“Barcode Activism”: Use Your Wallet and Your Smartphone in a Wired Marketplace to Help Great Apes


I’ve never seen an orangutan in person, but I will do so one day. Like the other great apes, however, orangutans face an uncertain future.

According to the IUCN, habitat destruction, primarily for planting oil palms, is a leading threat to orangutan survival. Frustratingly, palm oil is extremely lucrative for corporations, and sadly, appeals to morality are often trumped by the drive for economic viability. This is where technology can prove a game-changer.

The influence of technology in streamlining conservation efforts on the ground cannot be overstated. But ape lovers have an enormous opportunity to make a difference from afar with technology we use every day.

Social networking has already provided a call to action for me personally. Every day my Twitter feed fills with stories from the field, some of triumph, some of loss. Tweets from Dr. Birute M. Galdikas, Michelle Desilets, and others have inspired me to flex my consumer muscle and vote with my wallet. I completely stopped buying or using products with palm oil or palm oil derivatives.

Organix shampoo ingredients
The ingredients label on the shampoo I stopped using. Can you find the palm oil ingredients? Hint: I count three.

Sound easy? It wasn’t. Palm oil is in a lot of common products. I have spent hours combing through the fine print on ingredients labels looking for any hint of palm oil and then trying to find alternatives without it. The most common reaction I got (I’ve been sharing this effort online): “That is really great, but I wouldn’t have the patience.”

Most people wouldn’t. I believe that most people will do the right thing when doing so is easy, but spending three hours looking at shampoo is “hard-core”; most people I know, even those who care, won’t spend that kind of time. So I started working on something bigger.

My Idea: Barcode Activism

I’ve created a database of over 3,000 products containing palm oil. It lists each product’s name, Universal Product Code (UPC), manufacturer contact information, and comparably priced alternatives without palm oil. I’ve also written letters to each manufacturer saying that I will no longer be buying any products that contain palm oil ingredients and will switch from the product in question to the sustainable alternative. I am turning this into a mobile app.

The technology exists to turn this into a barcode-scanning app, which would use the UPC to find the product in my database. If the product is in my database, the other database information will also appear, telling the user what alternatives are available, and allowing him or her to send an instant letter—my pre-written letter—to the manufacturer over the mobile network, requiring only an electronic signature.

This gives people who love apes, but don’t know how to help, an easy way to act; it simultaneously puts manufacturers on notice that demand for their products is being squeezed by the ethical concerns of conscientious consumers armed with social media and mobile technology. Let’s use technology to tell companies who use palm oil in their products that forest destruction in Indonesia and throughout Central Africa is unacceptable—and we expect action.

Thank you to the Great Apes Survival Partnership (GRASP) for the opportunity to share this idea on their Facebook page. Visit their website For information on their work and the upcoming 2nd GRASP Council

Video credit: Borneo Orangutan Survival.


29 thoughts on ““Barcode Activism”: Use Your Wallet and Your Smartphone in a Wired Marketplace to Help Great Apes

  1. Wow! Thanks for making participation in this important cause easy. Let us know when the app is ready. Great, informative blog.

  2. Congratulations on your brilliant solution for consumers to support this important effort. Your article and the video of the bubble play was excellent. I look forward to using the new App that you’re developing, and I salute you and your valuable work.

  3. What a great project to initiate. I have been donating monthly to IDA Africa for several years to one of their ape projects there because of the terrible things that happen to so many animals there (they rescue ones who have been injured, chained, tortured or whatever). But your project has the capability of really reaching into the bottom lines of corporations who use palm oil. I will do my best to eliminate it from everything we use, and I will also forward your blog to my entire contact list. Even one out of many can help get another ball rolling. Why don’t you try putting a petition on moveon.org/petitions (or whatever it is), asking people to sign your petition after reading what you have written above. I’m sure it will resonate with lots of people who read those petitions. I’m a friend of Laurel Suess if you know her, and she sent your mother’s email.

