the production of the t-shirt.

Also, if it's a colored t-shirt, we have to take into account that textile dyes tend to be carcinogenic. When we consider all these angles, we may come to see that if you change one thing about a product and leave 999 unchanged, it's not green.

It's enough to make the average consumer's head spin. Most people would like to make informed choices and reward companies whose processes make us feel good, but doing this in practice is daunting. If a busy parent is in the grocery store with two children to wrangle, it's not feasible for that person to stop and trace the life cycles of Cheesy Poufs versus Cheddar Puffs. People can't be expected to spend hours on the web researching the health, societal, and environmental effects of every purchase. Not gonna happen.

Technology provides the tools
Luckily, it's getting easier to know what's behind a brand. Skin Deep and GoodGuide are two web databases that provide the backstory on the Stuff we buy.

  • Skin Deep is a safety guide to cosmetics and personal care products researched by the Environmental Working Group. You can search by product, ingredient, or company, and the site will return a hazard rating with the product broken down by ingredients.
  • GoodGuide is a database of more than 70,000 food, toys, personal care, and household products that rates the products and companies based on the effects they have so that users can make informed decisions based on what is important to them.

For example, GoodGuide provides information about Quaker Quick Oats, which it rates a 7.3 overall (out of 10), and Nature's Path Organic Instant Hot Oatmeal, which is rated 6.7. We might assume that the organic brand would be healthier, but in fact it's higher in sugar than similar products. When it comes to environmental effects, Quaker Quick Oats scores lower for water and energy management. Users can delve deeper into how these ratings are determined by clicking on See All Data.

The brainchild of Dara O'Rourke, a professor at University of California-Berkeley, GoodGuide was developed with experts from Harvard and MIT, with tech input from talent at Google, eBay, Amazon, and Intuit. And the tech part is what makes GoodGuide great. The database is available as an iPhone, iPod Touch, and iPad app that allows users to scan barcodes and compare products. Users also can create personalized shopping lists and lists of products to avoid, making it easier shop mindfully when you're on the go.

Start small
If you're interested learning more about where your Stuff comes from, make a few changes and build from there. Don't feel like you have to throw out all of the “bad” Stuff you own and replace it with the “good” Stuff. To start, pick one product you're curious about, and see if it's listed on Good Guide or Skin Deep. How does it score? Is there a better alternative that will still meet your needs? Often the better-rated product also is the less expensive, which is a great bonus. In fact, I've slowly replaced my skin-care products with cheaper products that also rate better when it comes to health and societal effects. Sometimes the expensive products packaged in “green”-looking bottles rate surprising low.

I'm interested to know what you think about databases like Skin Deep and GoodGuide. Have you ever wondered how some of the products you buy get to the shelf? Would you use tools like these to learn more about the effects of the Stuff you buy?

More about...Uncategorized

Become A Money Boss And Join 15,000 Others

Subscribe to the GRS Insider (FREE) and we’ll give you a copy of the Money Boss Manifesto (also FREE)

Yes! Sign up and get your free gift
Become A Money Boss And Join 15,000 Others
guest
29 Comments
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Peggy
Peggy
10 years ago

I do use GoodGuide and Skin Deep. I don’t use them at the store because buying for my family, juggling canvas bags and assessing unit pricing is hard enough. One more ball to juggle would put me right over the edge. But I will research things before I head to the store. It’s usually just one item a week. Hubby runs out of shampoo, so we discuss options. The great thing about GoodGuide is how it is broken down into several areas. My daughter who is a human rights crusader can use the information to decide on one product over… Read more »

DreamChaser57
DreamChaser57
10 years ago

Informative post – I was not familiar with either of these sites, they both have incredibly engaging interfaces which is promising. I have bookmarked them both and will be using them going forward. I am mindful of our ecological footprint as a household and look to reduce it slowly by intergrating best practices. Health is also a concern. I think it is too overwhelming to do a wholesale revamping of our entire lives to go “green”.

Kara
Kara
10 years ago

I had not heard of either web site before. Thank you for the links. I was able to learn more about some products that I am currently using and will be able to make more informed decisions in the future.

Little House
Little House
10 years ago

Thanks for the information to GoodGuide and Skin Deep. I’m glad to know that Quaker Quick Oats scored pretty high, I eat it for breakfast most days. I also watched a short film called “The Story of Stuff” by Anne Leonard a while back, it was really eye opening and makes you think about the “stuff” we buy.

