#117, Alexander Gillett, Co-Founder & CEO of HowGood
Alexander Gillett is the co-founder and CEO of HowGood, an independent research company with the world’s largest database on food and personal care product sustainability. Since 2007, Alexander has guided HowGood’s business trajectory, driving innovative partnerships with like-minded companies and organizations. Under Alexander’s leadership, HowGood has provided critical data and insights into the quickly-shifting world of sustainability for retailers, consumers, and CPGs, while maintaining its mission to increase transparency and reduce the impact of food and consumer goods on our world.
HowGood is an independent research company with the world’s largest database on product sustainability. With more than 33,000 ingredients, chemicals and materials assessed, HowGood SaaS and impact data offerings help leading brands, retailers and investors improve their environmental and social impact. Through in-depth, ingredient-level insights into factors ranging from greenhouse gas emissions to animal welfare to labor risk, HowGood data powers strategic decision-making for the sourcing, manufacturing, merchandising, and marketing of sustainable products.
Bigger Than Us Episode 117
This transcription has been lightly edited for readability.
Host Raj Daniels 02:12
If you were asked to share something interesting about yourself, what would it be?
Alexander Gillett 02:20
The thing that always comes to mind is just from my childhood that I grew up traveling around the world and living in lots of different countries. And that very much shaped the way that I see the world and humanity.
Host Raj Daniels 02:35
What are some of the countries you’ve lived in?
Alexander Gillett 02:38
There’s a whole mix. So the list would be England, Portugal’s in Paraguay, India, Australia, New Zealand, and then the states. And but some of those, I don’t know, if you qualify them as living or not, right. Like some places it was seven months, does that count? You decide.
Host Raj Daniels 02:58
I think seven months gives you a good flavor. Why did you live in all these countries?
Alexander Gillett 03:05
We very much had parents that wanted us to see the world. And, you know, my, my father was writing books at the time. And my mom did interior design work, and they took that work with them. They’ve kind of achieved what they wanted to achieve, or greater than they initially expected. And they had these two young kids, myself and my brother, who’s my co-founder. And they wanted to focus on them and us getting to see the world instead of kind of a standard upbringing.
Host Raj Daniels 03:46
So the one that stood out from the list that you mentioned was Zimbabwe. How long did you spend there?
Alexander Gillett 03:52
Zimbabwe was amazing. It was about four months in Zimbabwe. And it was back in 89. And so Zimbabwe was actually in a really pretty good place then. And we spent almost the entire time basically doing different Safari trips and staying in small remote towns and is immensely enjoyable.
Host Raj Daniels 04:26
Now you mentioned it shaped your view of humanity. Can you expand on that?
Alexander Gillett 04:33
I think there’s, just recognizing privilege in all of its forms. It’s hard to be in a place like Zimbabwe or India as a child and not recognize the inequity of what’s going on around you. But also witness the joy and simplicity of things that bring happiness. I think one of the first things I wrote that I was quite proud of as a child was about the story of a boy in India. He was playing with a stick in an old bicycle tire wheel and just kind of rolling it down the street, and there was a few other kids who were interacting with him. And they were having as much fun as I was having. You know, when I played with something a lot more expensive, and kind of a recognizing of all of the balance between those two, right, like, so were basic needs are so incredibly important and so often underserved. And also that you can find joy in simple things. And so there’s a, there’s dual learning, that kind of went on there for me, and it shaped the business that I want to be in, which is one that helps promote living wages, and helps people live in conditions that don’t include forced or slave labor.
Host Raj Daniels 06:05
So thank you for mentioning the business. Can you give the audience an overview of HowGood and your role at the organization?
