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Sustainable, Ethical Decisions? There's An App For That

Oroeco links your personal decisions to larger planetary impact, so you know whether it’s a better idea to, for example, buy organic or stop eating red meat.

Sustainable, Ethical Decisions? There's An App For That
Clouds via Shutterstock

Thoughtful, environment-oriented consumers are continually faced with tough choices: buy recycled toilet paper from Amazon, or the local version from the mom-and-pop shop on the corner? Bike to work while wearing sweat-shop-produced workout gear, or drive a Lexus but buy only ethically produced organic cotton undies? And where to invest money?

Now, a new app hopes to make those tough decisions a bit easier and more fun. Oroeco (that’s "oro" for gold, "eco" for both ecology and economics) seeks to elucidate the impacts of everyday decisions on health, environment, and society—and to offer tips on how to better align your values and your actions.

"There’s a tremendous amount of data out there about which choices are more sustainable; the problem is this knowledge is mostly sitting in databases controlled by high-priced consultants, academic researchers, and industry," says Ian Monroe, Oroeco’s CEO and cofounder, who moonlights as a lecturer on energy and climate at Stanford University. "This impact information hasn’t been getting out to the rest of us. At the same time, advancements with mobile technology, social gaming, and online banking mean that we can now combine impact and financial data into a real-time sustainability tracking tool that’s social and fun."

Monroe first realized this while working on environmental life cycle assessment research at Stanford and for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), and got fed up with the lack of information transfer to help people make informed choices about everything from shoes to investment portfolios. He points to studies showing that a large majority of people would like to make more sustainable choices, but they often don’t know how, and they want to feel that the eco-friendly decisions they do make are "normal" and rewarded.

Despite the economic downturn, the number of major brand products claiming to be green has increased from 20 in 2002 to 6,902 in 2011, says Monroe. But this proliferation of green claims—more than 160 different ecolabels crowd the shelves in the U.S.—has added to confusion about which claims represent real improvements versus marketing hype. Monroe is confident that mobile devices and apps like Oroeco can ignite a consumer-led sustainability revolution, which in turn will encourage brands to improve impacts throughout their supply chains.

Oroeco’s app will initially let you make a profile and automatically connect through to all your financial transactions (credit cards, debit cards, bank accounts, and investments), then set goals for personal climate impacts that link to various aspects of your life, much like Mint does for financial planning. In addition to sustainability, Oroeco will soon evaluate consumer decisions with regard to societal and health indicators.

Some of those sustainability decisions can be counterintuitive, Monroe points out. "We are constantly pushed towards buying local and organic, but for most people, eating red meat one day less per week would have a larger impact on their greenhouse gas emissions than eating all local and organic. And less red meat will also mean a smaller biodiversity and water footprint, as well as reduced risk of heart disease and many cancers," he says.

The app will be able to track things and give people tips on aligning their values and their actions. "There are lots of decisions like this that don’t involve a radical shift in peoples’ lives while providing a variety of benefits for people and the planet. If we’re all informed and incentivized to make these little lifestyle tweaks they’ll scale up to quite massive change, and we hope Oroeco provides a tool that helps make this happen," Monroe adds.

Users can also compare their decisions and footprint with other people around them, from neighbors to family members to friends on Facebook. Along the way, they can earn rewards and perks in a social game as they make more equitable purchasing choices, says Monroe, who is working with a team of scientists and engineers from MIT, Berkeley, and Stanford on the project. "People get motivated by seeing how they’re doing compared with others," says Monroe. "It’s important to harness relative information in a way that’s fun, social, and digestible rather than just raw data!"