Manfred Georg
Manfred Georg
10 years ago

What bothers me about these sort of tools and approaches to “mindful” shopping is that they are trying to quantify hidden costs. I don’t want to have to weigh which is better using my own moral compass. And then be forced to turn that weight into a dollar amount I am willing to spend extra for a more “mindful” product. I want these hidden costs taken into account. Decide how much water costs environmentally and incorporate that into the price. And do this for all of the ingredients in products. Then I will have only one number to worry about,… Read more »

Sarah
Sarah
10 years ago

Relating this to personal finance, once you start thinking about all the ways that stuff uses up resources (including human resources) and spits out waste, the compulsion to buy and to have decreases pretty substantially.

At this point I’m willing to spend a lot for things that are made right, because I don’t buy much in general.

Jackie
Jackie
10 years ago

I hadn’t heard of either of those tools, and thinking about using them kind of makes my head spin, although I can see that they would be informative. On the topic of cotton, I like to buy Pima cotton because it’s grown right down the way from me, but this article points out just how much I still don’t know about what’s involved with bringing products to market, etc.

Leah
Leah
10 years ago

Thanks for bringing this to light! It is indeed true that there is so much more that goes into a product than we realize. Life Cycle Analysis is key to understanding why one thing is a better choice than another. For example, unless you use a ceramic mug somewhere in the neighborhood of a thousand times +, it’s actually better to use the paper cup. This makes me cry inside, as an environmentalist, but it is true. The amount of energy and water used for making and washing ceramic cups is a lot (mostly in the making) whereas that for… Read more »

Mark Gavagan
Mark Gavagan
10 years ago

Thanks for an interesting article that gets into a topic that is becoming more and more important as consumer awareness about the “true cost” of goods and services increases.

“The Omnivore’s Dilemma” by Michael Pollan is a great read for anyone considering this issues as they relate to food.

Here’s a link to the author’s website: http://www.michaelpollan.com/omnivore.php

Kevin M
Kevin M
10 years ago

Wow, cool resource. My wife and I constantly struggle with this question – when is organic better and which choice is helpful vs. harmful to us or the environment.

LiveCheap.com
LiveCheap.com
10 years ago

Very informative and something we’ll check out. Interesting to know that there is a good database out there that tracks this stuff. Seems like they could use more marketing to get the word out and your article should help. I think the reality is that many families aren’t able to handle another element in trying to optimize their purchases. Not sure if the databases take it into account, but one simple way to compare is to look at the location of origin. It takes quite a bit of energy to get stuff all the way around the world. If you… Read more »

Beth @ Smart Family Tips
Beth @ Smart Family Tips
10 years ago

I’ve come to live & purchase by the Skin Deep database. I’m really concerned about not subjecting my children and myself to any more harmful chemicals than necessary. I’m just starting to use the Good Guide more and find it really helpful as well.

Thanks for getting the word out, April.

DC Portland
DC Portland
10 years ago

Great post! I’m glad April is back with a timely guest post. Mindful consumerism leads to three immensely important outcomes; greater personal well-being, greater personal financial health, and a healthier environment. All three exist synergistically. In contrast, when one element suffers, all three suffer.

Amy
Amy
10 years ago

Excellent post — many thanks!

UnderstatementJones
UnderstatementJones
10 years ago

This is why buying things isn’t a good path to social change – in most cases, it’s cheaper for companies to convince you they’re good than to actually be good.

If people spent half the effort they spend on buying green on advocating green policies in government, though, the world would be a much better place.

chacha1
chacha1
10 years ago

Have to disagree, UnderstatementJones … unless you want government to dictate exactly what can and will be produced and sold. Most people in the world are not in a position to be concerned with “green.” They are more concerned with “affordable.” Government can *guide* production by *regulating* production (by requiring pollution controls, or by setting import quotas, or by providing subsidies for renewable energy use, or through price supports), which is basically what it does now. But you can see by just those four examples that government action isn’t necessarily desirable. Citizen demand is always balanced against industry resistance. In… Read more »

Liface
Liface
10 years ago

Unfortunately, it looks like GoodGuide bases their nutrition facts rating on only four nutrients:

Saturated Fat
Cholesterol
Sugars
Sodium

Tracking Saturated Fat and Sugars is fine, but dietary cholesterol is basically a red herring, it has little to no effect on body cholesterol. Also, sodium is not very important to overall health.

How about a protein to carbs ratio?