Alexander Gillett 06:12
Yeah, I’m the CEO of HowGood and HowGood evaluates the impact of ingredients. And so what that means is that we’ve looked at 33,000 ingredients globally. And we’ve mapped out what happens when you grow them in essentially all of their different conditions, or all of their different major conditions, as they’re grown globally. And so if you tell me that you’re sourcing a crop from x location, we can tell you what the impact and what the risk factors are there. So, you know, if you’re worried about low wages within an industry, or you were worried about forced labor or anything like that, we can tell you whether that’s that the same thing with greenhouse gas emissions. Same thing with water impact. Same thing with whether you’re at risk for different issues around animal husbandry, right. And so the idea is to centralize the data of what happens when you grow something because oftentimes, you have a farmer who really knows their impact, but they don’t know the impact of the crop on the farm next to them, or the farm next to that, or the one halfway around the world. And so how do you figure out what’s best practice? You have to be able to compare them against each other, and bring in all the different variables from, you know, weather, to soil, to labor conditions.
Host Raj Daniels 07:32
And how do you convey that information to a consumer?
Alexander Gillett 07:36
So we do it in a variety of ways. The piece that’s really taking off for our company right now, and that’s being used by kind of major players throughout the industry, is a platform we call the lattice platform. And it basically, lets large manufacturers, players like the known, look at their entire supply chain, and understand the impact for every product for every ingredient that they’re sourcing, what’s going on in that supply chain, and then they can also make changes within the system or see what changes they make to have the biggest positive impact. And so it’s this idea of kind of helping companies move towards not just, you know, I like to say that the word sustainable is actually not a very ambitious goal, you know, it’s this idea of kind of net-zero. And if you think about your life, and you say, oh, I want to have no impact in my life, you know, it’s not, it’s not what we hold ourselves, do, we want to have a positive impact on the world.
And so companies are starting to look at themselves as well, and people within companies and saying, we should be holding them to this higher standard as well, right? Like, you should make the world a better place. And so we shouldn’t be carbon neutral. We should aim for carbon sequestering. We should be pulling carbon back into the ground, especially in the agricultural system, where we have that available to us right to try and offset some of the other industries.
And so that’s one way we help them identify kind of how and where they can do that. And not just for carbon, but for water impact for biodiversity for 127 different sustainability metrics. The other is we synthesize all that data. And we turn it into like a very customer friendly rating. That’s good for the world, great for the world, and best for the world. Right? So it’s a super simplified version, and it goes right on the shelf edge. So next to a price tag in let’s say, Giant-Landover, which is 167 store chain here in the US, and they’re owned by Ahold Delhaize who have about 2000 stores. You can basically walk through their aisles and on every product, you can see along a scale where that product falls, and then you can vote with your dollars for a more sustainable product. So you don’t have to understand the difference between cage-free for range free-roaming certified humane and USDA Organic eggs, right? You can just like look at a scale and be like, oh, these are the best ones great.
Host Raj Daniels 10:11
I’m laughing because, you know, the few times that I do go to the store have to go through that whole mental gymnastics of okay, which one are the best for me and the planet, etc, etc. So I understand what you’re saying.
Alexander Gillett 10:22
Yeah, I mean, I think everyone does. Even people in the egg industry are like, oh, yeah, I was cage-free. Is it free-range? You know, like, which one has this standard? And which one, you know, and so like, you can just imagine, for most people who have a lot of other things that they’re trying to take care of. Yeah, it needed to be simplified.
Host Raj Daniels 10:40
So you mentioned good, great and best, is that correct?
Alexander Gillett 10:43
Yeah. And anything below that is below our standards, it just doesn’t get highlighted. So we basically highlight all the leading products throughout the store.
Host Raj Daniels 10:51
Have you ever run across a time where you’ve rated a food, and the producer did not want to be rated?
Alexander Gillett 10:59
All the time. We’ve rated over a million products. So there’s a lot of products, you know, if your product doesn’t do well, it’s not probably the thing you want to highlight. But in the same way that you know, on Yelp or on, you know, if you want it to be a company that’s doing it like the God, right, and the way they rate things, it’s an informed opinion about the standards of that product. And so there’s not too much they can do about it, they can share more information with us, they can try and prove us wrong about their supply chains. And if they send us information that we don’t have will incorporate it. But typically, we already have the information that they share with us. And so it’s about the evaluation of that data.
