A while back I bought a bargain-bin, shiny, toy car for my grandson, a toddler. Within the next few days, I learned two disheartening facts: First, that bright colors painted on cheap toys are often spiked with lead dust to add luster. Second, that the toys plucked from the shelves of the very chain where I bought the car had been found to contain lead. I knew, too, that the toy car would inevitably end up in his mouth at some point. I’ve never given him that little gift.
I went shopping for him again today, but this time with complete confidence that the toy I was buying was the safest anywhere: I consulted GoodGuide.com, a shopping app that rates tens of thousands of products on their safety, as well as their social and environmental impacts. I stumbled on GoodGuide and a handful of similar websites when I was doing research for a book on how information technology can help us battle ecological meltdowns. GoodGuide, for example, boils down hundreds of databases on products into a straightforward single rating so you can instantly compare, say, this doll to that action figure. In a glance we can learn which detergent does the least harm to the environment, which hair dye has no poisons, what spring cleaner leaves no toxic residues behind.
If you want to know which shampoo contains the least worrisome chemicals among that impossible-to-decipher litany of ingredients, you can also consult Skin Deep Cosmetics Database, which focuses on the worrisome medical findings behind the labels of personal care products from mascara to skin creams. Skin Deep draws on analyses that match each one of those chemicals to studies in medical databases to find, say, which make mice grow tumors. It ranks each product category, like the 1,000-plus shampoos, on which you can use with confidence you’re not soaking your scalp in toxins. When I compared the ten safest shampoos with the ten chemical nightmares, the most expensive – available only at hair salons – was among the ten worst. Price is no guarantee of ecological virtue.
The safest household cleansers, according to GoodGuide? Tops is Seventh Generation Natural All Purpose Cleaner. Fantastik is right up there, too. But try on your own to find out about the safety level of most of the best-selling cleansers, and you hit a wall: They don’t disclose their ingredients. GoodGuide rips away that veil, which has created a vast blind spot between the stuff we buy every day, and the troubles they contribute to – everything from global warming and the rising rates of asthma, to sweatshops and child labor. Suddenly we have radical transparency, easy access to the myriad ecological impacts every product has from the moment its ingredients are concocted to the instant we throw it away.
The mother lode of data empowers each one of us to vote with our dollars for a better world every time we go shopping. And it gives us a powerful tool to protect our loved ones from the hidden dangers of what we bring into our homes.
Author, psychologist and science journalist Daniel Goleman is the author of several books, including the international bestseller Ecological Intelligence: How Knowing the Hidden Impacts of What We Buy Can Change Everything