UnderstatementJones
UnderstatementJones
10 years ago

I’m not going to get involved in a big debate over free market economics versus regulation, but: It’s precisely because people are more concerned with affordable than green that regulation has an important place in the market. Through regulation government can ensure (at least, better than the free market) that consumers and industries don’t externalize costs onto others. You’re right that consumer demand drives production, but that doesn’t always happen in the most straightforward way. There are three dry cleaners on my block that all claim to be “organic.” This is technically true, but they’re using “organic” in the sense… Read more »

Peggy
Peggy
10 years ago

Another great post, April. I haven’t had time to check the two sites, but will do so this weekend. We live overseas, move about every few years, and I buy most of our clothes and household items through the internet because for the most part we can’t find items locally that fit or will last. One thing I would like to see is that on-line shopping sites provide customer ratings and that they list the country of origin/fabrication of the goods. I realize this could be challenging when it comes to country of origin as sometimes materials that make up… Read more »

Ash
Ash
10 years ago

This is a little off topic, but I wanted to point out to your readers that for people interested and concerned about issues revolving around food, one really good resource is a podcast called Deconstructing Dinner. It is based out of British Columbia, but the issues they deal with are generally global and often involve the United States. Even when they are more local in substance, such as salmon farming, it often involves a product that is sold across borders. I knew a little bit about a number of the issues they discuss, but I definitely have a much more… Read more »

J
J
10 years ago

I went to the Skin Deep website and checked out LUSH, one of my favorite companies. Turns out some of the horrible, cancer-causing ingredients that Skin Deep hammers them for includes such things as salt (sodium chloride) and baking soda (sodium bicarbonate). Quaking in my boots here…

John @ TheChristianDollar.com
John @ TheChristianDollar.com
10 years ago

It is so interesting to study how and why we buy “stuff.” So many live day-to-day not giving a second thought to what it is that they are buying. I think your article helps us wake up to the reality that buying is a process that we all engage in, and need to be thoughtful in while doing.

Ken Siew
Ken Siew
10 years ago

Thanks for the informative post April. You pointed out something something very important. We are often deceived by the word “Organic” and the likes and just buy products without really finding out whether it’s truly good for us. I have to admit, occasionally I still make irrational decisions when it comes to money, as much as I know I could do better. And I agree, nobody would spend time researching and buying green products, so those tools might come in handy for those who are concerned about global warming and stuffs (we should be). On the other hand, I think… Read more »

Justin
Justin
10 years ago

Great post!

I have definitely tried to do more research this last year or so before I just go blindly buy product I’ve never used before.

I think a lot of times we just think that doctors, the FDA, etc. is looking out for us, but I think we really have to look out for ourselves first!

Rebecca
Rebecca
10 years ago

Thanks April – I use Skin Deep but hadn’t heard of GoodGuide. Especially now that I consume less, I’m more conscious of the impact (budgetary, personal health, long-term affordability, hidden societal costs) and can make the choice to consider big-picture issues in my purchasing. Sites like the two you mentioned and articles like yours give people the real toold to actively consider the broader impacts of our purchasing.

Maggi
Maggi
10 years ago

Free2work.org may be helpful for checking conditions for workers. Their site “helps consumers identify companies which do not have forced or child labor in their production.”

Pam
Pam
10 years ago

Insightful post. I think as a whole the general public is becoming more concerned about understanding where the products they buy come from and whether or not they are “green” or if people have been exploited in the manufacturing process. This is a really great thing to see and I hope it continues. Thanks for sharing those links.

Terrin
Terrin
10 years ago

The site’s are interesting, but somewhat subjective in what the authors deem important. For instance, Quaker Oats Quick Oats scores higher then Nature’s Path Organic Instant Hot Oatmeal, but that is largely based on traditional notions of health. In other words, the specific flavor of Nature Path’s Cereal has more sugar, so it is knocked down in points because Quaker Oats has less. However, organic products are not allowed to use genetically modified ingredients whereas non-organic products are allowed to do so and are not required to disclose whether or not they are doing so. The long term effects of… Read more »

Bonnie
Bonnie
10 years ago

Skin Deep is useful to a point. For example, it’s very useful for evaluating conventional drugstore or department store products, but when you get to the super-organic brands (such as Dr. Hauschka or Suki Naturals), the database is much less useful. For example, many organic brands use a proprietary blend of essential oils as fragrance, but the Skin Deep database doesn’t differentiate between essential oil fragrances and synthetic, lab-produced chemical fragrances. According to Skin Deep, all fragrances are in the “red” or “mortal peril” category. So, since I don’t use conventional beauty products to begin with, I haven’t found it… Read more »

shares