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Episode 3 Transcript: Fill the Pool, not the Package

The complete transcription for episode 3.

Episode 3 Transcript: Fill the Pool, not the Package

Welcome to Everybody in the Pool, the podcast that dives deep into the climate crisis and comes up with solutions that work. I'm Molly Wood.

Today, I’m talking about sustainability in two different ways … how our shopping impacts global warming … and a startup that’s trying to make our buying choices a whole lot easier. Plus … I’ll preview an upcoming summit in Paris where world leaders will try to come to an agreement about plastics.

That’s three things … I know. My podcast … don’t care.

First up … let’s do a little explainer … which gives me an excuse to bust out a new segment name I’ve been very excited about … The Shallow End.

Consumer goods make up about a third of all greenhouse gas emissions … that means packaged food … and the stuff we buy … that’s separate from our transportation, energy, and water use.

Ok and as long as we’re in the shallow end … here’s a little climate science 101 … for your Facebook uncles …

Greenhouse gases include carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide … we often shorthand this to “carbon emissions” because carbon dioxide is the most plentiful emission, followed by methane.

The greenhouse gas *effect is what actually keeps the planet warm enough to live. The sun’s energy enters our atmosphere as light … then leaves it as infrared radiation. Greenhouse gases reflect the radiation back to earth in the form of heat … so we’re not a cold dead lifeless rock. Yayyy …

BUT … the more gases in the atmosphere … the *more heat is reflected back. We slowly start to cook.

It’s like hair in a drain … a little hair and the water can still drain out … the more hair … the slower the drain … until the tub is totally backed up and slimy. If you can keep the hair *out of the drain in the first place … you don’t have to deal with the backup. Yes … this is a personal experience. I have janky plumbing.

One more fun fact before we get back to shopping … a woman scientist named Eunice Foote was the first to discover that increases in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere could cause warming on earth. That was in 1856.

Some guy did the same research a few years later and got all the credit. Plus ça change …

Ok back to shopping.

After energy, food, consumer goods are the biggest cause of carbon emissions in a household. The emissions come from sourcing the raw materials to *make the thing, the packaging, the shipping, the actual consumption, and the disposal.

Everything has what I like to call a True Cost. There’s what you paid … and then there’s the carbon cost that takes into account all those other things … the consumer goods giant Unilever … is actually including carbon cost on the *labels of something like 70 thousand products.

When you start to think of products in that way … you realize that … wow … we spend a ton of money and emit a lot of carbon moving like … water … around the world. The water in beverages … dish soap … liquid laundry detergent … toothpaste … shampoo … actual literal water. It’s heavy … so you need a lot of gas or diesel to move it … it’s bulky … so you need a lot of trucks and shipping containers …

Most stuff comes in plastic … but some goods come in *recycled plastic … everything has chemicals … but some stuff has far fewer chemicals and that’s not just good for you … it’s good for when you get *rid of the packaging … or the inch of leftover lotion you can’t get out of the bottle.

Now that we’re paying attention to these things … and fully two-thirds of consumers say they *want more sustainable product options … you open up a whole new world of product design and options.

Which is where it gets daunting, confusing, and annoying because how do you know what’s real and what isn’t real … right?

And that is the type of problem that can generate a *lot of opportunity.

After the break … a startup that’s making it easy for you to buy better stuff. It really is that simple.


Welcome back to Everybody in the Pool … next up, a cool startup to make it easier for you to dive into better shopping.

Lizzie Horwitz:
I am Lizzie Horwitz and I run Finch, which decodes products' environmental impacts and helps consumers make better purchasing decisions.

Here’s how it works …

Lizzie Horwitz:
Finch scores products based on six different impact areas: climate, water waste, human wellbeing, ecological footprint, and raw materials. We do a ton of upfront research to show what is making detergents sustainable or not sustainable. We look at academic papers and geo reports, everything. 

And then we look at data both that we pay for and that we can scrape from the public domain and give every product that's on Amazon and Target a score between zero and 10. That shows up in two ways. The first is through a browser extension. Um, we work on Amazon and Target as mentioned, and when you download the extension onto Chrome, you're able to see, okay, looking at Garnier Fructis, that gets a six out of 10. 

I can do better. Here are four alternatives in case I wanna make a better purchasing decision. You can also go to our website, choose, and you can see each product, how it's scored, how the six different impact areas are scored. And then my favorite part of the website is that you're able to follow friends and tag what your favorite products are. So I'm able to say, wow, Molly's got great skin. What type of face wash is she using? I can follow you.

