The Conscientious Consumer’s Cell Phone Guide to Shopping

6/6/08

If you’re concerned about global warming, what breakfast cereal should you buy to support the company with the best record on greenhouse gas emissions? Soon, you might be able to make informed decisions on issues like that right in the supermarket aisle.

“All you’ll have to do is to take out your cell phone, scan the barcodes and you’ll get back a score, a rating, for the companies’ performance,” says Stéphane de Messières, executive director and founder of Citizens Market, an early stage non-profit organization based in Cambridge, MA.

The vision of Citizens Market is to create a platform where average consumers can share information on which companies are the most socially responsible. They’ll be able to write online reviews of companies and products and rate their performance, in the same way people contribute to consumer review sites like Yelp.

But instead of concentrating on value for the money in a limited sense, Citizens Market will focus on broader aspects of corporations’ behavior, like environmental performance, labor practices or political lobbying. The user community will also rate each other’s reviews, giving greater weight to those postings that are deemed the most reliable. The big idea is to enable consumers to put their money where their heart is, by supporting companies and products that are in line with their personal values and avoiding others. The information in the database will be reachable on the Web or, eventually, via a special cell phone interface customized for shopping.

For de Messières, the idea behind Citizens Market started several years ago with a pair of jeans.

“I wanted to buy a pair of blue jeans and searched for hours on the Internet and found a manufacturer in USA with a good record, with union-made jeans. I thought that ‘this was it’ and ordered a pair. But when they came, they were the ugliest pair of jeans I ever put on in my life, and in the end I sent them back.”

“I said to myself, it shouldn’t be that hard to shop responsibly,” de Messières says.

This summer, Citizens Market will launch a Web-only beta version of the service, with the mobile functionality to follow later. Up to now, the project has been totally driven by volunteers, including de Messières. The organization is now looking for a planning grant of roughly $60,000 to $80,000 get the service off the ground.

The big challenge for any initiative that relies on user-generated content, of course, is to build a real community. But there seems to be a lot of interest in the idea of a corporate social responsibility ratings site, at least judging from the backing that the Citizens Market already has received. The organization has recruited a board of advisers including several successful entrepreneurs and persons with ties to prestigious institutions like Oxfam America and Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and Berkman Center for Internet and Society.

The interest was also strong when Citizens Market put out an ad for volunteer web designers on Craigslist last November. One of those who responded to the ad was Vanessia Wu.

“There seems to be a large community around here of people with an interest in corporate social responsibility,” Wu tells Xconomy.”They are willing to work on this thing, because it can make a big difference.”

Erik Mellgren is a Swedish journalist who worked for Xconomy Boston in 2008 as part of the Stanford Innovation Journalism Fellowship program. His real job is with Ny Teknik, a leading technology and innovation magazine in Sweden, but he loved seeing the Red Sox at Fenway. Follow @

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  • http://www.BuyItLikeYouMeanIt.org Clay Ward

    Citizens Market is a great idea and they’ve done a lot of work to get there! Their focus is on allowing both positive and negative corporate reviews to surface. They’re also very concerned with creating a user experience that young professionals can adjust to. I’m on their Advisory Board and meet with Stephane occasionally. We’ve helped each other out considerably.

    I’m also working on Buy It Like You Men It. We are a similar organization that is choosing to review one industry at a time in order to model product’s complete supply chain impact. We’re currently looking for reviews and ratings of those reviews about the chocolate industry. Please check out http://www.BuyItLikeYouMeanIt.org to browse our live service. Or go to http://www.BuyItLikeYouMeanIt.org/blog to try a demo of our service that will work on your phone, to find our June contest, or to vote for our new logo.

    -clay