Appy New Year?

Industry analyst Organic Monitor has an intriguing New Year prediction. Not only will mobile technology be used by growing numbers of people in 2012 but — in the form of smartphone apps — it could cut the maze of eco-labels that consumers have to navigate every time they go shopping.

Organic Monitor acknowledges the important role that eco-labels play in signposting sustainable products across a whole range of products — from food to cleaning products, cosmetics to toys. But it says that “shortcomings and a lack of transparency of many standards” have led to some consumers becoming disillusioned with them.

So, could specialist mobile rating apps offer a credible alternative? Could they eventually make existing ethical and eco assurance schemes redundant?

Organic Monitor believes mobile technology has the potential at least to give a more holistic picture of a product’s sustainability credentials — conventional labeling schemes, it says, tend to look at ethical and eco aspects in isolation. It also argues that rating systems which ‘name and shame’ —such as GoodGuide in the US — can play an active role in encouraging companies to develop more sustainable products.

GoodGuide does indeed look impressive. Set up in 2007 by Dara O’Rourke, a professor of Environmental and Labor Policy at the University of California, it has a whole team of scientists and researchers behind it. It’s already rated over 100,000 products and won plaudits from everyone from the New York Times to Oprah. It’s also a B Corp —a new kind of company that uses the power of business to solve social and environmental problems.

In the UK of course we have Ethical Consumer — with 20 years’ experience in the field — which is also now offers subscribers ‘personal filters’ to customise ratings to reflect their own key concerns. Check out its very user-friendly website.

Uptake of mobile versions of these services will ultimately depend on how easy they are to use. Their ability to customise ratings will certainly help — we know that consumers often apply a pick and mix approach when making values-based purchasing decision.

I don’t see mobile (and online) rating systems replacing established and trusted national and international schemes such as organic and Fairtrade — in fact these are actually used to inform ratings. But I’m sure there will be a growing role for ethical comparison services of credible provenance and a growth in mobile apps — which put place power in the consumer’s hand right at the moment of purchase. They will also expose unsubstantiated eco claims and fake organisations (for example ‘certification bodies’ cooked up by brand owners!). And, yes, by placing the spotlight on key ethical performance indicators, these initiatives could lead to greener, safer and fairer for everyone.

By Jim Manson

Natural Products editor and environment journalist
Jim Manson is editor of Natural Products magazine. He’s written widely on environment and development issues for specialist magazines and national media, including the Financial Times, The Guardian and Time Out.