And here’s how Lizzie got her start at the best sounding summer camp ever …

Lizzie Horwitz:
I have been in the sustainability space, I feel like for a really long time. It was 2004 that I was exposed to it. I was living off-grid in the Bahamas, which is a story for a different time, but basically, when I was, um, 16, my parents allowed me this opportunity to go live at a place called the Island School, which was run only on wind power, solar panels.

If it didn't rain, we weren't allowed to shower. Um, it was pretty strict. And in 2004, you know, you remember, of course, there were scientists that were talking about climate change, but it was in no way making headlines like it was today.

And so I think what scares a lot of people about entering the climate space is that they get so overwhelmed with these horrible stories of droughts and wildfires and climate refugees, and I really came into this in the opposite way, where I saw this beautiful way of living, not based on fossil fuels, realized the solution before I fully understood the problem.

And so it was really since then that I dedicated my career towards mitigating climate change in the private sector. Um, I got an MBA and a master's in environmental management focused really on what can large companies do to reduce their carbon footprint. That took me to Unilever, which was a fantastic experience.

I was on their supply chain team. I first was actually on their cold chain logistics team, figuring out how to move ice cream around from the distribution centers. Um, so that was fantastic. Learned a lot. And then I switched to their sustainability team helping integrate the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan into the 38 brands in North America.

And while I was there, a couple of things were happening. Trump was elected. Um, I think at the time that I was at Unilever and a lot of my community realized like, wow, the government really doesn't have our back on this. They're pulling out of Paris, they're rolling back a lot of EPA laws, um, and to take more responsibility as a person, as a human individual.

And I started getting a lot more questions from family and friends on like, oh my gosh, what am I supposed to be doing? What do these words mean? Um, what should I be looking for when I'm buying these products? And I, you know, had a couple of thoughts. One of which was, I don't know the answers to all of this.

Like, I'm having a hard time understanding what to pay attention to, what to really trust on the internet, um, and also what's happening to all these people who don't have a friend like me who has a formal background in this space. Like, where are they going for this information? What I learned was that a lot of people just became apathetic, right?

You, you have good intentions. You look for a couple of hours online and try to do some research, and then you give up and you're like, I'm just gonna get what's less expensive or the product that I like most. And so I really started thinking about how I can make this information more accessible to people.

I started a newsletter, it was called The Green Lizard, um, and then left Unilever and wanted to try something totally different. I became Chief Operating Officer of a company based in Southeast Asia, and it was really there that I just fell in love with entrepreneurship, taking a company from inception to scale.

Everything that comes with a startup, and right at the beginning of Covid, I decided that this newsletter should become a full-time thing. And it sort of evolved into what Finch is now.

What's interesting is that you have that experience and you could have said, I'm going to spend the rest of my life living off the grid and taken, you know, like a hippie approach to it and instead you took a capitalist approach. Tell me about how you decided that this was a business opportunity as opposed to like a lifestyle.

Lizzie Horwitz:
It's a really interesting question and I think that has to do with my background and community of family and friends. My parents are capitalists, right? Like we grew up in the suburbs of Cleveland. Um, we shop at Amazon, we use plastic bags. Like my parents are really thoughtful, conscious people, but we grew up pretty normally.

And so I just saw, particularly in Cleveland, you know, not these like coastal elites that so-called, um, you know, there's a lot of different types of people there who are never going to stop shopping at Walmart and doing what they normally do. 

And so I think very early on I, and I learned this also, I had a stint in the nonprofit world that I loved, but realized like instead of being on the defensive side of like trying to shut down the Amazons and Walmarts of the world, let's understand that they're probably not going away anytime soon, and so let's try to just make them as good as they can possibly be.

Um, and so I would like to get to a place where people don't have to take it upon themselves to make these huge sweeping life changes. I envision a world in which we can all live the way that we want to, and the infrastructure supporting that is making the right decision so that we don't have to feel when we're shopping.

That something like Finch gets us to a tipping point where enough people, and it doesn't have to be all, make different choices and that makes a market, like this is a behavior change kind of play.

Lizzie Horwitz:
Exactly, and the biggest pushback that I got when I started Finch was, you know, how many people will actually wanna make these changes. And the confusion is that for right now, given available products, it's a really small community.

 It's those people that you were talking about that are sort of hippies and deciding to make these different changes and only shopping at certain local stores, et cetera.

But, because really nothing exists for that 60% of the population who believes in climate change and wants to do something about it, but they have full-time jobs, they have families, they have lives, and we cannot expect the largest portion of the population to completely shift and dedicate their lives towards this. They need an easier solution.

