Transparency via smartphone apps

by JulieCraves on June 29, 2010

One of the great dilemmas in educating consumers about sustainable coffee is how to fit a lot of sometimes complex information on a bag of coffee. The point of purchase is where the rubber hits the road — it’s probably the first and/or last place to inform a potential consumer where the coffee came from and how it was grown, purchased, and processed.

Certification schemes are designed, in part, to help consumers in this regard by assuring them that their coffee (or other product) was produced under some particular condition: all the consumer would need to do is recognize the “seal” of the certifier. Unfortunately, the proliferation of different certifications has led to consumer confusion and “label fatigue.”

Now a new option is coming along, an extension of our electronic age that takes advantage of the near-ubiquity of smart phones in the First World: two dimensional (or 2-D) codes, especially QR codes. QR (for Quick Response) codes are 2-D codes that can store more information than a 10-digit bar code. A QR code on a coffee package or shelf display can be photographed by any phone with a camera. A free app rapidly processes the image and on an Internet-enabled phone transmits data back to the user. Usually, this means opening a web site where all kinds of information about the coffee can be relayed to the consumer: certifications, photos of the farm, roasting date, cupping reviews…and the list goes on.

Anyone can create QR codes pointing to web sites, contact information, or simple text for free. The code in this post is the URL to a mobile version of Coffee & Conservation’s RSS feed. If you have a smart phone, install a reader app, take a photo of the code, and give it a try. (And don’t forget to bookmark C&C on your mobile browser!)

On my Blackberry I use the reader from ScanLife, the company that will be working with Utz Certified to bring information about Utz coffees at a very large retailer in North America in the near future. Despite the enormous popularity of QR codes in Japan and some other countries, I think this will be the first major application of this technology in the U.S. — certainly it is for coffee.

Starbucks has been testing 2D codes for payment (essentially simulating a Starbucks card) in some markets. Canada’s Ethical Bean Coffee went with a 2D code that also requires an iPhone and free iPhone app to read. It allows access to farmer, harvest and country of origin information, as well as certification documents, roast details, cupping notes, video and photo logs of all Ethical Bean coffee offerings, so it is more in line with the vision of transparency and consumer information outlined above.

This mobile technology obviously has huge potential for consumer education. I hope more specialty coffee roasters experiment with using QR codes — that work on apps available on multiple platforms for maximum universality — on package labels to provide sustainability information.

Revised on November 24, 2020

Posted in Coffee news and miscellany

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