Ethical consumerism isn’t dead, but the scant amount of information easily accessible to people can make it difficult to choose products and services based on a company’s values. It’s a problem that Barry Klein, a political consultant turned app developer, first thought about solving when he and his wife were trying to decide which restaurant to spend their money at in the fall of 2013. While attempting to choose between the numerous restaurants all boasting the “best” craft beer and gourmet homestyle cooking, Klein realized there wasn’t a good way to know what’s behind a business before spending his hard-earned dollars there.
“Where’s that money go after that?” Klein asked. “How do I know it’s not going to go to something that I’m not going to appreciate?” On the flip side, Klein also thought that he’d be willing to spend more at a business if he knew the company supported values he also cared about. So Klein approached friend Chris Rappley, and the two decided to co-found Glia, an app in which users input their preferences on political leanings, social causes, and other values in order to locate businesses in their area that support the same things. An interactive map within the app highlights businesses in the Glia database, and color-codes each location to show whether the business would be a good or bad fit based on the values the user has selected.
The Cheat Sheet talked with Klein about the app he, Rappley, and a third co-founder Tahlia Sutton have worked to create, and also about the trends of ethical consumerism. To Klein, it’s alive and well, but people need more resources to make consistent choices about how they spend their money.
According to a 2013 study by Cone Communications and Echo Research of more than 10,000 people in 10 countries, 91% of people said they’re likely to switch brands in order to buy from a company associated with a good cause, when price and quality are held equal. About 87% said they consider a company’s social and environmental commitments when deciding what to buy or shop. Nine in 10 people said they would boycott products from companies with conflicting views compared to their own values, and 55% reported they had refused to buy a product for that reason in the past year.
Klein, who has also worked with polling numbers, has seen firsthand that values greatly inform how people vote, how they respond to calls to action, and what they buy. “Values, no matter what, is the most important right now. If you can relate to people on the value they care most about, you have an automatic ‘in’ with them.” But the problem with buying products based on values is that there’s so little information that is easily accessible, unless people know of specific places to look.
Enter Glia. The company’s algorithm goes through its database of collected values information, compiles it, and then shows people how that business stacks up against their own values. The Cheat Sheet tested out the app (right now only available on iPhones, although Klein said the company intends to develop an Android version), and selected five values including eco-friendly, support cancer research, support disaster relief, marriage equality, and fair trade. Other options include political party identification and stances on Obamacare, unions, drilling, and the minimum wage, to name a few.
Using your location, the app then shows businesses in your area and ranks which ones might be a good fit, and which ones have conflicting views with yours. The app includes 400,000 stores nationwide, Klein said. Most of them are retail giants and chain restaurants, since in the app’s infancy the developers chose which locations would give the most bang for their buck. But within the next six months, the company is also hoping to develop a way for small businesses to import their information into the app’s database in a responsible way, Klein added.
The company does have some political undertones: “Vote with your wallet” and “Make Every Choice a Statement” are catchphrases found on the company’s website. But more than anything, the app is about shopping and spending with a purpose, Klein said. What’s more, the company has set up walls within its system so that Klein, or anyone else, can’t see which values a specific user selects. “We’re not here to be judgmental in any way,” Klein said. “We don’t care what your politics are, what your values are. What we want to do is help you be true to those if that’s what you want.”
When people shop now, it’s often about location, price, and quality, Klein said. By empowering people to make choices while shopping, the company hopes to add values to that list. Chick-fil-A and Hobby Lobby are just two of the companies that have garnered national attention in the past year or so because of the way their values impact their services to customers and employees.
Another note: Despite the fact that revenue could eventually come from advertisers on the app, the founders have already set up the business so that the only thing influencing the matches is the information a user provides. So even if Subway would decide to advertise, the only way a user would see it as a good match is if the values actually aligned, Klein said. “The best way to kill a product is to not be true to it,” he said. “For us, we couldn’t abide by that just by being the human beings that we are, but the score is based on the algorithm which is based on a very straightforward understanding of what your values are and the values of a company.”
The company doesn’t disclose the amount of users who have already downloaded the app, Klein said. But so far, the app has been targeted toward and is most popular among three main groups. One of the groups is the “early technology adopters” who will often try out any new app that comes their way. The second group, which Klein called the “lynchpin” of their demographic right now, are prime voters who are also heavily involved in issue advocacy. And the third, which Klein acknowledged every business would like to attract, is millennials. Klein believes there’s a lot of potential for this group to recognize the power that such an app can have. “It’s a generation that believes in a purpose- and values-driven life,” he said. Millennials might not be the most consistent voters, he added, but also tend to believe that voting isn’t as important as the impact everyday choices can have on their community.
Businesses are already in the values-driven mindset: Whole Foods no longer just advertises the products they sell, but from where they’re sourced, Klein pointed out. The priorities of many people are in the right place for an app like his to continue growing, he said, and to begin making values-based choices on a more regular basis. “It’s not going to be 100% of the time,” Klein said. “But it’s going to be a larger percentage of the time that people take values into account.”
Follow Nikelle on Twitter @Nikelle_CS