The Smarter Barcode

The simple arrangement of black and white lines that revolutionized shopping decades ago has done it again. To celebrate the barcode’s 60th birthday, The NY Times wrote an article examining its history and exploring new innovations from advancements utilizing mobile technology to the introduction of its rival, QR codes. So what does all this mean for consumers? Today, it’s not just the cashier at the grocery store who has the ability to scan and receive information from a barcode. Anyone with a smart phone can scan QR codes to gain product information, enter contests and even instantly purchase an item from a magazine. They can also use apps such as GoodGuide to scan the barcode on any product and quickly learn about its ethical, health and environmental attributes.

The recently acquired function of the barcode being a mobile source of information empowers the shopper to make better, more informed decisions. It allows them to cut through false marketing claims and instantly get to the bottom line. So now what happens to brands relying on greenwashing techniques to boost sales? Is there any purpose of using carefully crafted language, listing certifications, or sticking trees on the packaging if consumers can find out the true characteristics by simply pressing a button?

For one thing, this could lead to the practice of plastering eco-labels on packaging to become obsolete, and for only certifications with meaningful standards to remain.  Consumers are so inundated with eco-labels these days that they begin to ignore them entirely. The average shopper probably won’t know the difference between the Forest Stewardship Council versus the Sustainable Forest Initiative when purchasing paper at the office store. It’s not that they don’t care about whether the certification actually holds proper standards, but it takes too much time and energy to understand what really matters.

With apps like GoodGuide the most relevant information (including certifications) is collected about each product, so all the labels and marketing claims on packaging become meaningless. Companies will be forced to be more transparent as consumers can instantly discover if the product is actually “healthy” or if a company really does care about treating its workers fairly. There’s only so much that can fit on a label, but with these new technologies consumers can find nearly anything they want.

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