The politics of the weekly shop

A new app in the US can reveal the politics of the companies behind everyday grocery items. It's sure to affect the contents of trolleys, says Tim Walker – especially the toilet paper
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Indy Lifestyle Online

My tomato sauce is Democrat; my hot sauce is Republican. My bananas bend to the right, but my apples are liberal to the core. Everything in my supermarket trolley comes from a producer with a parent company, and most major companies make publicly listed political contributions. Now, a new smartphone app named, snappily, BuyPartisan, offers US consumers an on-the-spot breakdown of a product's party political preferences. The creators call it "a nutrition label for your conscience".

BuyPartisan works like this: I scan the barcode on any product using my smartphone camera, and the app instantly draws on campaign finance data from whichever Fortune 500 company that product belongs to. A bar chart appears, displaying just how much of the firm's political donations go to the Democrat Party, how much to the GOP, and how much to other, unspecified causes. It is said to have caused much amusement, and no little horror, in Washington DC.

Some of the results are more expected than others. Chattering-class liberals can keep sipping their lattés, safe in the knowledge that Starbucks gives five times more to Democrats than to Republicans. On the other hand, the company responsible for my washing-up liquid, which advertises itself as "earth-friendly", sends 50.5 per cent of its donations to the Republicans, generally considered the less "earth-friendly" of the two major parties. It also turns out that I've been buying Republican toilet paper – but, then again, I have been wiping my arse with it.

The app's creator is Matthew Colbert, a 30-something former DC staffer and political consultant, who is naturally reluctant to disclose exactly whom he staffed or consulted for. BuyPartisan is the first product to emerge from his new company, Spend Consciously, the mission of which is to help shoppers to... well, you can guess the rest. So is the app simply a conversation starter for curious politicos, or could it be a tool for consumer activism? Both, Mr Colbert says. "If you need toilet paper, you're still going to buy toilet paper, if you need gas you're going to buy gas. But maybe you're going to feel a little bit more informed about those products. And maybe that won't affect purchasing behaviour on Day One or Day 1,000, but it might eventually."

The goal of BuyPartisan and of Spend Consciously, he adds, "is to create a fluid interaction that allows your behaviour, matched with economics, to represent your overall value system."

Taken to its natural conclusion, this would only deepen divisions in a country that is already increasingly hyper-partisan. If every Democrat were to avoid Walmart (66.25 per cent Republican; 21 per cent Democrat) and every Republican were to avoid Whole Foods (37 per cent Democrat; 9.25 per cent Republican), then people with differing views wouldn't even have to make polite conversation in the snacks aisle.

Mr Colbert insists that BuyPartisan is simply providing easy access to information, not inciting consumer boycotts. In future iterations, the app will offer stats on a company's behaviour across several different spheres. "We'll cover 35 issues, from the environment to your favourite sports team to funding a cure for cancer," he explains. "You can say, 'I care about five of these 35 issues and they're at the core of who I am', and then go through life making much more astute, informed decisions about how you're going to spend and invest your money on a day-to-day basis."

The app is still in its beta-testing phase but, thanks to widespread US media coverage, including a slot on Stephen Colbert's The Colbert Report (no relation), it has already reached the Top 50 apps in the App Store. Though an Android version is in the works, for now, BuyPartisan is only available for iOS users. Bad news, Republicans: Apple's donations are almost 90 per cent Democrat.

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