north of neutral dialog

04/01/2011

by anne lueneburger

Dara O’Rourke, Chairman, GoodGuide, San Francisco

Did you know hippos can hang out in summer sunshine all day without getting sunburn? Their sweat contains microscopic structures that disperse light, protecting these massive mammals from burns. Now, if you are like most consumers, you probably wouldn’t go out of your way to look for sunscreen based on hippo sweat! You’d probably pick up a brand that you trust. Because many of us assume that ‘brands’ are the best.

I did too – that is until I met Dara O’Rourke in 2010 in Fontainebleau, France, where he was a speaker at INSEAD’s Sustainability Conference. He kicked off a presentation he was giving on his start-up ‘GoodGuide’ by showing a slide of his seven-year-old daughter Minju and a bottle of sunscreen. It turned out that the top-selling brand he used to lather on his toddler contained a hormone-disrupting chemical and a carcinogen activated by sunlight… It had been his training as a scientist combined with his concern as a new parent that had caused him to look more closely at the contents of the products he was using in his household.

What started out as Dara O’Rourke’s concern and quest for knowledge has evolved into a broad consumer-accessible platform. As a result of the work of O’Rourke and his team, the average consumer (you or I) is now more empowered to make informed decisions about which products to buy based on our personal values and concerns.

The role

Dara O’Rourke is co-founder and Chief Sustainability Officer of GoodGuide.com, a revolutionary suite of tools he launched in 2007 to inform consumers about the environmental, health and social impacts of products and companies. An associate professor of environmental and labor policy at the University of California at Berkeley, Dara has spent the past 20 years researching the environmental, labor, and health impacts of global supply chains.

O’Rourke’s work has been featured in The New York Times, International Herald Tribune, Boston Globe, Los Angeles Times, The Economist, Business Week, Newsweek, Time, CBS, ABC, NPR and O – the Oprah Magazine.

Chapter one: academic…

Born in Dublin, Ireland, Dara O’Rourke grew up in Pullman, a small college town in Washington State. The son of a professor of Agricultural Economics and a financial aid administrator at Washington State University, O’Rourke embarked on an academic career himself. Having earned his Bachelors in Mechanical Engineering and Political Science from MIT, he signed on as a research assistant with ICF, a DC consulting firm, on projects looking at global climate change and its effect on human health and the environment, before going on to spend most of the nineties in consulting roles for organizations such as the United Nations, the World Bank, and the US Environmental Protection Agency on pollution prevention and sustainable development concerns, mostly in Vietnam, Thailand and the US. At the same time he completed a PhD in Berkeley’s Energy and Resources Program.

Generally less outspoken and persuasive than his older brother (who incidentally has made a career in sales), O’Rourke laughs as he recalls his relationship with his sibbling:”I remember him tricking me out of my favorite toys when I was six years old. I was always much more academically inclined.” However, when it comes to core values, O’Rourke easily overcomes his reluctance to speak up. As part of his research on global supply chains, O’Rourke pushed forward and exposed some of the questionable practices of global corporate players. A number of publications, including his 1997 article discussing problems with Nike’s labor practices in Asia, attest to that.

After a couple of years at MIT as an assistant professor, O’Rourke returned to the west coast in 2003 to take up a professorship in Berkeley’s department of environmental science, policy and management.

Chapter two: …and social entrepreneur

In 2005 Dara O’Rourke used $300,000 of grant resources and a group of Berkeley computer science majors to begin systematically collecting data from over 200 trusted sources on a selection of products: “You need to look at a wide range of criteria and go down the supply chain to assess the full health, environmental and social impact of a seemingly trivial purchase of something like a bottle of conditioner.”

O’Rourke’s personal life story of becoming a parent is intricately interwoven with the inception of GoodGuide. Add to this O’Rourke’s passion for creating a sustainable world: ”I am frankly surprised not more people do disruptive things to bring about positive change.” And what follows is an ability to bring others on board: “I am not sure if I am truly a social entrepreneur or more of a troublemaker… As soon as I am passionate about an idea I seem to have the Irish ‘gift of the gab’ and work to convince others to join in and offer support.” Certainly his credentials and hard-won expertise in the field were convincing enough for the initial team of scientists and engineers to pursue the idea of applying hard metrics to the environmental, health and social impact of a company’s products.

In addition to building the technical platform and creating the scientific measures for GoodGuide, there were also the tasks involved with launching the business. After struggling to find investors initially, O’Rourke and his team managed to secure VC funding of $9.2 million. They also had to embark on unfamiliar territory such as marketing their start-up and deciding on a name for the business: “We spent a year trying to figure out a name… We were named Taoit for one year (the idea being to ‘help people find their own path in the marketplace…’) Everyone hated that name. Then we generated lists of hundreds of possible names. I showed them to a linguist named George Lakoff – who is a professor friend of mine at Berkeley – and famous for his work on “framing”. He said from our list there was only one acceptable name with a positive frame which was understandable and empowering, and that was GoodGuide. I then had to go buy the web address from a squatter!”

