Finding out a product’s or manufacturer’s track record on sustainability, climate change, fair labour and more often means consulting numerous apps and websites; hardly ideal for the time-poor shopper. The Ethical Barcode app looks to aggregate third party data on all these subjects but how effective is it? We put the app to the test.
What Does Ethical Barcode Do?
The app looks to provide shoppers with third party information on the sustainable and ethical practices used to manufacture products such as grocery items, household products, hygiene goods and more. The app also looks at the performance of a product’s parent company through an ethical and sustainable lens. It scans product barcodes and searches publicly-available datasets from 20 external sources, including NGOs, think tanks, websites and more, about the product’s and product manufacturer’s performance in areas like environment, ethical business practices, human rights and animal testing. Specifically, it collates info on: whether any palm oil contained in a product was sustainably sourced; whether the parent company uses child labour; if the products have been tested on animals; employee satisfaction; whether the corporate practices of the parent company infringe upon LGBT rights; and more.
The app doesn’t provide any original data or rankings. Rather, it works as an aggregator of external information. Once the barcode scan and trawl through datasets is complete, the results are displayed as a list, categorised by topic (environment, animal testing etc). Under each topic, the app presents the various ‘scores’ (as a percentage) a product/company has been given by each various source, while an overall score is displayed at the top of the screen. Sources are visibly noted. Users looking for more in-depth information about a product’s results can click on the each score to learn more.
The app aims to assist people in making more sustainable shopping choices by making evident exactly how products stack up in terms of ethical production and environmental impact.
How User-friendly Is the App?
This is a bare bones, no frills scan-and-info app. There is not much you can do aside from scan a barcode and receive a product’s score. The scanner function works really well. It scans in a second and doesn’t take ages to focus on the barcode, which is not always the case with barcode scanners. In order to find out any further information about a product’s rating, users can click on the source where the rating comes from (Oxfam, Greenpeace, CSRHub and more).
Quite often, though, after scanning a product, the app would take a while to conduct its search before eventually bringing up a ‘server is overloaded’ or ‘error’ page and asking me to try again in a few minutes, which was frustrating. I used the app over the course of three months in five different supermarket chains as well as on items I already have at home and was only able to obtain data on just a handful of products, usually cosmetics from large companies such as Dove deodorant or Syoss shampoo and conditioner. When I first began using the app, it would have data on maybe one or two out of five products I scanned. The longer I used it, though, the less frequently it recognised products. Towards the end of my trial, it simply brought up an error page for every single product scanned, even after I uninstalled and reinstalled the app multiple times.
It’s hard to judge the app too harshly, though, as it seems as though it is a passion project for the team behind it and updates are made in their spare time.
Does The Information Fit to Your Region?
It seems to be very focused on North American markets and products. I am based in Germany and it seemed that the app was not able to recognise a lot of EU products or brands. It does not offer sustainable alternatives and it seems the app is currently only available in English.
Is The Content Up-to-date?
The app’s website states that content is generally less than a year old but there’s not a lot of it. It couldn’t recognise most of the products that I scanned or it recognised the product but didn’t have any data on it. After several initial attempts to scan a product’s barcode and receive information, a message popped up urging me to scan something easier like a bottle of Coca-Cola. I tried scanning well known, multi-national brands like Coca-Cola, Heinz, Lindt and Nabisco (Oreos) but kept receiving either the error page or server overloaded page. I also tried scanning a number of organic products from brands like Weleda and Rapunzel and almost every time, the app either didn’t recognise the product or recognised it but didn’t have any data available on it.
According to Google Play, the last update carried out on the Android version was in May 2014 and the last update to the iOS version was done in May 2015.
Is Their Advice Trustworthy?
The app itself, which is free and was created by developer David Hamp-Gonsalves, doesn’t really offer any advice as it gathers and presents info from other sources. This is actually quite useful as it eliminates the need to consult numerous sources and gives a more complete picture about how and with what a product has been manufactured. For example, some sources might have data on whether palm oil contained in a product has been sustainably sourced but might not have any info about whether the supply and labour chain used to manufacture the product is ethical. By displaying data from multiple sources, the app helps cover any knowledge gaps.
Given that the info and ratings are aggregated from other sources, it’s very evident where Ethical Barcode gleans its info. In keeping with its focus on transparency, the app’s website lists the NGOs, websites and sources it gathers data from including Greenpeace, WWF, FairTrade, Rank a Brand, PETA, CSRHub, ClimateCounts, Rainforest Alliance and more. The trick is then, of course, determining how transparent or trustworthy each individual source is.
The number one benefit of this app is that it collects and presents information from multiple sources. There are loads of green shopping apps available but many of them focus on one or two areas of sustainability. With this app, it’s possible to get a more 360° view of a product or manufacturer’s background (when data is available) and eliminates the need to download multiple apps on your phone.
I love the idea behind this app as a kind of one-stop shop for getting info on a product’s or manufacturer’s background. It’s a very simple app but very user friendly. It scans quickly and presents the info (when available) in a snap but there doesn’t seem to be additional features beyond that.
But with the usage difficulties that I encountered, I would be hesitant to recommend it right now. For European-based users, in particular, the products and companies in its dataset are relatively sparse. Having said that, I am so impressed by the idea and how well the scanner works that I will keep it on my phone for now in the hope that it might be useful in the future.
I don’t know of any app that aggregates external data like this one does but Ethical Barcode’s website links to all its data sources and some of these can useful points of reference. Othrwise GoodGuide's website or Rank a Brand also might be helpful substitutes.
Want to test it out yourself? Download the app for iOS here and for Android here.
This article is part of our RESET Special on sustainable consumption. You can find all the articles in the series here.