Our beloved Régine Debatty, in her Near Near Future weblog, recently linked to a couple of services allowing you -- the consumer -- to know better just what you're buying when you pull that can or box off the supermarket shelf. Both blend performance art, ethics and technology -- and both have great unrealized potential.
The first is the Corporate Fallout Detector, created by James Patten, a Ph.D. candidate in the Tangible Media Group at MIT's Media Lab:
The Corporate fallout Detector scans barcodes off of consumer products, and makes a clicking noise based on the environmental or ethical record (selectable via the "sensitivity" switch) of the manufacturer. [...] Due to increasingly complex global supply chains, a single product we buy may contain parts made by various companies all over the world. We may agree with the business practices of some of these companies, while not with others. The complexity of the relationships between manufacturers can be so great that it becomes unclear how to translate our personal convictions into good buying decisions, and all purchasing decisions involve an unavoidable element of risk. [...] For some people, the clicking sound it makes brings back ominous memories of Geiger counters sold to the public in the cold war era. The hope is that hearing this sound, combined with the sight of someone scrutinizing products in a store will cause people to think about their buying decisions in a different way.
Videos of the Corporate Fallout Detector in use are available (QT small, QT big, WM small, WM big). The data for the CFD came from a variety of sources, including Ethical Consumer and the European pollution database. Unfortunately, the CFD is something of a one-off, and is not actually available to the public.
Next up is the Visible Food Project, created by Chicago-based artist and writer Claire Pentecost:
The VisibleFood project is a website and database created to expose the hidden costs of the globalized system that produces, processes and distributes our food. [...] Think of it as a "Whole Truth in Labeling Act" initiated and performed by citizens in the absence of government and corporate responsibility. No such database currently exists. We have designed ours as a managed open content system so that new information can be submitted by users who are either already doing this kind of research or are inspired to start.
The beta database is online and available for use. You can search for companies, brands, specific products, ingredients and toxins. It's still mostly empty, but Visible Food has instructions for information gathering. As a collaborative project, it needs the active participation of shoppers everywhere; unfortunately, Visible Food uses an opaque sign-up and data management system. What we need is more of a Wikipedia approach. Anyone up to the challenge?
I think many people have been thinking of such technologies.
When all products are going to be tagged with RFID tags anyways, it will be a piece of cake for consumers to buy 3G mobilephones with RFID readers embedded into them, connect to the internet, and read all kinds info about the product (both from more formal sources as from consumers themselves).