Learning how to buycott? Political consumerism and new media

by Tanja Schneider

As part of our new research into ‘Emerging forms of food consumer behaviour and food governance’ supported by the Oxford Martin Future of Food Programme, we are exploring what kinds of information and communication technologies are available to assist consumers in gathering and exchanging knowledge on a broad spectrum of food issues. We are particularly interested in learning more about consumers’ use of mobile phone apps, online consumer organisations and databases and other websites that provide information on food content, price, availability etc. Related to this, some of you may have seen our invitation to participate in a short online survey to share with us what about food matters most to you and how you go about finding out relevant information with or without the use of new ICTs.

Based on the information you provided in the survey (we are still looking for more participants!) and our own mapping of potential ICT-enabled sources of food information, we recently have become interested in a number of mobile apps, how they work, what they allow consumers to do and for whom these might be of interest and relevance. So one of our OFG team, Tanja, set out to test some apps in her everyday consumer life, took notes and offered to report back her experiences to the group. We decided to share her report with our blog readers for further discussion, thoughts and reflections.

I’m relatively new to using mobile phone apps and my experience with food apps is quite limited. The only mobile phone food apps I have been using so far are a) a major UK supermarket’s mobile phone app that allowed me to order my weekly family shopping and to have it delivered to the door (in the meantime I have moved countries and now use the two major Swiss supermarkets’ mobile apps), b) an international major coffee distributor that does the same for coffee deliveries and c) a German cooking app that I have come to regularly consult for new recipes or old favourites. Admittedly, I have only downloaded the latter after all my cookbooks had been sent to storage when moving house and I suddenly found myself without my favourite recipes. I also have to say that, if certain websites hadn’t advertised to me that they have an app that allows me to do my shopping or recipe search via my mobile phone, I probably would still use my laptop rather than an app on my phone.

The food apps I have been using so far are probably chosen for convenience first of all. However, since embarking on the OFG 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. Searching for buycott, I learned that it 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 fair trade to avoid products of certain companies. Alternatively they can 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 and so did not include the brand I had scanned.

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 to early to answer these questions based on my limited experience. However, 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 a product owned by this company or not. In fact, I found myself seeking out more information with the help of other food apps such as Codecheck, as corporate ownership was not always the key variable in my considerations about food purchases. Codecheck is a free app that enables scanning of an item (food and non-food) and learning more about a product’s price and content, as well as warnings about certain ingredients and their potential side effects (linked to experts’ articles) and labels the product has received (fair trade, organic etc.). Equipped with such knowledge I felt I was more pro-active in seeking out information that would inform my shopping decisions, and that I was better equipped to express social preferences through boycotting certain products/brands. Admittedly, my interest was also driven by the OFG research agenda which allowed me to spend time exploring mobile food apps and reflecting on my experiences. How much of my time would I continue to dedicate to seeking out this information in my consumer life?

Having recently read Gil de Zúñiga et al’s (2013) article “Political consumerism: civic engagement and the social media connection”, 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 – but was it?

Gil de Zúñiga et al 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” (2013: 2). They define political consumerism as “purchasing decisions based on ethical or political considerations (Stolle et al., 2005 as cited in Gil de Zúñiga, 2013) … [and] a tool through which people can articulate social or political preferences …’ in the form of a boycott or buycott  (2013: 2-3). Based on the analysis of their survey data, Gil de Zúñiga et al. conclude that political consumerism is more strongly associated with civic engagement, which they conceptualise as “informal community-based assciational activity that does not involve political organizations, parties, or officials, and that is undertaken on a voluntary basis for charitable and social purposes” (see Putnam, 2000 as cited in Gil de Zúñiga, 2013). 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 (2013: 13).

These findings, and related studies emphasising the role of so-called citizen-consumers’ potential in redefining the food system, form the backdrop against which we seek to explore what roles consumers and consumer organizations can play in redefining contemporary food governance.

The OFG team would be thrilled if you, the blog readers, would be happy to share your experiences of using mobile phone food apps! Please write a comment to this blog post or email us directly at oxfordfoodgovernance at gmail dot com . Thank you!

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