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How Big Data Can Enable a Transparent Marketplace for Consumer Goods

Today we can access vast quantities of information from countless sources to help us make better decisions quickly.

My cell phone can help me find a restaurant with the type of food I like, at a price I like, and with a customer satisfaction rating. I can get directions to the restaurant, including current traffic conditions. And if I don’t want to drive myself, Uber can take care of that.

All of this is possible, yet when I go to my grocery store I’m still unclear as to what’s in the products I buy and where they came from.

Is this can of soup lined with BPA? Are there GMOs in it? What’s the environmental impact of this product? Can I recycle it?

Consumers have the right to know what they’re paying for when they purchase something, but this information is amazingly difficult to access.

Ecolabel certifications, CSR efforts, and a few mobile applications have made some progress toward the accessibility of product information. However, to reach a truly transparent marketplace, we need a solution that utilizes big data, transparent information sources, and communication technologies to tie it all together.

Do We Really Need a Transparent Marketplace?

Shoppers are conditioned to look to labels, but they don’t tell us everything we want to know, and greenwashing efforts have devalued product claims.

Ecolabels provide more product information, but only a portion of products are certified for a handful of issues such as organic, fair trade and animal testing. A few mobile apps are making a push to provide deeper product insight, but insufficient data and a lack of transparency make it difficult to rely on third-party product ratings.

As a result, it’s too difficult for consumers to support the most sustainable and ethical brands.

If the marketplace was 100 percent transparent, consumer preferences would be made clear, competition amongst manufacturers would escalate around product attributions (instead of marketing), and progress toward greater sustainability could increase dramatically.

How We Get There: Big Data, Transparency & Communication

The amount of data needed to predict the total environmental and social impact of a single product — a product life cycle assessment (LCA) — is extremely large, but the vast majority of this data is out there.

Between manufacturers, ecolabel certifiers, government organizations, environmental and social organizations, and even individuals, the majority of data points needed for a product LCA can be covered. The difficult part is collecting the data from these sources, organizing it and distributing it.

Crowdsourcing can make the collection of vast and disparate data possible. Just look at what Wikipedia has become, for example. But the following are also needed for success:

  • Data submission needs to be open to everyone
  • Contributors must be compensated for valuable data
  • Data sources must remain transparent
  • Contributors must be accountable for validating sources
  • A democratic process for resolving data conflicts needs to be in place

Crowdsourcing with economic incentives can promote competition and result in more accurate and relevant information. Maintaining data transparency will allow anyone to view (and challenge) the source of data, and it will enable users to form their own opinion about the information available.

How to Get Consumers Involved

The final piece of the transparent marketplace is communication (consumer interaction).

Shoppers need to be able to access valid information in a way that not only helps them make more sustainable decisions, but also provides them with a unique experience.

If the technology used to deliver product information doesn’t make shopping more convenient or rewarding, it won’t be adopted broadly enough to influence the market.

That’s where Earth Accounting comes in.

The California-based benefit corporation — where I work — plans to launch mobile and web applications this winter, beginning with coverage of packaged foods and expanding quickly to other product categories.

Our applications will enable consumers to access product information around the specific issues they’re interested in. Users will be able to visualize the cumulative impact they’re having on the planet and society as they make smarter purchasing decisions. Complete data transparency will provide a trustworthy platform, and users will be further empowered with the ability to provide product feedback.

Users will discover alternative products as they access information and revenue will be generated through affiliate marketing. Earth Accounting will only display products whose data has been acquired through our transparent collection process, and we will direct consumers to retailers of those products.

How We’re Gathering the Information

To gather information, Earth Accounting created the first information cooperative called the Alliance for Consumer Empowerment & Sustainability (ACES). The ACES coop brings members together, collecting and organizing product sustainability information. Membership is open to everyone and we already have letters of intent from eco label organizations and green manufacturers interested in joining.

ACES is a separate entity from Earth Accounting. The coop solely collects and standardizes data while Earth Accounting is simply an information broker for that information.

A predetermined portion of Earth Accounting income will be allotted to the coop for distribution among members. To distribute the income based on participation, we have developed a new unit of measurement in the computer industry: the information fact.

An information fact (borrowed from scientific terminology) is an observation or measurement. Earth Accounting will track the usage of information facts as they are accessed by end users. Coop members will then be compensated based on a formula that accounts for the usage of the information facts they contributed.

After the launch of ACES, natural competition will drive the amount and accuracy of product information collected. And by providing this information to consumers, competition amongst manufacturers will drive sustainability and transparency among products.

A small shift in consumer spending is enough to impact the market. But the more participation there is, the faster we will see change.


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