Host Raj Daniels 11:44
Now, there’s an argument out there that food that’s, quote unquote, better for you is more expensive. Can you speak to that for a minute?
Alexander Gillett 11:54
I mean, you know, there’s an unfortunate, there’s an unfortunate truth to that. Highly processed foods are cheaper than vegetables? Should that be the case? No. But it is because they’re shelf-stable, and there are all these different things. The same is true in a lot of cases with sustainability. If you average all the data together, a more sustainable product, on average, does cost more. That said, there are always places where that rule is broken. So in milk, milk is almost always significantly more expensive as you get more sustainable. But that’s not true when you’re looking at things like beans, right.
And so, you know, even when I started this company, and I was pouring all my money into it, I couldn’t afford organic milk, right? That was a step too far for me during that stage of my life, right. And now, you know, I’m very comfortable making that. And so I think everyone gets to make their individual choice around that. And ideally, with scale, those costs get closer and closer and closer. And eventually, you know, the most effective use of a square air hector or meter of land is to do kind of this regenerative agriculture, where you’re having tons of different crops growing in the same area and interacting well with each other, and animals, even if you can. And so, ideally, as we can also use these more complex methods that are harder to figure out, but they should eventually create higher efficiencies and therefore lower costs. But that’s going to take time.
Host Raj Daniels 13:35
And in my research, I came across a video where you were speaking about the true cost of food. Can you shed some light on that?
Alexander Gillett 13:43
So I’m not sure which video, most likely, you referring to something that’s talking about, you know, the recognition that a huge percentage of the greenhouse gases in the world are caused by food. Enormous amounts of deforestation are caused by our food and ag, there’s huge amounts of forced labor that’s within our food system. And, you know, and that’s not like, it’s not in the global food system, and you know, you’re not buying it if you’re buying food in America. It’s on our grocery shelves. Like, if you’re not paying attention, you are probably buying some products that are using forced or child labor to produce that food. And that’s pretty shocking to most people.
And so, in any of those cases, you know, spending a little bit more typically helps alleviate that. Because those higher standards allow for people to be paid the way they should be, but it’s not always true, right? Sometimes that money is going directly to the top rather than to the farms and the places that need it. I agree. Recently, my wife and I were speaking about the externalities of the cost of food, and how I’m gonna say today, within the last few years, we’ve seen an increase in certain diseases, diabetes, for example. And for let’s call it 30, 40 years now, maybe a little longer, we’ve seen perhaps fast food and even commercial food you buy in grocery stores that have been processed or perhaps provided a, I want to say not substandard, but you know, not with the consumer, consumers interest at heart. And I think we’re seeing a lot of that bear out today in the health care system where the food producers are not bearing the cost, but now the healthcare providers or the individuals themselves and are bearing that cost.
The modern agriculture and food system was basically designed to solve the problem post World War II of mass calories shortage, right. And, unfortunately, that leaves a lot to be desired in terms of a vast majority of people’s health and diets, right. And that problem is only really being taken on now. We’ve just said, oh, yeah, that works. Let’s keep scaling this. And the reality is that something being shelf-stable as long as possible, and having enough calories in, it is no longer the most important factor. In fact, oftentimes, we have too much of those two things, and they’re part of the problem. And so how we strike that balance is kind of key. And I think, you know, one of the things I often say to, to companies we’re working on, like working with, you can’t, you can’t just focus on one or two issues, you know, you can’t say, look, we want to deal with greenhouse gas emissions, and then ignore the other issues, because you’re going to do horrible trade-offs. You’re going to solve your greenhouse gas problem, but you’re going to create a subset of other ones, whether it’s water, whether it’s labor, and so you have to be looking at the complexity of the food system, and represent it in your decision making. So when you make that trade-off to an improved greenhouse gas system, make sure that you’re also positively affecting the other ones, or at least majority positively affecting, and where you’re doing a trade-off, you’re aware of it, and you’re trying to fix that in another manner.
