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Could Sustainability be Scannable?

This post is part of a blogging series by economics students at the Presidio Graduate School's MBA program. You can follow along here.

By Jared Brick
Three months ago I couldn’t tell you what a QR code was, how to use one, or why I ever needed to.  But, since I finally grabbed a smartphone on Google’s Android network (a true rival to Apple’s iPhone), I am able to play with these emerging technologies.  As Americans, we are often well behind the Asian markets as they have been effectively using videophones, scannable codes and smartphone for over a decade now.  There are now over 70 million Americans that have bought smartphones and thus potential emerging new market opportunities around sustainability.

QR codes, short for Quick Reference codes, were developed in Japan by Denso Wave in 1994, originally designed for barcode inventory usage.  These codes are free to create online, (thanks to Kawya.com) and are currently being utilized for mostly marketing purposes... but this is another beginning for the smartphone revolution. Sprint mobile recently released a Green ID package, which includes a multitude of apps all tailored to a green lifestyle, relevant eco-information and even “Take Action” real-world engagement options.  A mobile sustainability movement has the potential to be effective with two components: accessibility to concise information and an easy user interface.  The growth of new technologies like smartphone apps are exploding exponentially from iPhone’s platform to the potentially monolithic Android platform, now controlling a growing one-third of the market.

The savviest of businesses are catching on fast and we are beginning to see these little square QR codes all over the place. They are intended to quickly link you to detailed product information or online buying websites.  Even some historic and modern buildings in NYC are being tagged, so visitors can learn more about them instantly and for free.

Fast growing companies like Foursquare, BlingNation and ShopKick are already jumping on the coded bandwagon.  They offer geo-located services to incentivize consumers just for walking in the retail door.  What these companies have yet to capitalize on, is "the ask” for deeper consumer sustainability. Act Bolder a San Francisco based company which realizes this potential and thus requires personal pledges for sustainable actions.  Yet they have not released a mobile app and are not directly linked to a purchase, or as a revenue driver for companies.

I thrive on new concepts… what if you could scan your reusable cup at Starbucks or a to-go shopping bag at Trader Joe’s each time you make a purchase.  A simple, free and scannable sticker could be added to any reusable product and track your consumer eco-footprint.  The impacts could yield real consumers retail rewards or donation credits to a favorite environmental fund. Consumer carbon foot printing could be calculated in real time and with the help of scannable technologies. Reward and loyalty programs are in dynamic flux now with mobile mechanisms currently be highly underutilized.

The possibilities are truly limitless and this emerging market is ready for new sustainability driven firms to enter.  Google, as always, is making it easy to create your own app on their platform, with new Android App Inventor freeware. Next time you are in the shopping aisles, flipping magazine pages and browsing city storefronts look closely for the little codes, they’re here and growing!

Currently, the author Jared Brick, is an MBA student in Sustainable Management at Presidio Graduate School in SF, CA.  Please contact Jared for more information regarding developing sustainable smartphone applications (TraX Actions) at jared.brick@presidioedu.org.

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