Finch isn’t doing what’s called a full life cycle analysis … they’re working with publicly available data like SEC filings … available analysis of existing products … data streams you can buy from companies like Amazon … and then high-tech guesswork based on, say, how much something weighs or where it’s made.

They make money two ways … first by selling sustainability scores to retailers … and in fact, Finch has a deal with Microsoft Bing … where when you search for products on its shopping tab … it shows Finch’s sustainability scores. And *also …

Lizzie Horwitz:
The second, and in my opinion, much more interesting way, is that we're gathering really valuable insights on how people are interacting with this data. So we're able to see, okay, women in San Francisco of this age bracket are twice as likely to buy detergent pods than men in the same location or than women in New York City.

Um, and that we sell either to data aggregators or brands. And the value of that is that brands spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on focus groups where consumers say, oh, of course I'll buy this new product. Right? Aluminum-free deodorant. Fantastic. I'll pay an extra $2.50 for that. But at checkout, it's a very different story. 

And so we are closing what they call the say and do gap, right? Where consumers, it's not because they're lying, it's just because we don't really know ourselves until we're actually checking out. We don't know what we, what we will actually do. So we're seeing in real time someone looked at this product, they ended up going with another one, and here's how much more they paid for it or, or they didn't end up going with another one.

So it's useful data for brands to commit to a line of sustainable products, for example.

Lizzie Horwitz:
Exactly. And we're also able to really get granular on, Hey Dove, stop talking about the packaging because people aren't buying based on the packaging. They're buying based on the ingredients or being fragrance-free or something like this. 

We're able to get to that level of detail. We know that greenwashing is a serious problem and we can help you with what language actually works to get people to buy your products in an authentic way, obviously.

And THAT is how you get brands to do what you want.

Ok … let’s get into the nitty gritty.

Is the data bearing that out? Like, are … I mean certainly people who are interacting with your extension or coming to your site, they're obviously self-selecting, but do you feel like you have a sense of whether it works?

Lizzie Horwitz:
I think they're mixed. It's definitely yes, more than no. But the results are mixed. And I know we talked about this a little bit before, um, there's sort of behavior change and then there's behavior change light. I think what we're seeing is behavior change light is no problem, right? Like people will buy the plastic, the ocean plastic bottle as opposed to the virgin plastic bottle.

That's not hard. Um, because that's the exact same experience, right? You might have a little bit of a premium, sometimes you don't, which is great. Um, but then once it, once you're at home with a shampoo bottle, it's exactly the same. But we're asking people to change to a shampoo bar or to a detergent sheet that they've never used before, that is a heavier lift.

Um, and I think that's just an innovation problem that always happens beyond sustainability. I think there's just like a learning curve that comes with that. So it's not to say that it's forever. What else is interesting is that greenwashing is really working in a negative way. Um, for example, products that are made in brown packaging are selling better in sort of more left-leaning conscious areas by pure, like this is a brown package. 

So I assume that it's better for the planet when in reality, like there doesn't have to be any more information about it. Um, so that's the type of information that we are taking in and we're using, but we don't really wanna go to companies and say, Hey, you're gonna sell more if you use brown packaging, even if it's not sustainable.

Like you could literally dye a virgin bag brown, and that would sell better.

I think greenwashing itself is a term we hear a lot and I sometimes have this reaction where I'm like, look, maybe it is, but it's still training people to think a different way, but also it's really bad.

Lizzie Horwitz:
I think the two problems with greenwashing are first, that it's so unregulated, and second that there are so many trade-offs to make. So, um, that, that people don't think about necessarily. So with it being unregulated, the reason we're not really going in the food space is because the FDA has a long way to go, but they're better at saying like, no, you cannot put cage-free eggs if they're not cage-free and you can't put organic if it's not organic, et cetera.

There are so many more regulations with that, or like fat-free. There are sort of guardrails where in other products, you can literally put clean, eco-friendly packaging and have it not have anything to do with sustainability. Right? And so that is really dangerous where people look at that and I don't blame them, and they say, okay, this must be good, because they're, why would they put it on their package otherwise?

Um, and then, along with that, there are so many trade-offs to make in terms of the reason we have these six impact areas is, are we talking about climate? Are we talking about ocean, plastic, et cetera? And particularly in the past couple of years, plastic has become such an issue, right?

Everybody has that, um, that vision burned in their brain of like the turtle with a straw stuck in its nose. And the reality is, yes, plastic straws are not ideal. 