Host Raj Daniels 17:09
So speaking about some of the companies you’re working with, what are the advantages that those companies have when they work with you? What are the advantages you’ve seen?
Alexander Gillett 17:18
This level of data has never been available before for large and small companies. Right. And so, you know, I, I think one of the things I like to highlight is, like, it’s no longer a question of, can we, it’s a question of, will we? There’s no longer can we sequester carbon? Or can we produce enough food for the world, or can we, it’s a question of, will we? And produce is the wrong word because really, it’s about distribution, but we won’t get into that. I think the keys here are that with this kind of data, and with taking a very scientific forward-thinking approach to AG, we can do very holistic versions of our food system that are beneficial to the communities and the people they’re supplying.
And the fun thing is that you have, you know, global companies that are willing to start to do that. And that’s a shift, where they’re saying, hey, we’ve built the current food system, we can actually, we can make it better, we can make it be a reflection of how we want to live our lives as well. Now speaking specifically to products, have you seen or have your grocery partners seen an increase in sales and uptake of certain products that you rated? Yeah. I mean, it’s pretty wild. I mean, a best-rated product in a category averages a 168% increase in sales. In some categories, like baby food, it’s over 1,000%. They’re not selling 1,000% more baby food, they’re selling 1,000% more of the best-rated baby food at the expense of the lower-rated ones. Right. And so yeah, you see, you see that customers want to buy food based on the standards, it’s just not always clear for them how to do that easily.
Host Raj Daniels 19:14
That is a pretty amazing number, 1,000% increase.
Alexander Gillett 19:19
When we first launched the program, we were targeting between five and 10. And our first version of it, which was very naive in terms of understanding of how people interact with shelf edge, had like a 34% increase in sales. And we thought that was incredible, right? And we’ve refined it over since then, into this place where it’s yeah, it’s really, really effective. Those numbers, it’s not in a Whole Foods equivalent, you know, these are in conventional stores that we’re seeing. Customers really do want this information. So you mentioned the shelf stickers or labels if you will. Are you also partnering with producers to put the information directly on the product? No, because we don’t want to be another, you know, it’s like the egg aisle, right? If you put “best for the world” next to cage-free, free-range free-roaming certified humane, someone still looks at it and go wait is that better than these or not? We want it to be on a scale and to be simple. So you’ve got to have the egg that’s not quite as good next to that be on that same scale. And of course, only the best for the world would want to use the ratings. And so people wouldn’t be able to compare them. That said, anyone can download our app, scan the products in their grocery store, and they’re, you know, at home in their pantry and get an understanding of their impacts.
Host Raj Daniels 20:44
So you have a consumer facing app also, correct?
Alexander Gillett 20:47
Yes. You scan a barcode of any food product, and it should tell you the impact and the rating that that product gets, you know, it’s I don’t think apps are going to change the food system because you know, the average person is picking between five milks and it takes them, you know, 15 seconds to pick between those five. The average app takes 30 seconds to scan one. So now you’re saying, hey, take two and a half minutes to scan those five-minute milks, rather than 15 seconds isn’t very realistic for most people’s lives. But for people who want to understand why a product gets a certain rating, or who are excited or disappointed by a rating, it gives them transparency to understanding it.
Host Raj Daniels
That’s pretty interesting. I like the idea of being able to go through the pantry at home and scanning what we have to see where it kind of aligns, and then perhaps, you know, changing habits next time you go shopping. So switching gears here, crux of our conversation, the why behind what you do, you’ve been pursuing this now for 14 years, you mentioned your early travel being influential on you, but why HowGood? What made you want to launch this company and what keeps you going?
