GoodHuman, a Marketplace for Sustainable Brands, Finds It's Not Easy to Be Ethical

GoodHuman, a Marketplace for Sustainable Brands, Finds It's Not Easy to Be Ethical

Two months ago, the CEO of a new ecommerce app, GoodHuman, where shoppers can find $95 Allbirds tennis shoes or pick up a set of $118 bamboo sheets, made the tough call to drop the popular clothing brand Reformation from its marketplace of sustainable companies.

The top-selling L.A.-based company — whose slogan reads "Being naked is the #1 most sustainable option. We're #2" — seemed to be a perfect brand for GoodHuman's site, where shoppers are encouraged to "discover all things sustainable and ethical." But the women's eco-conscious brand had taken a hit months earlier after one employee spoke out about a work environment that undermined and mistreated people of color.

Reformation released the results of its internal investigation last month finding its "workplace culture is not 'racist,' as alleged in the social media allegations."

The report didn't change GoodHuman co-founder and CEO James Glasscock's mind.

"We did pull it from curation because we felt like there was some work to be done," Glasscock said. "They've also been a leader in some areas over several years. It's complicated, to be fair."

Those complications, of what exactly is an ethical or sustainable company, are the territory that GoodHuman wants to own. Last week, Glasscock launched the company's app, an Amazon-like store that promises the "largest curated collection of sustainable products from ethical brands."

But figuring out who makes the cut isn't always simple and shows the many pitfalls brands face. GoodHuman isn't the only one doing this. Retailer giant Amazon rolled out its own eco-friendly platform in Europe last year.

GoodHuman determines what brands they sell based on five criteria. The site looks whether a company is certified in things such as fair trade, if it's free of 23 "toxic" ingredients and if the company is transparent. The other two considerations are internal research and, as they call it "community-driven discourse" or opposition by consumers to the brand.

"We think it's difficult for one person, one company to decide what is good for everybody," he said. "I'm not even the right person to decide if it is good or is not good. That's where the community comes in."

That last part is what ultimately triggered Glasscock to pull the popular Reformation.

"Our approach has been if we have to talk about it for too long, then let's just pull it," he said. "There are plenty of ethical and sustainable brands that have a good reputation that many users haven't even heard of."

What's an Ethical Brand?

Glasscock said his approach is "definitely not a perfect solution," but that consumers are seeking guidance in finding brands that align with their values. Some brands on the site sell more expensive products that can take longer to ship, but he said that's not the priority of shoppers that land on his site.

The company, founded in 2019, has so far vetted 680 brands and 50,000 products, which users can scroll through on the discover page under curated headlines like "Fashionably Frugal" and "Wholesome Home."

Glasscock, who spend much of the last decade in entertainment on the distributions side, said the startup has raised $1.2 million to date.

The company relies on the long list of independent bodies scanning brands for how they source materials and the impact of their shipping practices on the environment. Those standards, like Certified Organic and Fair Trade, are stamped on the front of chocolate bars or bagged coffee beans sold in grocery stores. Another is Certified B Corp, the guarantee given last week to L.A.-based organic food seller Thrive Market.

Those certifications have become a key marketing material as consumers become more environmentally conscious. Brands from H&M to McDonalds have embraced the idea of sustainability.

Changing Consumers

Joshua Clark Davis, a professor of history at the University of Baltimore, said businesses are eager to "give the appearance of sustainability," but not all of them fully practice it. In February, he published a book tracking the rise of mission-driven businesses and "conscious capitalism" that began in the 60s and 70s.

"Right now, especially in the age of Trump, people are looking for ways to advance and implement their values," he said. "We've seen how corporations in 2020 are eager to jump on the Black Lives Matter bandwagon, some of them sincerely, some of them less sincerely."

It's reflective of a shift in both consumer and business behavior. But will customers be willing to spend more? Glasscock thinks so. His biggest rival is Amazon.

"We got to make being a good human as convenient as being a bad human," he said. "For us, that means making it as easy as Amazon."

In September, the retail giant rolled out its own shopping platform for vetted eco-friendly products. It launched it in the UK and parts of Europe last. week. With it, Amazon also announced its own certification process, Compact by Design, to encourage companies to make products with less packaging.

"Amazon is a profit-first company," Glasscock said, adding that the move will end up saving Amazon money by lowering shipping costs and fitting more packages into fewer trucks, trains and ships.

"What's it all mean for GoodHuman? Validation of the opportunity for sure," he said. "On one hand we have the most fierce possible competitor a tiny L.A. startup could have. On the other hand, we are more focused on just this and confident we can build a better experience differentiated through curation, authenticity and community. Amazon has many priorities, we have only one."

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Ben Bergman

Ben Bergman is the newsroom's senior finance reporter. Previously he was a senior business reporter and host at KPCC, a senior producer at Gimlet Media, a producer at NPR's Morning Edition, and produced two investigative documentaries for KCET. He has been a frequent on-air contributor to business coverage on NPR and Marketplace and has written for The New York Times and Columbia Journalism Review. Ben was a 2017-2018 Knight-Bagehot Fellow in Economic and Business Journalism at Columbia Business School. In his free time, he enjoys skiing, playing poker, and cheering on The Seattle Seahawks.
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