Labels used to be enough. ‘Contains CFCs’, ‘Dolphin-friendly’, and ‘Against Animal Testing’ all worked because they were simple issues requiring a simple response. To buy or not to buy? That was the question.
As our supermarkets’ supply chains have become ever more Gordian, our response has become more sophisticated. The Fairtrade label isn’t about boycotting products, it’s about making sure they are produced in such a way that we don’t have to boycott them.
Last December's new EU regulation requires palm oil to be clearly labelled on products. Campaigners are celebrating, but because the new label doesn't specify whether the palm oil was sustainably-sourced, does the label answer our ethical shopping questions? Now that your spouse can Instagram you a photo of the inside of the fridge so you don’t forget to buy milk, even the simplest smartphone apps can offer information way beyond the scope of a label (not least because of the amount of space that label would take up on the packaging).
Buycott, for example, an app which plays host to a number of campaigns, can tell the user which company ultimately stands to gain from their purchase. Scanning the barcode on a packet of McVitie’s Digestive biscuits reveals that the company is a subsidiary of United Biscuits, which in turn is owned by the Blackstone Group. An app is potentially a User’s Manual for every item in the supermarket. For labels to provide a similar level of detail would require those biscuits to be packaged like Easter eggs.
The only limit to the size of that manual is the information made available to it. An anti GMO group, Demand GMO Labelling, uses the Buycott app to tell the user whether the product came from any of the 36 companies which donated more than $150,000 to oppose the mandatory labelling of genetically-modified food. This is not a complicated algorithm at work. The developers simply instructed the app to flag those 36 companies and their subsidiaries. If the data is available, an app can find whatever it is the consumer is looking for.
For those issues which concern one ingredient among many, apps can identify a range of issues within a single product. The GoodGuide app evaluates a product’s environmental footprint, workers’ conditions and pay levels, and even tells us how healthy the product is. It gives each aspect a score out of 10, then gives an average for the whole. The example on their website – a pot of honey - gets 10 for health, 7.8 for the environment and 5.7 for workers’ rights giving it an average score of 7.9.
There is still the question of what we do with the information. Boycotts can be effective if the target is a particular product or a specific company. ‘Contains CFCs’ was a no-brainer. We knew what CFCs did, we knew where they could be found, and we knew that there were other ways of getting hairspray out of a can. But when the offending item is an ingredient like sugar, soy or palm oil, a boycott can have unintended consequences. The Malaysian palm oil industry employs 560,000 people. In such a complex debate, satisfying one ethical concern can leave the ethical consumer with several more to think about.
Newer apps have settings which can be precisely tweaked, making it easier for consumers to make shopping decisions based on specific concerns and avoid unintended consequences. WWF, a founding member of the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), favours engagement with the industry over a blanket boycott. RSPO argues that buyers need an incentive to invest in sourcing sustainable palm oil, and palm oil producers need to know that there is a market for their sustainably produced crop. A consumer might ask the app to identify palm oil from companies which have made a commitment to become sustainable within 5 or 10 years. This would encourage producers to promote their sustainable intentions so as to avoid being caught in an ‘all palm oil is bad’ dragnet. It would also encourage NGOs and consumers to keep an eye on those producers’ promises.
Not all ethical apps are perfect for every ethical occasion. Conscious Me is a community of members who ‘share what they think matters to a sustainable world’. This can be a favourite organic shop or a green idea which needs funding, and Conscious Me, to its credit, doesn’t try to overstep its remit by suggesting the ‘crowd’ are all experts in conservation or international development. Crowd-sourcing is perfect for finding a responsible holiday company or a GMO-free restaurant, but it’s not enough to hope for a Wikipedia-like shaking of the box in the hope that the facts will rise to the top.
Labels can still effectively answer simpler questions. If buying hardwood flooring, the ‘Rainforest Alliance Certified’ seal guarantees it wasn’t felled in primary forest. And ethical apps still have some teething troubles. The GoodGuide’s average for that pot of honey is comfortingly high, but if it was an app which focused solely on worker’s rights, would 5.7 out of ten be a passing grade?
Campaigners who favour boycotts tell us it’s about voting with our wallets, but as the Fairtrade label demonstrates, a far more effective solution can be to tell producers and manufacturers what we will buy, rather than what we won’t.
There is a sustainable palm oil label. The RSPO endorses products with its ‘Certified Sustainable’ trademark. Unfortunately they have yet to produce an app. Using RSPO’s data, a consumer could trace the source of that palm oil right down to the plantation it came from. The palm oil debate is so heated that there is probably more data collected on palm oil than for many other products. Rather than demanding labels, ethical consumers need to demand that the NGOs, manufacturers and plantation companies make that information available to an app developer.
While we’re waiting for that app to appear, there is one more which makes our ethical shopping decisions extremely simple. Instead simply asks whether you really need that product at all, and enables you to donate its cost to a worthy cause, instead.