Ocean plastic is of course, terrible. But when you look at the scale of how much ocean plastic there is, um, responsible for killing wildlife versus the climate change impact on wildlife, it makes you rethink like, okay, maybe metal straws aren't as good as we thought they were. Right? Like buying a 10 pack of metal straws and having them sit on your shelf, um, in your cabinet is probably worse, or it's definitely worse from an overall environmental perspective than using plastic straws for a few days.

Does that make sense? Because it's so energy intensive to make a metal straw.

Right. So you know, 100% if you're holding a metal straw, you know, the energy that it required to make, to be made, um, and that comes with negative implications. And if you're not using that to its fullest extent, um, and it's just sitting there, those are carbon emissions that didn't necessarily need to happen. 

With a plastic straw, yes, it could end up in the ocean, but it's not definitely going to end up in the ocean, and it's not definitely going to contribute to our ocean plastic problem. Um, and to make the plastic straw required significantly less energy than to make the metal straw. So I'm, I'm simplifying. There are obviously a ton of different nuances and issues, and this is not to say don't use metal straws.

It's, it's, if you buy a metal straw, use it every single day. And then you will, you know, make the most of it. And if you don't have a metal straw, if you forget your metal straw, the better thing to do is just to take the plastic straw. Or if you're able, obviously not use a straw at all, um, rather than buying another one.

It's the same idea as if you forget your canvas tote at home when you're shopping at the grocery store. The last thing you should do is buy another canvas tote. How many totes do we all have in our house that are just like sitting in our closet? Get a plastic or paper bag that one time, give yourself a little slap on the wrist and move on.

But if you think of the energy it requires to make that cotton, it's not ideal.

These are just the ways that people end up paralyzed. They just sort of end up being like, what do you want from me? Like I do not know the right way forward. And so ideally the right way forward is like the only option you have is the best possible option.

Lizzie Horwitz:

So we're trying to sort of narrow that and just tell people what the best move is.

Let’s do a little window shopping. Tell us, I mean, some of these products are really new. I, I don't think most people … I just became aware of shampoo bars and things. Talk about some of the product innovation that you're starting to see when it comes to alternatives.

Lizzie Horwitz:
We love shampoo bars. Um, that's another really cool one. I think the problem with shampoo bars is that they don't have the same, um, they don't, they're not used the same, they're not even used the same as like a dove body wash bar. Um, they don't lather like normal shampoos do. And I, for one, I have a lot of hair. I kind of miss that lathering. 

And you're sort of like putting this bar on your hair being like, is this doing anything? And it ends up being fine, but it just, there, that's an example of like one that has a really big learning curve. And if you're not diehard on sustainability, um, that can be tough. Our favorite one is HiBar.

But it's funny like if … it's … you buy … I can remember a time when I bought some like expensive fancy shampoo and they were like this doesn't lather the same way because the lathering effect itself is artificial. It's like from a chemical.

Lizzie Horwitz:
Exactly, yes.

Also … remember what I was saying earlier about moving water around?

Lizzie Horwitz:
I am particularly interested in the detergent innovations, um, in a couple of different ways. I think, you know, it's funny, powder has been around forever, right? In those cardboard boxes. That's an amazing way to go. Um, the thing that, that I forget about, and that I think a lot of consumers forget about is that when you're using a product that you put with water.

Something like body wash, shampoo, detergent, you don't need the water to be already in the package. Right? Like, why would you pay to have something shipped and, and add that those carbon emissions for a heavier truck? Um, if you're just going in the shower and there's already water being used, right? 

And so, in detergent, I think the powder and the sheets are really interesting 'cause those are water-free. And then chemically, I'm, and I'm not even sure of like what happens scientifically, but um, it washes your clothes as well, in my opinion, as your standard liquid detergent. I think pods are also really interesting.

I'm a big fan of, like, Dropps, for example, a great brand that we love. Um, and just pods in general. There've been a lot of controversy over, um, the casing, which is this thing called polyvinyl alcohol. Um, that technically is a plastic, but it breaks down smaller than microplastics and really gets washed out.

And so Finch's opinion, it's really not, um, not that problematic.

Yeah, yeah. they're really, I mean, they do have water. They have a little bit of water, but they're made generally in, they're plastic-free. They're made generally in cardboard packages. Um, and also portioned out. Like so much of this is how much you're using. Um, and there's just so much waste when it comes to liquid detergent and, and the messiness around it. Like that all adds up.

And then tell me about the categories … like how do you decide what categories to highlight based on, you know, what people are shopping for?

