Retail: The secret shopper in your pocket

How do you know if the cutesy kitchen roll you're buying is owned by climate change deniers? There's an app for that

You might be holding a nice box with a picture of some flowers and dancing fairies on it during your weekly shop – but it's not always apparent which puppy-murdering empire of evil actually owns the benevolent-looking brand.

A new app called Buycott uses technology to empower consumers – by revealing which corporations are responsible for the contents of your basket. Once you've downloaded Buycott – and annoyingly, registered your details – you use your smartphone camera to snap a barcode. Then Buycott displays the corporate hierarchy that leads from your chocolate biscuits up to some megalomaniac barking out orders in a Chicago boardroom.

Developed in California by idealistic young coder Ivan Pardo, Buycott's aim was to tell soccer moms whether their supposedly ethical shopping list in reality featured items ultimately owned by the huge firms that dominate American retailing – such as Kraft, Cargill, and Koch Industries, run by the pantomime villain Koch brothers, Charles and David, who've been accused of advancing their political agenda by funding both the Tea Party and research to rebut evidence of climate change. Koch Industries also owns everyday brands Lycra and Nouvelle toilet tissue, among many, many others.

"It's a great app to use while you're out shopping," reckons Tim Hunt, of Manchester-based magazine Ethical Consumer. "It gives people power to make informed choices on the spot." You scan – then buy or boycott.

With Hunt's encouraging words ringing in my ears, I head to Tesco Express in Dalston, east London, for a low-level fightback against The Man. With a cover story concocted about "Instagramming stuff", I start ostentatiously scanning tubes of Pringles right in front of the security guard, to see if my disobedience registers. It doesn't. Neither do the barcodes.

The verdict? The app seems pretty useless at recognising much here in the UK, but that will change the more people use it and add their own data. In theory.

Heinz Baked Beans do come up when I scan them – but with scant information. It's also crashy, but Buycott blames high initial demand.

The idea is certainly commendable. And at the very least it makes you actually think, rather than just lobbing stuff in your shopping trolley, dead-eyed and oblivious to the consequences.

Buycott also strikes at the heart of "greenwashing" – where corporations use PR to make their wares look more cuddly – by showing you (it is hoped) the truth behind the ownership of supposedly benign brands. "There's a lot of greenwash about," cautions Hunt – who adds that Ethical Consumer is developing its own app for British buyers. It might not be foolproof, but Buycott is certainly a start.

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