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G7 leaders back measurement apps

Smart apps for measuring and comparing product footprints made the agenda at the recent G7 meeting 

The leaders of the G7 big-hitting economies had plenty to talk about when they met in Germany in early. The global economy, the conflict in Ukraine, terrorism, ebola – all were on the agenda. But, perhaps for some lighter relief, the G7 also apparently found time to discuss shopping apps.

According to the G7 Summit declaration, Obama, Merkel and the rest “welcome initiatives to promote the establishment of appropriate, impartial tools to help consumers and public procurers in our countries compare information on the validity and credibility of social and environmental product labels. One example is the use of relevant apps.”

These tools might not just be a help for consumers and public procurers who want to buy more sustainably. They could also help companies in the measurement and consolidation of their sustainability efforts.

Apps away

Two examples of apps that provide information on brands and the companies behind them are HowGood and OpenLabel.

HowGood, based in New York, has generated sustainability indicators on 137,000 food products, using data from sources including well-known labelling schemes such as the Marine Stewardship Council and the Rainforest Alliance.

It has coalesced this information into simple ratings of products as “good”, “great” or “best” for environment and society. The minimum rating (“good”) indicates that the product is in the top 25% of products on sustainability, while “best” products are in the top 5%. Products without a tag are those that fall outside the top 25%.

Scan then shop 

HowGood partners with supermarkets, which display the ratings on shelf-tags. Consumers can scan the tags with their smartphones to check what is behind the product ratings.

So far, the stores using HowGood tags are mainly ethical supermarkets and smaller groceries that would arguably only stock the most sustainable products in any case. Nevertheless, the scope for expansion is there.

OpenLabel, meanwhile is more like a TripAdvisor for products. It collates product sustainability reviews. In principle, its app works with any product with a barcode – simply scan to see what the reviews say. OpenLabel has received investment from Google and Amazon, among others.

Imprecise information?

OpenLabel also shows the risk to companies that might arise from proliferation of such apps. OpenLabel product reviews are not always obviously well-informed. A review of one milk product notes that it is “rBST-free,” meaning the cows are not treated with a synthetic hormone, but the cows are “probably” fed GMO feed. One coffee machine, meanwhile, is exaggeratedly described as a non-recyclable “crime against humanity”.

In the UK, the long-established Good Shopping Guide has been transformed into an app. William Sankey, founder of the Ethical Company Organisation, which is behind the guide, says that it rates companies rather than brands. Companies are assessed based on the sustainability information that they publish, on the credibility of their promises and targets and on the basis of third party information such as legal reports and studies by NGOs.

Critical friends 

Sankey says that companies should pay attention to sustainable shopping apps. They can be regarded as critical friends and lead to a “virtuous circle” in which companies can check what people are saying about them and take measures to fill in any gaps in their sustainability performance.

Crucially, the apps make it quicker, cheaper and easier for consumers to access sustainability information, and consequently more people are likely to do so. As more consumers pay attention, the pressure will grow for companies to accurately measure and track their sustainability performance, and to provide robust proof of their claims.

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