Keep the Carcinogens Away from Baby: Curated E-Commerce to Parents' Rescue

Mom 2.0: Mighty Nest vets everyday products to help parents keep kids safe

For many new parents, the daunting reality of caring for a child hits like an anvil to the chest. After you’ve done everything you can to keep them safe—buying everything from car seats to protective mittens —there’s an overwhelming swirl of terror when you learn that baby’s shampoo contains known carcinogens. Those cute new bottles are laced with BPA, while the after-bath lotion is chock-full of phthalates—both components linked to a variety of unpleasant health and developmental side affects. You’re trying your best, and learn that your best could be poisoning your kid.

Social enterprise Mighty Nest is making parents’ lives easier and keeping kids safe by employing what might be the hottest trend in e-commerce—curation—to narrow parents’ retail options to safe, non-toxic products.

From reading labels to launching a startup

Like many new parents, Kristen Conn went through the shock of learning about toxic ingredients. Before she had children, she’d never really questioned what she bought in stores. A book she read during her pregnancy recommended switching to a natural deodorant, because chemicals in conventional antiperspirants could harm her baby. After her daughter was born, news broke about BPA. “It became kind of overwhelming,” she says. “There’s a lot of information out there and trying to figure out what you need to change… you can’t just all of a sudden throw out everything in your house and start over again.”

First, she researched and carefully replaced the family’s skin care products. She only bought BPA-free plastic, then started cutting out plastic altogether.

Meanwhile, Kristen’s husband Chris Conn was feeling the itch to live a dream they’d long planned for—running his own business after 14 years in internet-related work at conglomerates like NBC and the Tribune Company. Watching Kristen methodically tackle the problem of keeping their family safe, he had the idea for an online retailer that could serve needs that were becoming obvious in his own home.

Kristen faced three problems simultaneously: There was a glut of information, but often not enough about what parents typically buy; finding non-toxic products was extremely difficult; and judgment from parents was par for the course—either you’re crazy if you think toxic ingredients are an issue, or you’re crazy if you don’t.

With these ideas in mind, the couple created Mighty Nest in August 2008. It would be more than a year before the retail site launched, allowing time for planning, wooing investors, extensive research and product vetting to ensure that, as Chris puts it, “every single thing you buy from us is safe.”

Ahead of the retail curation trend

“The web as we’ve known it is broken,” says Steven Rosenbaum, author of Curation Nation. “The volume of content exceeds the way we’ve historically navigated the web.” In terms of general content, he notes, the amount of video uploaded to YouTube in one 24-hour period would take 98 years to view. As is being rapidly proven by Twitter, Tumblr and Pinterest, people crave ways to contextualize all that information. This is particularly true in retail.

Steven Addis, CEO of socially conscious branding firm Addis Creson, says he was among the first to apply “curation” to business in the way its used today. Addis says sharing a strong point of view with customers builds loyalty. Knowing and agreeing with a retailer’s curatorial standards holds huge appeal, because instead of hours spent researching online or reading labels, “I get to just be a shopper again.”

For parents like the Conns, safety is paramount. “It’s scary to think about some of the things in our hygiene and household cleaning products today… I’m not willing to risk the health and wellbeing of my children,” says Christine Drown, a mother and Mighty Nest customer.

When Chris launched Mighty Nest, Kristen told him, “Ok, I’ll help you a little bit.” This evolved into a vetting process in which Kristen and one other employee evaluate every product the company sells. In each of Mighty Nest’s retail categories, from toys to kitchenware, potential products are eliminated if they contain known hazards like BPA, phthalates, lead, formaldehyde, or PVC. From that pool, Mighty Nest draws products with components customers want—for instance, a coffee maker with no plastic parts. Next, they call manufacturers and start (politely) grilling, with questions about production, testing, and how color is added, among others. “If they won’t answer our questions, we won’t sell their products,” Chris says

Once deemed safe, new products are tested by Mighty Nest employees in their own homes for functionality, durability, and ease of use. Mighty Nest selects what it considers the top options from whatever products make it through that last hoop. “We don’t feel that parents have time to choose between 15 or 20 or 30 different alternatives,” Chris says. “We’re going to give them the best three or five.”

This is precisely what makes curation a boon for customers. “Mighty Nest is an awesome example of retail curation," Rosenbaum says. "Online, the race has been to build the biggest collection of products. But now, customers are looking for stores that have a distinctly editorial point of view. 'Healthy and safe’ isn’t a marketing campaign. It’s in their digital DNA.”

Loyalty through community

Kristen remembers her initial experience as a child-conscious shopper, “when I was at home, doing the research on my own on my laptop, I felt kind of alone in this thinking.” One outgrowth of Mighty Nest is an online network of similarly minded parents and customers.

On Facebook, Mighty Nest shares products, articles and recipes. Customers are doing what all social network administrators hope for—creating true community. Customers are so excited about shopping with Mighty Nest that even a post about a mixing bowl gets a comment like “just got a 4 qt pyrex (made in USA!) love it!!!!!!!!!” Careful shoppers, like Drown, who trust the company’s research methods still contact them with further questions.

“We’re a place that you have a relationship with,” Chris says. “We’re not just a retail store.”

The company is growing steadily, having doubled its revenue between its first and second full years of operation. Building customer loyalty has been important on multiple fronts. Products listed on Mighty Nest aren’t usually the cheapest in their categories, but they’re also not the most expensive. The curation process results in a line made from basic but incredibly durable components, like 304-grade stainless steel and tempered glass.

“An individual purchase on its own ends up costing more, but you end up buying fewer things,” Chris says. It’s a long-run savings with a green spin, as long-lasting products cut consumption.

Rosenbaum says that customers understand you can save money or time, but not both. “The question for sites like Mighty Nest will be if consumers use their quality filters to test new products, but shift their staple shopping to the large online retailers,” he says.

This is why loyalty and trust matter. Shoppers stick with companies like Mighty Nest because they’ve built credibility and share a vision. To Addis, curated e-commerce represents the new era of small business. We have plenty of reason to support local small business, “but when we’re looking for a much better selection out there and we need the web, this is the new cottage industry—and Amazon is not.”

Each Thursday, Sarah Stankorb examines the way social enterprise is changing business and creating positive impact.

Photo courtesy of Mighty Nest

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