My brother made me want to launch this company really was the genesis of the idea he was living in, in England. And I was living here in New York, and he was telling me about this idea. And we were like, We kept kind of refining it. And it was, it was just like, everyone’s doing this research themselves. And they’re spending all this money, trying to understand their own impact without understanding all the variables and the way everyone else is doing things. And how do we simplify that and make it more effective, so the change can be accelerated? We really started it as like a passion project, while we were doing other things, you know, it was like, it wasn’t, oh, this will be a dashboard in 14 years that big companies will be using it was like, this data will be available. And we will be valuable to these companies in terms of helping them make change. And so we got there through an enormous amount of kind of hard work and willingness to kind of do what it takes. And that ranges from like government grants to working multiple jobs too, you know, almost running out of money, you know, multiple times, and finding solutions each time.
Host Raj Daniels 23:21
So how do you gather your data?
Alexander Gillett 23:24
So I mean, one of the nice things having been around for a long time is that we’ve built an enormous number of partnerships with data providers. And so we’ll do data shares, and we’ll give experts access to data. And so there’s two different pieces that happen within our system. One is, we have 450 different data sources that we’re gathering data from. And the other is that we’ve had hundreds of hundreds of experts come in and interpret what that data means, right? So it’s not just what happens when you start using a cover crop when you’re, you know, growing x. But or, you know, what happens if you switch to no-till, but it’s actually a question of like, is there a scientific consensus on what happens in each one of these different regions and growing locations when you make this type of a change? And then mapping those all into the system, so that we can provide that level of kind of accuracy and understanding for everyone.
So you know, those range for typically what we do is we look at one specific issue. So let’s say we’re looking at biodiversity, right? We’ll look for the leaders and data in that space. So I would highlight Bioversity International and the agro-biodiversity index. Incredibly complex datasets about biodiversity impact, that need to be both ingested by our system and then interpreted and then made useful for a variety of different people within a company, everyone from a sustainability team to a researcher who’s reformulating a product. And so we take that data but then we also to layer it against other sources of data. So within biodiversity if we’re looking at deforestation, the Rainforest Alliance data, or if we have, like geotags of the farms, then we’ll actually use satellite data. And when we can use all three of those, we get an even more complete picture. So that’s kind of the goal, you use as many of the different data sources to create as complete an understanding around a given impact as possible.
Host Raj Daniels
If I understand correctly, you might partner with an organization that is collecting data on animal welfare. And then you overlay that data via your, I guess, software, and you’re able to create a score? Is that correct?
Host Raj Daniels 25:41
So let’s say I’m going to look at a product. How many of so you’ve got several of these different data points, I’m looking at the website right now, quite amazing. How many of these data points are aggregated to create that one score?
Alexander Gillett 25:55
Well, it depends on the product and how many ingredients. We actually rate every ingredient, and then the percentage of the product that they make up. So every product is incredibly different. If you’re just doing it for a carrot in a grocery store, right? It’s the impact of that carrot, right? How far did it travel? What growing conditions? Was it grown? and blah, blah, blah, right? Is it in packaging? Is it not? What’s the impact of that packaging? It’s relatively simple. You could have a processed food that has 40 ingredients in it, right? And then you have to map out every one of those. So there’s no people often say, you know, is there a simple way to understand this, and the reality is like, the food system is a complex system. If our system was simple, it wouldn’t be accurately reflecting the food system. We build in that complexity to give you an understanding of has this product over-achieved within its category?
Host Raj Daniels 26:49
You mentioned the carrot, do you look at things like pesticides also?
Alexander Gillett 26:54
Yeah, pesticides, fungicides. We look at the processing, right? Not for a carrot, obviously. But we’re trying to take in the full complexity, we look at the packaging. So it’s, it’s not just what’s happening on the farm. But it is, as many of those details as possible, really sound like an amazing story here.
Host Raj Daniels
You know the way I came across your company is one of the co-founders of our company, sent a screenshot of HowGood at Chipotle, so you’re also working with restaurant partners too?
