“The label is really kind of dead.” So says Scott Kennedy, founder of OpenLabel, a startup that hopes to replace static packaging with an socially conscious, data-heavy app.
With a scan of a barcode, consumers can access and edit a Wikipedia-style digital label that includes everything someone might want to know about a product: How it was made, how healthy or sustainable it is, the politics and labor practices of the manufacturer, and whether their friends like it.
The app pulls data from hundreds of nonprofits that monitor companies and products–information that consumers might want to know when standing in front of a store shelf, but probably wouldn’t otherwise see.
“The Sunlight Foundation, for example, does a great job collecting who donates to what, politically,” Kennedy says. “But nobody really looks that up, to be honest. I don’t even do that. And if I don’t do it, nobody’s doing it. I just thought about all of these silos of data, and it just seemed like a no-brainer to me to start collecting it and putting it in one place.”
Anyone can add more information to a label. If you scan the barcode for a Keurig coffee brewer right now, someone’s added a hack to avoid using K-cups. If you scan a bottle of Vitamin C, someone’s added a link about research that says it probably won’t help you if you already have a cold. You’ll also see simple opinions, like a Yelp for products.
Though the aim of the app is social benefit, it’s very much a business. “It’s easy to monetize, because it’s all about products,” Kennedy says. “There are opportunities to do things like create dashboards for brands, so they can see what sort of brand sentiment is coming in.”
By creating a business rather than a nonprofit, Kennedy hopes to avoid some of the challenges of similar apps, like GoodGuide, that have been slow to grow. “Wikipedia’s an anomaly, but I think generally speaking there’s no way you can have the billion dollar company, the global reach and the impact, as a nonprofit,” he says.
Also unlike GoodGuide, OpenLabel won’t be trying to gather the data by itself. Some is being fed in by nonprofits, and the company is building a “live label” API that will continuously pull in new information as it’s updated, so it doesn’t have to be done manually.
“There are half a trillion products out there, and they’re constantly changing,” Kennedy says. “Their suppliers are changing. So it just didn’t seem scalable to us to do it on our own. We also wanted to involve the public and make it interactive–to be big, it can’t be unidirectional.”
There are obvious challenges; even if you’re motivated enough to scan a barcode while shopping, the plethora of data you get could be overwhelming. Like all social apps, OpenLabel will have the challenge of getting critical mass for participation. And despite the 100,000 labels the app already has in place, there are millions more to go.
“To do this correctly is going to take a Herculean effort,” Kennedy says. “My job is basically identifying the strategy of trying to step through the various phases of this project. To get to the point where we are replacing the label. That’s the holy grail.”