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Mobile technology to replace eco-labels?



Published January 9, 2012
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Advances in mobile technology are increasing the number of consumer products with smart barcodes. Although this development is encouraging more sustainable products, Organic Monitor (www.organicmonitor.com) believes the implications are far reaching and could eventually lead to the demise of some eco-labels.

Eco-labels currently play an important role in marking sustainable products. Indeed, green symbols and logos are becoming ubiquitous on foods, cosmetics, household cleaning products, textiles, furniture and even toys. However, some consumers are becoming disillusioned with eco-labels because of the shortcomings of many standards and lack of transparency. For instance, the proliferation in food eco-labels is causing consumer confusion whereby many cannot distinguish between Organic, Fairtrade, Rainforest Alliance, and other eco-labels. A growing number of consumers are now turning to mobile technology applications to meet their informational needs.

Mobile devices enable consumers to get a wealth of information on products from their Quick Response (QR) barcodes. Consumers seeking sustainable products can get details on the product’s environmental, social and even economic footprint whilst shopping. Some brands allow consumers to use the barcodes to ‘track and tell’ the product origins. Indeed, the technology is becoming popular on fruits & vegetable products as they allow consumers to meet the growers.

Organic Monitor, a specialist research, consulting and training company that focuses on the global organic and related product industries, sees US-based GoodGuide as a frontrunner in mobile technology applications. By downloading the smart application on their mobile phones, consumers can get details on various health, environment and society parameters of their products. The GoodGuide gives ratings for almost 100,000 consumer products and companies. As will be shown in the upcoming Sustainable Foods Summit, Horizon Organic milk has a lower environmental rating record then Nesquick strawberry milk. In the personal care sector, Nature’s Gate natural baby shampoo is more toxic than a Johnson & Johnson’s conventional shampoo. By rating products on various criteria, it highlights the shortcomings of many sustainable products.

As consumers become information savvy, they are demanding more from sustainable products. "Organic" - the world’s largest eco-label for consumer products - has grown to represent a $60 billion industry spanning foods, textiles, cosmetics, flowers and related products. Although organic is the most sustainable form of agriculture, production standards do not factor in CO2, H20 and energy footprints. Thus, an organic apple from Latin America can have a higher environmental impact than a locally grown conventional one. Similarly, a fair trade coffee can give a positive social contribution to the African grower but still have an adverse effect on the environment.

The major advantage of mobile technology is that it can give a holistic picture of a product’s sustainability credentials. Whereas the shortcoming of most eco-labels is that they look at some ethical / ecological aspects in isolation. By "naming and shaming" brands, product rating systems like those of the GoodGuide also encourage companies to develop more sustainable products. Thus, companies with organic products are now looking at social aspects, while those with fair trade products take environmental considerations more seriously. The technology is also making other sustainability indicators like carbon emissions and packaging footprint prominent.

Consumers are likely to benefit from greater transparency and accountability from brand owners; however a question mark hangs over the future of existing eco-labels. With over 500 symbols and logos representing sustainable food products, many consumers are lost in the maze of eco-labels. To these consumers, mobile technology gives an exit route while maintaining their green purchasing behavior

The growing use of mobile technology for sustainable food products will be featured in the upcoming Sustainable Foods Summit, taking place in San Francisco January 17-18. Dara O'Rourke, co-founder and chief sustainability officer of GoodGuide, will be giving the opening keynote on January 18 as well as a seminar on the GoodGuide methodology and rating system. Organized by Organic Monitor, the aim of the Sustainable Foods Summit is to explore new horizons for eco-labels and sustainability in the food industry by discussing key industry issues in a high level forum. More information is available at www.sustainablefoodssummit.com.


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