Lizzie Horwitz:
So our customer base is really interesting because it's generally people who are going through a new phase of life. So starting with people who are graduating from college for the first time and have never, or high school and have never bought their own paper towels. Um, it's people who are buying their first house, having their first babies.

Um, it's these people entering these like new life stages. And then really interestingly, we see this jump from like 45 year olds all the way to 65 year olds, like 45 to 65 is like our least interested, um, customer base. And I think we think from the research we've done, we think it's because they're like, I've got kids.

I've got a full-time job. I'm like just doing my day to day. I'm not, I'm not interested in changing my shampoo brand. Um, but then 65 and older, these people are, for a combination of reasons, just really interested in sustainability. They're starting to retire. They have more time to think about this stuff.

They're having grandchildren maybe, and thinking about how they're leaving the world to their grandchildren, so they're really engaged. And so with that, we choose products that those different customer bases are using. We're also choosing products generally. We have a couple of outliers that people buy pretty often.

So if you're, we encourage you to try a new toilet paper brand. If you hate it, we're sorry. But worst thing is you have to buy it again in three months. So it's really not that big of a deal. Um, so a lot of these are highly consumable, relatively inexpensive. We have some outliers like textiles. We have towels and sheets, we do mattresses.

And then it's, you know, we just partnered with a really interesting company that's scoring products that are found on airplanes. So for those, if a company is paying us to score products, we're looking into amenity kits right now, um, which we wouldn't have normally done. And so it's kind of a combination of what are our consumers asking for, what are our, you know, paid partnership companies looking for.

And you're on a plane thinking like … there's about a hundred different startups and or stories in the amount of waste on planes.

Lizzie Horwitz:
Planes are so interesting and people focus so much on the fuel, right? Like your carbon footprint is so bad, which that's where the focus should be, but that is like years off to finding a hardcore solution. And there are, as you said, like a ton of things that we can do in the meantime.

A plastic water bottle, . I know. It's crazy.

Lizzie Horwitz:
Start thinking like you don't need a different cup every time you get a new soda.

And I always wonder, like some airlines are good about recycling, but I never know if they're actually doing it or just like it all in the same bag. I'm skeptical.

Lizzie Horwitz:

So where can people interact? Where can they go? Where should they look?

Lizzie Horwitz:
So go to choose That is your first stop. Um, sign up and start writing reviews, follow your friends, and then download our extension. You can get that through Choose and then on Instagram, we are at Choose Finch.

Thank you, Molly.

Lizzie Horwitz:
Thank you, Molly.

Thanks for the time.

Lizzie Horwitz:
Talk to you soon.

Alright … now I know that this is still a *little bit of work … and when it comes to the American consumer in particular … convenience tends to come before everything else.

But those of you who are willing to be early adopters help set the tone for everybody else … you’re the drops that become a flood so that pretty soon … *everything on the shelves … is better … than what it was before.

Because companies *are responding to this consumer pressure … so keep it up.

And policy will help here too … later this week, actually … negotiators from around the world are getting together in Paris … for the second of *five rounds of talks … designed to result in a binding global treaty … on how to deal with plastics … and the toxic chemicals inside them.

That could *massively change the way consumer goods are packaged … designed … and disposed of … making *your job … a lot easier. There could be taxes on plastics … incentives to create biodegradable alternatives … or mandates for recycling plastic or *using recycled plastic.

All of that keeps chemicals and waste out of land … ocean … water … air … our DNA.

And make no mistake … this is major … in March of 2022 … at the first plastics summit … world leaders agreed to keep meeting until they had a binding deal to address the entire lifecycle of plastics … by next year. Some leaders at the event said it was basically as big a deal as the 2015 Paris climate accords.

AND … don’t forget that plastic is made from petroleum! So the less virgin plastic we create and use… the more oil we can leave in the ground.

So …

Help is on the way … in lots of forms.

And just a reminder that in the meantime … the *best thing you can do as an individual person in the world trying to become a set of drops that becomes a flood … is buy … less crap. The good news is that this saves you money and storage space. Less. Just … less.

Right? It’s the easiest solution ever.

What you do buy … buy it to last … recycle it if you can … and please donate it to Goodwill or your neighbors when you’re done.

A drop … becomes a flood.

That’s it for this week of Everybody in the Pool … Thanks for listening, please like … subscribe … and leave a rating on Apple Podcasts if that’s what you’re using …

Email your thoughts and ideas to IN at everybody in the pool dot com …

And for an even *deeper dive … sign up for my newsletter at mollywood … dot co!

And remember, together we can get this done. 

See you next week.

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