Socially conscious shopping apps

The primary challenge of being a socially-conscious consumer is finding products that fulfill your needs without sullying your conscience. A secondary challenge is remembering which products are on the "good" list and which ones are banned. A fresh crop of iPhone applications hopes to remove the cognitive challenges via reference guides that let you make ethical--and often green--choices in what you buy.

GoodGuide is a free reference guide that lets consumers find the products based on how well they've scored in environmental, health, nutritional and social criteria. Users have the option to add specific products to Favorites or Avoid lists and check the price of specific products at Amazon. The products are sorted into four easy categories--food, personal care, household cleaners, and toys--and if you don't want to drill through the subcategories, there's a search interface with a gratifyingly rapid response time.

The current database of products in GoodGuide includes more than 50,000 choices, but what's included--or not--within brands is baffling. For example, searching "Hansen's Beverages" produced several discontinued products but not the diet ginger ale I was drinking while test-driving the application.

As a reference, GoodGuide may be somewhat useful; as a repository of personalized favorites and shopping picks, it failed. Although I had created a user account on GoodGuide.com, none of the items I had selected as favorites via my iPhone were saved, despite pop-windows assuring me otherwise. This is a serious flaw in an application meant to be useful to shoppers in the store.

By contrast, Green Book, a $6 app from Kamikaze, eschews listing specific brand names or products and focuses instead on walking users through which consumer choices to make and how those choices could affect the planet positively or negatively. The scope of the book is extensive--offering waste-reducing, energy-, time- and water-saving tips on everything from going on vacation to staying late at the office--and the interface is intuitive, allowing users to bounce back to the table of contents with two quick taps in the center of the screen.

Two other apps dole out the green-living tips one at a time. Go Green from Webworks and Applications dispenses a new green-living tip every time you fire up the free app; the idea is that you'll accumulate a long list of useful low-impact consumer pointers by launching the app over and over.

The tips can be interesting, but there's very little how-to or follow-through, and since the application doesn't provide much beyond friendly suggestions to start a bulk-buying program with friends, it's difficult to determine why you'd want it on your phone. That said, it's attractive and simple to use.

GreenNexxus Green Tips, a free app from MacAppetite, provides tips that users have submitted to the GreenNexxus Web site--so things like spelling, grammar and relative utility of the tips are all left to the contributors' discretion. The app does have a great search interface and you can e-mail specific tips to people, but some of its other features are a bit shaky. Tapping the Top Rated option on the interface produced two recently-submitted tips, not the more highly-rated ones that had been published prior to those. One last drawback with GreenNexxus Green Tips: to access any of the tips, you've got to have a strong network connection. In other words, Green Tips is useless as a reference if you're in an area with no cellphone coverage.

Gorgeously Green Survival Guide is a beautifully-formatted, surprisingly informative little reference guide. Its information scope is limited compared to GoodGuide--for example, its "Reference" section includes only four subtopics--but those few subjects are full of useful, applicable tips on everything from oven cleaner disposal to saving money while going green.

The real reference treasure in this $1 app from Optimum Drama is the "Gorgeously Green Checklist." It's for anyone who's ever stood in the produce section of the grocery store and tried to remember which conventionally-grown produce you can safely buy, or for anyone who's ever wondered if a product is still "all natural" if it includes Triethanolamine TEA (hint: no). It's worth the dollar cost for Gorgeously Green Survival Guide simply to have your iPhone remember what's safe to buy and what's not.

[Lisa Schmeiser covers personal finance and consumer spending at SFGate.com's Dollars & Sense blog.]

This story, "Socially conscious shopping apps" was originally published by Macworld.

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