  4. This is an amazing idea and a technology that can help people without a lot of time or patience make the right choice in what they buy. If only this kind of app existed for all other harmful ingredients…

  5. This is a great idea–I was inspired to try to find some palm oil free handsoap because of this but it was really hard! Can you post product suggestions?

    1. This handsoap by Earth Friendly Products http://www.ecos.com/handsoap.html is such a handsoap! Available at your preferred grocery store in our neighborhood, actually. They also made our dish soap and my laundry detergent, and I spoke with a customer service representative who verified that none of their ingredients are palm derived. I can show you a list of other alternatives, including great shampoos, lotions, and cosmetics.

    1. Thank you! I am keeping this blog up to date and will be posting more about my progress. I’ll let everyone know when the app is ready!
      This is a project I’ve been working on for a long time. As it happens, I wrote this post about my work as an entry into the Great Apes Survival Partnership’s blogging contest, about how technology can be used to save great apes. I am now a finalist. If you like my idea, I would love your vote! you can go to http://www.council.un-grasp.org/blog-competition/ , under the Vote Now button, and click the box next to my name, Adriana Klompus. Please pass along! I would love the opportunity to present this idea to the 2nd Council of GRASP-UNEP in November.

  6. hi
    great app idea
    here is some help this is a link to a page on my site which lists over 200 alternate names for palm oil – http://www.animal.org.au/palmoilindisguise.htm
    I also make a range of skincare & other products in which no animal has suffered they are all vegan and palm oil free and also 100% of the profit gets given to animal organisations globally to help them help animals. link to fb album page http://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.348041975276701.82611.126040984143469&type=3 I also make vegan and palm oil free white chocolat infusions and 100% profits of that also go to help animals. http://www.funkychocolat.com.au – main website which all of these brancg from is http://www.withcompassion.om.au hope this helps – good luck with your project. xxBev

    1. Bev,

      Thanks so much! Actually, this very list was a really helpful go-to when I was initially starting not using any palm-oil. I went to that URL all the time to check my labels against stuff on your site! It proved an invaluable tool. I really appreciate all the work you did on that site. If you have any questions about this please email me or get in touch on Facebook.

    2. Bev,

      Sorry, it cut off half of your comment when I replied to it initially, so I didn’t see the links to your products that you posted. But thanks so much! Do you sell your products in the US? It seems I’m always finding out about great palm oil-free products available in Australia but in the US the options are a bit limited. If your products are only available in Australia, I would love to suggest your products as good palm oil-free alternatives when I develop/license this app for use outside the US, if that’s alright with you.


      1. hiya adriana
        yes I am based in australia but I have posted to other countries this year. Please fell free to include mine, thanks. I am also CCF Accredited – this an accreditation within australia which only accredits cruelty free rpoducts. There is also an australia company called ethikool.com.au which only sell vegan and palm oil free products and do thorough research into what is and what isn’t – check them out on facebook, they sell some of my chocs and skincare range. you may want to know of a company called murchison and hume they are vegan and plalm oil free and sell in USA via a site called alice.com – also The backyard Porch Soap Company run by Marla Bosworth in the USA is palm oil free as well – there are a few USA facebook friends of mine that may be able to help you with some more POF vegan companies. xxxxxxxxbev

  7. Fantastic work. I would love to get in touch with you about the app. I run the Don’t Palm Us Off campaign at Zoos Victoria/Melbourne Zoo (www.zoo.org.au/palmoil) and would love to chat to you about how we can help support an app like this at our zoos. I can be contacted at edunstan@zoo.org.au

  8. Hi Adriana,
    I started exploring the possibility of creating a palm oil shopper app and discovered that you are already doing just that. Fantastic!

    I am a freelance journalist who recently started writing about the problems associated with palm oil. I am also looking at ways to contribute to consumer awareness in Australia and would appreciate your insight on a couple of things.

    Please flick me an email when you get a chance: info@gemimaharvey.com
    It would be great to connect with you on this. Thanks!

  9. Hi Adriana, any news on this app? It sounds like a fantastic idea and would certainly save me some time from combing labels in the supermarket!
    Thanks, Rachel

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