Many shoppers probably do not want to their grocery dollars ending up in the pockets of defense companies. But it is not always so easy to see where our consumer coin ends up. The Buycott app aims to lay bare a brand’s affiliations in order to facilitate conscious consumption. But how reliable is this app? We tested it out.
What Does Buycott Do?
Join campaigns, shop smart, speak up. Vote with your wallet. These are the topics Buycott uses to present itself. That means that the app looks to provide an overview of what campaigns and petitions are currently running in areas such as sustainability, human rights and animal protection. Via a barcode scan function, the app purports to make clear a brand’s affiliations (i.e. where profits are invested, what kind of causes a brand’s parent company financially supports), check whether these companies’ actions contradict any campaigns and offer alternatives. Users can also use the app to contact the company in question directly.
On the surface, this all sounds good. Very good, in fact. Shopping ethically is no easy feat. Even in secure territory, like organic stores, the devil is often in the details and often, products land in the shopping trolley that might not align with a consumer’s ethical viewpoint. For example, it can happen that users end up ‘financing’ defense companies by buying products from companies that support such interests.
Putting the App to the Test
So off I went to an organic store with my ‘you can’t fool me’ weapon in my jacket pocket. The campaign aspect of the app was not of much interest to me, especially since nothing was indicated in my region. I wanted to scan product barcodes and find out what I am buying and from whom. From a technical standpoint, this worked well. The button is located at the bottom of the screen in the centre and the scanner was reliable.
The results ranged, however, from sobering to irritating. Many products were indeed recognised but the parent company was not listed. But there’s more: the big moment came when I scanned chocolate from the organic brand Rapunzel. After a bit of toing and froing – numerous affiliations were listed and not all of them really fit on the screen – I finally ended up at...the Coca Cola company. Ouch.
What’s Up with That?
To find out, I put the test on ice and got in touch with Rapunzel. The person I reached was, like me, flabbergasted. Together, we scanned various products but the waters only became muddier. After one particular scan, the app thought Rapunzel was connected to Walt Disney, mainly with the film ‘Tangled’.
By this point, the trustworthiness of the app was massively crumbling. My enquiries to Buycott – about how this could come about, where they get their info from and how it’s checked – went unanswered. However, I was soon able to find out where the info comes from: users themselves.
If someone scans a product that’s not in Buycott’s database, the user can create a post on the product themselves. The thing is, nobody seems to be checking to see how factually correct these entries are. Rapunzel also contacted Buycott about their case but two months later, when I checked the product again in my profile, I was directed again to Coca Cola or Walt Disney. Updates? None, apparently. Trustworthiness: not just crumbling, completely obliterated.
Recognising and categorising products from large, global brands is relatively easy with the app. So it seems that Buycott becomes overwhelmed when dealing with scans of smaller, predominantly European products. This in turn raises the question, how can I, as a user in Germany, trust the alternative products that app suggests to me if Buycott themselves do not seem to know a lot.
Conversely, this means that consumers in the American market or perhaps Europeans who are right at the start of the ethical consumption journey can use this app to create a good foundation.
Altogether, I am, unfortunately, disappointed in this app. After these confusing results, I stopped trying to use the app to find out more about brand-affiliated campaigns. Currently, I receive this kind of information via social media, reliably.
I am not only disappointed but I am also angry. The idea behind the app is wonderful and urgently needed but as it currently stands, the app creates more uncertainty among consumers. Bringing transparency to the shopping process is vital – diverting consumers’ money away from questionable corporations is actually not to be underestimated as a useful mechanism in a capitalist-oriented society.
Want to try Buycott for yourself? Download the app for Android here and for iOS here.
Another app that works in a similar way is the Waffenrechner (weapon calculator) app, however it's mosty applicable to the German market. I don’t know of an alternative app that looks at ethical consumption and a company’s affiliations. Perhaps Rank a Brand comes to mind, which allows users to check the sustainable performance of individual products. My personal shopping recommendation is to try and buy organic, regional and seasonal produce and leave products from certain brands on the supermarket shelf.
This article is part of our RESET Special on sustainable consumption. You can find all the articles in the series here.