Can app-happy shoppers redefine the food system?

10 September 2013

Portrait of Dr Tanja Schneider

by Dr Tanja Schneider

Tanja's research focuses on marketing and advertising practices. Her most recent publications address the governance of genetically modified and functional foods in Europe, the marketing of health food and healthy eating practices in Australia and Eu...

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Dr Tanja Schneider of the Oxford Martin Programme on the Future of Food on whether mobile phone apps are a useful tool for 'political consumerism'.

Since embarking on the Oxford Food Governance research on ICT-enabled consumer food activism, I have become quite curious about what other sources of food knowledge are accessible via mobile phone apps. So when one of our team mentioned an app called 'Buycott', I decided it was time to use food apps for more than shopping or recipe hunting.

Buycott is a relatively new app that allows its users to scan bar codes from a range of consumer goods and then “look up the product, determine what brand it belongs to, and figure out what company owns that brand (and who owns that company, ad infinitum)”. Users of the app can also join or create campaigns tied to issues such as GMO labeling or fairtrade to avoid products of certain companies, or support campaigns for brands they approve.

The first product I scanned was a water bottle that was sitting on my desk right beside me. The water I had bought and was drinking that day uses the name of a Swiss thermal spring in its name and so I had assumed I was buying a local product and supporting a local company located in a Swiss mountain valley. To my surprise, I found out that the water brand was owned by Coca Cola, a company whose products I don’t tend to buy very often. So unintentionally, I had been spending money on one of their products.

My surprise and my researcher’s curiosity led me to check out the water company’s website and search for more information on who owns the company. Interestingly there is no mention that the company is owned by Coca Cola under the ‘company’ tab on their website. So I suppose the use of the app was helpful right away in knowing more about the products I consume. However the information left me wondering what to do now. Being only an occasional drinker of bottled water but a frequent user of empty plastic bottles for tap water refills when I’m on the go, I knew that the clever solution would be to stop buying/using plastic bottles and buy a glass, metal or hard plastic water bottle for refill. That would have the positive side-effect of reducing plastic waste. On the other hand, it would have the negative side-effect that I wouldn’t support jobs in a company located in a Swiss mountain village.

Those reflections and my further explorations into the Buycott app led me to join the campaign 'Avoid Plastic Bottled Beverages'. After joining the campaign I rescanned the plastic bottled water and the app said ‘no campaign conflict’. Well, that could not be the case! A bit more research into the campaign revealed that the initiator of the campaign had listed a couple of brands/companies (mostly US-based ones) that bottle water in plastic but the list was by no means exhaustive.

Based on these and some more initial scanning with the Buycott app, I found the app a useful source of information that gave me new insights into corporate ownership of brands and made me think about joining and actually join campaigns for or against certain practices. However, I also felt that more knowledge was at times needed (which required further research on my part) or a review of what that campaign entailed, who had set it up, etc. As a European consumer I also got the impression that so far the app was US-focused and needed more input from other parts of the world, which I’m sure is part of their growth strategy.

Reflecting further about my experience with the app, I kept wondering how the app and the information it provided had altered my relationships to the products I buy and consume. First of all, I think that in my daily shopping I’m relatively familiar with a number of brands but I certainly do not always know which company owns that brand. After using this app a few times on random items in my kitchen cabinet, I kept wondering: was that information important? Would I be prepared to use the app while shopping? And would it ultimately alter my shopping behaviour?

It is probably too early to answer these questions based on my limited experience. But I did realise that the use of this app compared to the use of my earlier food shopping apps did have some effect on my engagement with the low-involvement consumer goods I buy as part of my shopping routine. Rather than passively shopping based on accumulated assumptions and hopefully some product knowledge, I did start to seek more information on these products and this led me in some way or another to form an opinion on whether I would like to continue buying.

Having recently read 'Political consumerism: civic engagement and the social media connection' (Gil de Zúñiga et al, 2013), I found myself comparing my early explorations into app-informed food consumption with the authors’ findings on the relationship between digital media use and political consumerism. In parallel to their reflections on the connections between political consumption, civic engagement and political behaviour and the mediating relationship of digital media use, I wondered whether I could make sense of my new, food-app mediated product knowledge as a source and motor for political consumerism in the making.

Their research collected original survey data in the US to “examine the extent to which digital media use, and social media use in particular, increases the likelihood of engaging in political consumerism”, defining political consumerism as “purchasing decisions based on ethical or political considerations" and "a tool through which people can articulate social or political preferences". They conclude that political consumerism is more strongly associated with civic engagement. This is not to say that political consumerism is not political, but that the authors view political consumerism as a form of lifestyle politics that is akin to civic rather than political behaviour.

These findings, and related studies, form the backdrop against which we seek to explore what roles consumers and consumer organizations can play in redefining contemporary food governance.

This opinion piece reflects the views of the author, and does not necessarily reflect the position of the Oxford Martin School or the University of Oxford. Any errors or omissions are those of the author.