Wiki Product Information Disclosure
How to clean up the economy
We purchase all sorts of products every day and our society has become accustomed to this for generations. Some communities and cultures acquire more possessions than others and many would like to buy a lot more than they’re currently able. In 1970 president Jimmy Carter identified the issue as: “No longer is human identity defined by what one does, but by what one owns.”
Along with the psycho-social effects of materialism it is also clear this way of life has a much wider and potentially longer lasting effect upon our environment. Some of these effects are obvious, such as the environmental impact when we purchase fuel for our cars, but there seems to be a hidden side to almost every product that many manufacturers do not want consumers to discover.
We see a product; it’s shiny, new, can do extraordinary things and is affordable, even if it means falling into debt in order to immediately acquire it. Other more everyday items we add to our shopping basket without giving a moment’s thought to its origin. Unfortunately, what we see before we make a purchase is only skin-deep: details of the product’s raw material sourcing, manufacture and transport processes give way to catchy advertising slogans, familiar logos and idealistic imagery to tempt the target market.
As a result the past few decades have witnessed an increasing number of manufacturers and goods that choose to advertise the ethical nature of particular products, or of their business practices in general. With global problems such as poverty and climate change western society has become far more aware of its impact and growing numbers of people feel compelled to reduce it. So far we recognise these products through industry standard logos such as Organic or Fairtrade.
When a business is caught doing something particularly shocking our society can – and often does – apply pressure through buying trends, lobbying and boycotts. An infamous example: the 1977 Nestlé boycott, which came about after the food giant’s baby formula was linked to infant illness and deaths in some developing countries as a result of their false advertising.
During the last decade, the freedom and immediacy characteristic to the internet has allowed a greater number of campaigns to reach a far larger audience and hence attract support far more quickly. A recent example is the Facebook campaign against Primark’s padded bikini top for seven year old girls, which resulted in the line being removed and the profits from the product being donated to children’s charities.
Boycotts and bad press can obviously affect the sales of a product, but what if we were to generally extend the availability of information on the true cost of a product to society: would it affect our purchasing decisions? Take the following example for the purchase of eggs:
Option 1: 12 Organic Eggs, £2.50
Option 2: 12 Eggs, £1.80
The purchase decision here may be quite easy for you one way or the other. How about now:
Option 1: 12 Organic Eggs, Carbon Neutral, Outdoor Reared, Corn fed, £2.50
Option 2: 12 Eggs, 20g CO2 /egg, Indoor reared, Poor feed quality, £1.80
Once we know the true cost of a product it dramatically changes how we see it. The consumer is no longer buying just the product; they’re directly reinforcing the behaviour of its manufacturer.
It is very tough to know everything about a product and its manufacturer when making a purchase. Most of this information exists somewhere, but will be scattered across several media and in all sorts of different formats: the packaging, various websites, newspapers, along with reams of data withheld by companies – either out of shame or secrecy, or simply because there is no obligation or demand to disclose it publicly. What about, for example, the carbon footprint, or the sources of the raw materials or the airmiles the product has flown? Or what about the corporate history of those producing and selling the product – including, for instance, causes and charities they support?
The proposed idea is simple: aggregate all the product and cost information in a single location and recognisable format. There’s only one place this information can be kept that would be easily accessible – the Internet.
An online Wiki, much in the form of Wikipedia would offer the ideal platform for this idea. Wikipedia is user funded, which means it is without advertising and can remain impartial. It is also user generated, which means the data can be quickly collated, especially if the manufacturers are able to add their own information.
What, however, would be the motivation for a company to post full information on their products? It is obvious that a responsible company, which makes the effort to operate ethically, would want to make all this information readily available, especially if they feel this aspect of their products are under-appreciated. As a site like this grows, there will be more and more money to be made by these companies if they are socially and environmentally responsible. Additionally, users may begin to assume that companies not disclosing certain information are doing so because they have something to hide.
In the UK an excellent example of this type of thinking is the supermarket Marks and Spencer, who in 2007 launched 100 commitments for their products including full carbon labelling and sourcing sustainable raw materials. However, without information being available for the other UK supermarkets how can a consumer understand the scope of their proposals without making a comparison? A concerned consumer may choose to shop exclusively at Marks and Spencer for this reason alone. This information is required so the playing field can be levelled for all industries. Moreover, a survey commissioned by M&S found that 72% of people are worried about environmental issues, with 73% saying the recession had not changed their views.
An online wiki format is practical for large purchases or for Internet shopping (which accounts for 10% of all UK retail sales), but what about the rest? It would just not be possible to place all the information on the packaging of a product or on a shelf, but another recent technology could make the Wikipedia-style website easily accessible: smartphones.
In the UK almost 11 million people own a smartphone and this number is rising fast. These devices are already able to access the Internet and simple applications could be produced that link to the website by taking a picture of the product barcode. Larger stores could even offer their own hand-held devices to assist customers who do not own smartphones and within a few seconds of picking up a product the consumer would have all the information they would need to make an informed decision. Then, by our purchasing habits we will encourage business to change in a way that agrees with the morals we live by.
You may think that if this is such a good and simple idea why has it not already been done? I think this has a simple answer: the technology has only just become available to make the information easily enough to access, and the unseen impact of our individual purchases – and of our consumer society as a whole - has only recently become a worry in the mind of the mainstream consumer.
According to the European Commission nearly 64% of the UK population have researched products or services online, so this is not something that will take the general public by surprise. If an effective wiki was created for this type of information and grew quickly it could begin to have an effect upon the nation’s buying habits immediately. It would have the effect of levelling the playing field and providing fertile soil for responsible products to flourish. Most of this information already exists, but not in a single location.
Please try to think of this as a proposal. It’s not a business proposal; if done properly it shouldn’t make money at all and therefore remain unbiased. I really hope the Wikimedia foundation would decide that this could benefit society enough to devote some of their time to it.
In the 21st century when threats to the human population have never been greater and as access to information has never been more readily available we should be able to know everything about everything we buy. This is a simple, cheap and forward-thinking idea that could help bring western nations’ economies into the 21st century.