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The Periscope

Curing Ignorance Through the Lens

App-etite for Transparency


New apps uncover the companies behind the food we're buying.

You might not think of grocery shopping as a political act, but two phone applications want to make the political aspect more visible as we fill up our carts. BuyPartisan is a free app which shows how much a company has donated to political parties. After scanning a product’s barcode, the app displays a breakdown of how much was contributed and by whom within the company (including the CEO, Board of Directors, PACs, and employees). Many barcode scans reveal that companies donate to both parties although usually favoring one at least slightly. Others are more blatantly skewed to one side and at times, products that are marketed one way, actually show contributions in the opposite political direction. Having that transparency at your fingertips is one of the reasons Matthew Colbert, a former Capitol Hill staffer, created the app through his company Spend Consciously. He says, “We're trying to make every day election day for people.” The app covers about 75 percent of the items sold in grocery stores.

Buycott is similar in that it’s also free and also uses barcode scanning. What makes it unique is that users can sign up for campaigns within the app. For instance, if you want to support companies that endorse GMO labeling, you can join that particular group; then when you scan an item, it will tell you if there are any conflicts with the company. If there is a campaign conflict, the app will tell you why. For instance, a scan of Cascadian Farm organic cereal reveals that the company donated over $1.1 million to reject Prop 37 which would have required labeling GMO products. The app includes a number of categories including avoiding certain corporations like Monsanto and Koch Industries and issues like women’s reproductive rights, sweatshop labor, and climate change. Recently, as the Israel-Gaza conflict escalated, Buycott saw a spike in downloads as a campaign to avoid products from Israel was initiated.

Photo by GoOz, licensed under Creative Commons.