GoodGuide launched officially in September 2008. Since then it has grown dramatically, both in terms of public awareness and in terms of the respect it has gained. Its initial mission was to facilitate decision-making at the point of purchase, and to help to promote sustainable brands, “our goal is to have product ratings become standard in the industry. Our tipping point would be if companies will come to us to get rated proactively and if they join us in our quest to offer true value to the end consumer.”

In January 2011, the site had 570,000 visitors: “Our growth rate to date has been between 10 and 20% per month.” The small scale of the firm (with 25 permanent staff) allows the firm to learn and react faster than the big corporate players. “Most companies innovate once a year, a software firm maybe every three months. At GoodGuide, every week we launch something new, new web features, ratings of new product categories. In January it was coffee and tea and pet food, in February we offered ratings on appliances, cell phones and apparel,” explains Dara O’Rourke. On their second homepage revamp within 6 months, O’Rourke emphasizes that the “key is to create an innovative culture where you are allowed to fail, and to fail fast.”

Being in the sustainable business also means having a sustainable business model. “I am not in this to make money personally. But we are moving fast to make this a sustainable, thriving company.” O’Rourke states firmly when I ask him about revenue streams. In addition to some minor revenues from sales leads to Amazon and licensing scientific and competitive data to companies, O’Rourke and his team are currently looking into licensing data to retailers and institutional purchasers to help them evaluate their offerings before they go on the shelves. The overarching objective is to continue to offer GoodGuide’s insight to the end consumer at no cost.

A case for (radical) transparency

My interview with Dara O’Rourke took place at the end of January, shortly after he had returned from moderating a panel of senior leaders at the 2011 World Economic Forum in Davos on ‘The New Reality of Consumer Power’. More pointedly, we spoke a few hours before the historic day on the 10th February 2011, when a peaceful revolution by the Egyptian people brought a 30-year dictatorship to an end. It is too early to say what will come of all of this, but one thing that the events in Egypt made clear was the power of social media – Twitter, Facebook, Skype and Audioboo – to maximize the ability of its users to be heard, and ultimately to become a force to be reckoned with.

A similar effect takes place when organizations such as GoodGuide promote ecological transparency. Consumers have shown a growing demand for safer, healthier products. GoodGuide has scored over 95,000 products that consumers can now review on the company’s web site. In addition, with the help of smart phones consumers can, at the point of purchase, scan a product’s bar code and, in less than one second, get a 1 to 10 rating of products based on their health and ecological footprint. Apple has added GoodGuide to its apps and, while currently only 20% of Americans have smart phones, predictions are that in two years almost everybody will have replaced their cell phones with these devices.

The ability to get valid, trustworthy information almost instantaneously helps fight ‘greenwashing’, as now consumers can compare products and demand improvements. Word-of-mouth also serves to boost transparency, and GoodGuide is introducing new social features that support this effect.

Firms have become increasingly aware of this consumer pull. Market trends are impacting their decisions as to how to invest in R&D. O’Rourke notes that, “We are seeing big multinationals – such as Pepsi – respond to these consumer shifts as a result of transparency at the point of purchase. They have committed publicly to cut sodium in their products by 20%, and sugar by 25% over the next ten years.”

About leading an integrated life

As with other authentic leaders, O’Rourke appears cognizant of the importance of integrating professional and personal priorities and of making choices which play to one’s strengths. By mid August 2010, he replaced himself with a CEO: “Over our first year in business I learned a lot. Every day was a bit like a rollercoaster ride. Managing a social start-up required me to wear many hats… in addition to being the CEO I was essentially Chairman, Chief Sustainability Officer, Scientist, head of PR, accountant, and evangelist. I was faced with my own strengths and weaknesses and learned quickly that where I am best and what energizes me most is to work with the science team and to be the public voice for our organization.”

However, striking that right balance between professional and personal life remains a challenge. Once nominated ‘Male Sports Figure of 1997’ by Village Voice, and still a passionate surfer and swimmer, O’Rourke seems ‘consumed’ by GoodGuide, which he leads in addition to teaching two classes for the spring semester at one of the top academic institutions in the nation. “Currently there is no socializing. Sleep is a luxury, and there is no time for sports. My wife and daughter have been tremendously supportive, but I know I travel too much and I work too much.”

At which point I suggest to him that were O’Rourke himself to be rated on GoodGuide, he would rank highly in terms of his impact on the environment around him, but the picture would be more ambiguous when it comes to his personal social upkeep and health. This does seem to resonate and he is aware of the need for change which he reinforces by sharing some concrete steps that he plans to take: “After this semester I plan to reduce travel, especially plane travel, and swim three mornings a week.”

GoodGuide is not just about measuring the ‘status quo’, it is about enabling the process of becoming “more good” for all companies – and giving socially and environmentally focused companies an edge – a trajectory to which Dara O’Rourke is fully committed. Maybe Hippo sweat sunscreen isn’t so far off after all…

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