A lot of shopping apps help users get the best value for their dollar. But GreenChoice’s new app — which the company bills as a “digital food assistant”— is also focused on their values. It allows people to decide what issues matter most to them when they buy groceries.
“My values may be the same, they may be completely different than yours,” said Galen Karlan-Mason, the Waltham startup’s CEO. “And that’s OK.”
Using a 1 to 10 scale, GreenChoice users can score the personal importance of four issues: processing, nutrition, food safety, and environmental impact. The scores determine what products the app recommends. Sliding selectors for animal welfare, human rights, and company transparency are also incorporated into the app, although they won’t become active until after the company gathers more funding.
GreenChoice started in March 2018 and launched its app last month, with a primary focus on covering stores in the New England area. Karlan-Mason said the app has only about 1,000 users so far, but he expects that number to grow as it expands coverage territory. The company has four full-time staff, two part-timers, and several interns.
GreenChoice said it mined the data it uses from more than 100 sources, including government agencies such as the Food and Drug Administration, and nonprofits that track social issues, including the Human Rights Campaign.
The app also monitors and scores users’ overall shopping history based on its own weighting of those issues. Shoppers can search through the inventories of cooperating grocers including Walmart, Target, and Whole Foods Market.
In a way, the app is a product of Karlan-Mason’s upbringing. Raised by “former hippie” parents, Karlan-Mason, 25, said he was taught from an early age to think about the societal and environmental impact of his choices. That mindfulness started weighing on him after college, when he had to take charge of filling his own fridge.
“I’m in the grocery store, and I’m staring at the eggs,” he said. “There’s free range, and pasture raised, and cage free, and antibiotic free, and vegetarian-fed, and I could go on. And I’m like, ‘What the hell?’ ”
The wealth of choices meant he usually left the grocery store feeling like he had compromised on at least one of his values.
“In that moment, I was like, ‘I just want somebody to tell me,’ ” Karlan-Mason said. “Know what I care about, know the things I value, and guide me to make the right choice. That was the catalyst.”
Karlan-Mason’s experience reflects a changing market. Consumers, who historically have considered the price and appearance of their food above all else, are increasingly factoring ethical issues into their purchasing decisions.
“Everybody in the food industry recognizes that healthfulness, impact on animals, and the environment are on people’s minds,” said Paul B. Thompson, who studies food ethics at Michigan State University. “And so any tool that makes it easier for consumers to reflect those values in their food choices will probably have a measurable impact over a relatively short period of time.”
GreenChoice doesn’t have any advertising or sponsored content, which Karlan-Mason admitted initially made pitching the idea to investors difficult. That changed when GreenChoice started attracting attention from grocery retailers, who were interested in integrating GreenChoice’s search engine — which can filter results based on dietary restrictions, allergies, and religious preferences — into their Web platforms.
“That is where we can really create value,” Karlan-Mason said.
His ultimate goal, he said, is that by addressing users’ top concerns about the goods they buy, they will start to consider other issues.
“You may not be thinking about your water footprint,” Karlan-Mason said. “You may not be familiar with the concept of what a water footprint is. But in this process, we can introduce you to that, and create a bit of educational experience. But we’re not going to shove it in your face.”