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Review: the ‘Buycott’ smartphone app

For all the hype in some quarters of the media about ethical consumption and sustainable shopping, consumers don’t always have easy access to information on which they can base ethical purchasing decisions.  Consumers might know about prices and competing brands, but they can find it difficult to discover how socially responsible the companies behind those brands might be. As a recent article in The Guardian Sustainable Business section asked: “Is it possible to connect people to the wealth of environmental and social data that is now available in a way that changes their purchasing habits?”

One web developer thinks he might have created a solution to this dilemma: the Buycott smartphone app.

Buycott Logo - White
The Buycott app logo

Buycott – a smartphone app for ethical consumers

Buycott is a smartphone app that helps you organise your everyday consumer spending to support causes you care about. It gives consumers information about the ownership structures and actions of companies. Consumers can then use this intelligence to potentially boycott those companies or, alternatively, “buycott” a company as a way of showing support for an ethical stance that company might have taken.

The Buycott app is the brainchild of a 26-year-old freelance developer called Ivan Pardo, who wanted to create a more tech savvy and time-efficient way for consumers to check that their buying habits reflected their political and ethical principles. The great advantage of Buycott for ethical consumers, according to Pardo, is that the app “takes the research process and makes it instant” – essentially taking the lengthy investigative work out of consumer activism. Prado’s intention with the app was not just to highlight and punish unscrupulous organisations, but also to create a mechanism where you could show your support for corporations that act ethically.

Buycott image from Lifehacker
Examples of the causes you can support on Buycott (Copyright: Lifehacker)

How does Buycott actually work?

Firstly, you select in the app the causes or campaigns you support, whether that be environmentalism or women’s rights, animal welfare or economic justice, and so on. You then scan a product barcode into the Buycott app using your smartphone camera. After determining which company owns this particular product or brand, the Buycott app will then tell you whether this company is involved in actions or practises that conflict with your chosen causes.

So, if I feel passionately about multinational companies who are avoiding paying taxes in Zambia, and have indicated that preference in Buycott, scanning a pack of Ryvita will result in the app alerting me that there is a ‘conflict’ between buying this product and my stated principles (apparently – and according to Buycott – Ryvita’s parent company have not always been 100% tax-compliant in the African Republic).

On the flipside, if I’ve indicated to Buycott that I’d prefer my purchases to be produced by a unionised workforce, scanning a pack of McVitie’s Jaffa Cakes will confirm that buying this item will support my declared values (both of these are real-life examples I took from the app).

The app also has a feature where you can see the ownership structure or ‘family tree’ of a product so that you can trace it right back to its parent company. Furthermore, you can create your own campaign in Buycott either affirming your support or demonstrating your opposition to a company’s record on a social issue. Users can also add and edit information about companies in the app, and Buycott can be integrated with other social media platforms (it includes a feature where you can invite a Facebook friend to join one of the campaigns or causes that you have professed support for on the app).

Buycott Milk screenshot
An example of Buycott showing the ownership structure of a Milk brand

Putting Buycott to the test

So, how well does the app work? In terms of the user experience, the app occasionally freezes and ‘bombs out’. Another problem with the app is that the barcode scanner tends to jump all over the place. Unless you have placed both your phone and the product you want to scan on a shelf (or you hold both items very steadily), it can sometimes be difficult to get an accurate read on the barcode. But these glitches should not detract from how well designed and visually impressive the app is, and how easy it is to navigate between the various menus and functions. Neither should these relatively minor technical issues undermine the vast wealth of consumer information that the app makes available to shoppers who are concerned about a range of social issues.

Another quibble I would have is that a lot of the company information is quite US-focused. While this information will still be extremely relevant to an ethical consumer, trying to enter such household names as Ryanair, Bank of Ireland or Cement Roadstone Holdings (picking three Irish companies completely at random) into the Buycott search function gives you only the most cursory of information about these organisations. Perhaps an investor could fund the Buycott development team to create a version more tailored to a European or Irish audience?

Marmite campaign
Buycott reports on the corporate ownership of Marmite

The app might also be further improved by including details of the Corporate Social Responsibility activities that are carried out by the featured companies. But, more significantly, the app relies on its user base to keep its information up-to-date, and to edit that information to reflect any changes that might have occurred in corporate ownership structures. Depending on how knowledgeable and reliable the user base might be, this could have implications for the accuracy and objectivity of the app.

Overall, I was impressed by the Buycott app. It is an excellent idea and, despite some glitches, well-executed. Finally, somebody has used the latest in smartphone technology to bring some transparency to the consumer landscape. Rating: 4 out of 5.

The Buycott app is free to download and is available for iPhone and Android smartphones.