Chipotle is actually our first restaurant partner. We hadn’t pursued that market. Because in general, restaurants do a poor job of differentiating themselves from each other in terms of their food standards. And Chipotle is an outlier in that. And there are some others definitely, but in general, that side is behind, let’s say, the grocery industry. But yeah, they approached us, we like what they’re doing, how they’re trying to improve things, and taking a data-centric approach that they can communicate to customers. We love it. And that’s the type of thing we want to support.
Host Raj Daniels 28:06
Well, congratulations on that partnership.
Alexander Gillett 28:08
Host Raj Daniels
So I’m going to switch gears here, you know, 14 years, what are some of the most valuable lessons that you would say you’ve learned on your journey?
I think just that it’s your journey. Don’t try and model it off someone else’s. If you want to keep going, keep going type of a thing. I think, you know, people are like, 14 years, that’s so long for, you know, what some people call a startup. And it’s like, it’s true. That’s it’s a lot of time, but it’s time I enjoyed, you know, and so if you’re enjoying it, and you want to keep going, do it. And the same is true of the opposite. If you’re not, you don’t have to stay at something. And so I think there’s a certain amount of, I end up talking to a lot of people in, you know, the startup world who think like, their app has to take off in six months, or they should give up. And I think there’s a lot of different versions of success stories out there, and you get to make your own.
Host Raj Daniels 29:15
So speaking of keep going, it’s 2025. Magic wand. What does the future hold for HowGood? How do you envision HowGood to look in five years?
Alexander Gillett 29:25
I mean, my main goal, and honestly, it’d be great if this is how good but I more care that it happens is that companies agree to standards for how they’re going to measure. Because the issue that’s happening right now is companies are like, hey, we’re gonna lower our greenhouse gases. But they’re not saying, here’s what we’re currently producing, you know, this is where we’re measuring it from and finishing measuring it. And this is where we’re going to end up in 2005. And so the lack of accountability in terms of like hard numbers And not just for greenhouse gases, but for all of these metrics is, I think, a piece that we really need to solve. And the more detail that we can get around that, the better. And so my goal would be to, I’d love for how good to be the piece that brings that together within the food system, but also, just that that happens.
Host Raj Daniels 30:21
I love that idea of almost nudging companies into accountability. So, Alexander, the last question. And, you know, you said something earlier, regarding your journeys, your journey, and I love that advice. But if you could share some other specific words of advice, or wisdom with the audience, what would it be?
Alexander Gillett 30:42
I think there’s an immense amount of people that will give you their opinion. And that will tell you why something won’t work. And, you know, sometimes the job of people trying to change things is to be willing to hear no, and that know that it doesn’t mean no, forever. You know, we have a VC, who, you know, wants to invest in HowGood and you know, six years ago, he basically said, you guys care about too much stuff. Right? Like, people care whether it’s organic or not, they don’t care, like what the overall impact is, and all the complexity that you’re covering. And not only does he want to invest now, but he actually built a fund that focuses on that exact thesis of making sure that the companies they invest in are doing well across the board in terms of the world. And, you know, he called us up and he, he owned that he said, look, I actually rejected you guys a long time ago. And since then, I’ve grown to understand that that is where the market’s going. And it’s also what I want to focus on. And so it’s not even just that no, you know, that you’re going to get no’s, and that you can find the right fit, it’s that sometimes you’ll get to know from a person who later on will come back and be it Yes. If you believe in something, and you’re trying to change something in a way that hasn’t been necessarily done before. Just keep at it.
Host Raj Daniels
Is there anything else you’d like to share before we go?
Just pay attention to the companies that are making these changes. General Mills, switching it to regenerative agriculture for a huge portion of its wheat that it produces is an amazing thing. They’re going to be sequestering carbon. They’re one of the largest wheat producers in the world, right? Like, when you see something like that, support it with your dollars, show them that you care, because every time we buy something we are voting. We get to vote with our dollars and help fix the food system every time we go to the grocery store.
Before we go, I’m excited to share that we’ve launched the Bigger Than Us comic strip, The Adventures of Mira and Nexi.
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