By Marty Graham, Contributor
During her 19 years as a clean water scientist with the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Cindy Lin witnessed ample research and improvements in public outreach. But what she didn’t see bothered her a lot.
“We gave people scary information—we made them worry and feel guilty,” she says. “We didn’t do a good job of telling them what they could do to make things better.”
In 2019—two years after she left the EPA—Lin launched Hey Social Good, an organization that crunches massive amounts of data to measure the impact of small and medium-size companies’ efforts at making the world better, whether through environmental actions or supporting community groups. With the footprint left by their actions drawn by data, companies can illustrate their social good impact so consumers can make purchases with a clearer understanding of their effects.
While many large companies can and do tell potential customers about the good they accomplish (like this example from Patagonia), there are tens of thousands of enterprises that don’t have the staff or skills to understand their impact and relay their stories. Lin aims to incorporate 50,000 more of these organizations into the Social Good metric database by the end of 2020 to give consumers more choices and trustworthy, fact-based information for making purchase-related decisions. She estimates that each evaluation by her team looks at no less than 200 data features, from Manufacturer Safety Data Sheets and business reports filed with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission to charity annual reports and tax information. So far, about 2,000 companies have been evaluated.
“I want to make it easier and simpler to show what the social impact is from buying from a small enterprise that has adopted sustainable practices or is setting out to do social good.”
—Cindy Lin, CEO & co-founder, HOVE Social Good Intelligence, Inc.
“There are so many smaller enterprises and medium-size companies that decided on their own to do something good because they know it matters,” Lin says. ”I want to make it easier and simpler to show what the social impact is from buying from a small enterprise that has adopted sustainable practices or is setting out to do social good.”
There’s no question that consumers care about sustainable practices—and will pay a little more to support such efforts. The Center for Sustainable Business found that “sustainability marketed products delivered 50.1 percent of market growth from 2013-18, while representing 16.6 percent of the CPG [consumer packaged goods] market in dollar sales in 2018. ”
But, Lin says, most people lead busy lives and don’t have time to research a lot of products, especially when the information isn’t easy to come by and understand. “We know that people will spend a little more for healthier products, for products that they can believe make the world a better place,” Lin says. “But they need a tool that will help them do that.”
Lin recalls an instance long before this project started: She wanted to purchase environmentally friendly kitchen trash bags, but her attempt to self-educate turned into arduous research of plastics and landfill practices.
“I started out thinking a tall kitchen trash bag, this can’t be that hard,” she says. “I spent six hours on research, and realized this is really hard and I have a doctorate in engineering.”
How Data Helps
Lin’s team turned to statistical studies and deep learning to analyze and correlate data from dozens of seemingly diverse data sets to look at the impact of how companies do what they do, and how organizations invest their donations and volunteer work.
“I really thought about what it means to have a positive impact to define what is a social good metric,” says Lin. “We don’t want to just focus on the environment; it should also incorporate addressing social challenges, education, and gender issues because we know all of those things are linked.”
The team gathered data about consumption and production, focused on finding ways to understand businesses’ efforts both at producing their products and how they interact in their communities. Some companies, for example, partner with and provide consistent funding for local nonprofits that serve communities—a huge area of need. Others fund a specific mission or program, like Ground Up PDX in Portland, Oregon, which provides job training for women trying to get back on their feet, including some who’ve escaped trafficking or were recently released from prison.
Lin sees value and impact in every genuine effort, whether it’s the first step toward sustainable industry or the start-up designing circularity into its business model.
“Things aren’t going to change immediately, so we should help celebrate the companies that are making it work, taking those first steps,” Lin says. “It’s not about having to choose between jobs and the planet, it’s about charting steps and efforts in the right direction.”
The Goods—Faster and Easier
All this number crunching aims to make sure that no one needs to spend a day researching trash bags.
For instance, a shopper can use Hey Social Good to answer the question: What are the best and safest cleaning products? They’re then presented companies that engage in sustainable production, and that are avoiding worrisome chemicals and substances. The answers they receive are clear and culled from terabytes of scientific data.
While Hey Social Good certainly looks at necessities like cleaning products, it also helps consumers make decisions in other areas.
When the team assessed Rewilder, the Los Angeles start-up that makes handbags and backpacks from old airbags and seatbelts, Lin’s team calculated the value of reusing material rather than having it end up in the landfill. They found that each airbag backpack diverts about the same amount of carbon dioxide from the landfill as planting six trees or not driving 300 miles in a passenger car.
That sounds a lot better than the vague “recycled,” and it has become a selling point, the company says.
Another company makes donations when its users reach goals, though before being evaluated by Hey Social Good it hadn’t yet quantified the impact. The company was surprised to learn the breadth of what those donations achieved—and happy to have the specifics to share with its users.
“We looked at a fitness app, Vizer, that rewards people who meet their fitness goals by donating a meal to the local food bank,” Lin says. “Now when people look at their Vizer, they also know they’re part of an effort that increased free, nutritious meals for hungry people by 15.5 percent.”
Linking Purchases to Health
The second category of data was using deep learning to link human activities around consumption to health and the environment.
“Teflon will haunt me forever,” Lin says. “As scientists, we don’t like to say decisive things. For years, we expressed our concerns about its underlying chemicals, but never so clearly as saying ‘use something else.’ We didn’t send a message that helps people adopt better practices.”
The “how-it-hurts, how-it-helps” message relies heavily on crunching complex data and seemingly unrelated data via deep learning. Material Safety Data Sheets, complex studies, and data from the European Union and many other sources provide incredibly valuable information in a nearly incoherent form.
A recently evaluated laundry and cleaning products line eschews nonylphenol ethoxylates, a variety of surfactant found in many similar products. The chemicals are banned in other countries and are known to disrupt endocrine and hormone functions, as well as to remain in groundwater indefinitely.While that’s a scary mouthful of information, the Hey Social Good presentation focuses on the positive. “We aim to show people they have better choices, to empower people with friendly, fact-based messaging,” Lin says. “If we end up with a negative evaluation, we don’t put it in our collection.”
The project has evolved as the team has watched some ideas fail while others take off. How to give consumers accurate information in clear language they can use has been the most popular part of Hey Social Good, and small businesses want to be part of that.
“As environmental advocates, we need to give people a path so they can feel good about the progress being made through the every-day step of shopping,” she says. “We can put existing data to good use to make that happen.”