This success story began in 2002 as a diploma thesis. Today, it’s a huge, immensely helpful product database with a mobile app. Let’s chat with Codecheck founder Roman Bleichenbacher!
With more than 23 millions of items listed, Codecheck.info, sometimes wrongly spelled as codecheck.ch or codecheck.de, is the largest German-language database for cosmetics and foods, available online and as a free app for product checks via barcode scans.
Barcodes are no less than product fingerprints.
You can scan the barcode of a food or cosmetic product listed in the Codecheck database using a webcam (Codecheck.info) or the smartphone camera (Codecheck app iOS/ Android). The product is then evaluated, so you know about possible toxins or environmental issues behind its labels. Look up alternatives by checking off ingredients you want to avoid, such as specific toxins or allergens.
Product ingredients are rated – an intuitive colour scheme red > orange > yellow > bright green > emerald (red is for harsh toxins, endocrine disruptors, and environmental sins like petroleum and unsustainable palm oil) ranks each of them. Also each product is shown with – accordingly – an all green, all red or a red-green wheel. It’s up to the user to read each ingredient’s description or just check the colour codes; links for further reading are included also.
At the heart of the Codecheck platform is the dedicated, self-regulating community – scanning the barcodes, uploading product images, correcting errors. The team at the Codecheck HQ in Zurich develops the infrastructure, codes the app and the database, gets expert updates, writes articles for the new online magazine, and responds to brand requests (ranging from angry complaint letters to database cooperations to app/ webzine ads).
The ingredient ratings are sourced from renowned experts and NGOs/ NPOs such as Greenpeace, BUND, WWF and other.
To support the work of developers, researchers, editors and other Codecheck team members, the platform also accepts online and mobile advertising.
As you can easily guess, the modern, easy-to-use platform has earned awards, accolades and, most recently, has secured solid investment support much needed for the growth.
The iOS/Android app has been relaunched this spring and is an immensely helpful tool for your pocket – so much better than a paper card, small-printed with all the complicated names thou want to avoid.
Having visited the Zurich headquarters earlier this year, I’ve seized the opportunity to talk to the founder, Roman Bleichenbacher, just before the app was going to be relaunched.
Roman Bleichenbacher holds a diploma in Product, Industrial and Process Design from the University of Applied Sciences in Basel, Switzerland. He created Codecheck as part of his diploma thesis in 2002.
Q: Founding Codecheck, was your goal the same as it is today?
A: The idea was pretty similar to today’s; basically Codecheck was born out of my consideration that we shop daily, so this matters quite a bit. Basically, you could look up some information in factual books back then but these didn’t cover everyday products, such as foods or cosmetics.
And of course, I’ve been very excited about the Internet as a medium because, other than a book, it offers you the possibility to be up to date all the time. You hardly can represent everyday products or what they’re made of in a book anyway.
I got excited about the idea to offer a work of reference for everyday products where you could embed product comparison, enable custom search criteria and provide a real help to consumers.
Q: Your experts for ingredient evaluation are renowned organisations and individuals, BUND, Ökotest, Greenpeace, to name a few. Was it challenging to win them or were they happy to contribute to the new platform?
A: I’d say, it was a luck, a little bit. Codecheck has started as my diploma thesis, and I found it pretty challenging to implement my vision and to learn about the products more than is revealed on their labels. I think I’ve approached it rather dewy-eyed, simply calling the organisations and asking to use their information for my diploma, and they said, sure, go ahead. Now, that’s how it’s been in 2002; the interest to be a Codecheck expert has been growing steadily ever since.
Q: There are many experts with dissimilar opinions. How do you decide what the consumer gets?
A: Let me answer this with an example: our experts include two environmental organisations. Basically what they do is pretty similar, but their opinions differ in details when it comes to such topics as fish or reliability of quality seals. So BUND will not always agree with Ökotest. To us, it’s good and very important to offer different points of view as well as the reasons behind, it helps consumers to form their opinion.
Q: Talking about controversial topics: how come some palm oil derivates are highlighted red and some green?
A: This is how it works with PO: we know from Greenpeace that products carrying certain labels – it would be BDIH for cosmetics – are assumed to be made solely of ingredients from sustainable farming. This is only true for few products with PO-based ingredients. But it’s not because the company evaluated uses PO free formulas, it’s because of the certification. Greenpeace assumes that certain certifications mean no conflict PO is deployed.
There is of course some vagueness in that, by design. Especially if you consider cosmetics, there’s a vast lack of knowledge where ingredients are sourced from; the raw material suppliers don’t know or don’t want to pass on the facts, and it’s a problem Codecheck can’t resolve. And it’s ever more difficult to determine the origin of the derivates.
Q: In your media kit, you quote a study conducted by CRED. The majority of respondents “would prefer to decide based on reasons of health and ethics but are lacking the time to research relevant information”. Now, Codecheck evaluates – thankfully – so many relevant topics, not just toxins or endocrine disruptors, far beyond: environmental issues, palm oil, microplastics, food topics. Would you say the ethical consumer gets overwhelmed? Or would you say better alternatives are easier to find if you’re educated?
A: Tracking the trends and the numbers, we clearly see that the interest is growing: 800’000 uniques per month from the German-speaking world alone – that’s considerable.
Also studies show that about 10% of consumers are investing time and money to research, while 25% choose the cheapest products. The 65% left are the exciting ones, because they would clearly go for the good products but lack the time to inform themselves on the matter.”
Q: Will you add further topics or will you concentrate on food and cosmetics?
A: No. We’ll concentrate on foods and cosmetics. And the amount of topics here is so vast, just if you consider cosmetics alone: silicones, water-pollutants, endocrine disruptors… Huge, gripping topics.
Equally, if we look into foods, the intolerances are a super important topic there (lactose, gluten), but also lifestyles – vegetarian, vegan – so there’s a lot to explore.
We will concentrate on these two major sections in order to offer consumers a decision-making basis that’s solid, exciting and simple. And it’s kind of an ambitious goal, too, if you consider the amount of products and information in terms of health, the environment, and social issues.
Our online magazine is another good source of information. We don’t want to sound dogmatic there; we want to deliver content that’s relevant, correct, important but also entertaining.
Then there’s the product check app that lets you scan and check products with your smartphone everywhere – in the bath, or when visiting friends. We want to further optimise this app, to make it as customisable as possible.
Q: How do companies or brands react to your green/red circle as a visual aid to a product’s green ranking?
A: There are companies that are highly allergic to this kind of rating, they would send us complaint letters or try some form of legal approach. On the other hand there are other companies that run customer surveys and discover 80% of their customers use Codecheck. These companies would get in touch with us, give us all product information. Of course this doesn’t influence the evaluation or the rating – it’s just the more constructive approach because in the end, companies can make sure they offer their customers a really good reason to buy their products. So much better that writing angry messages.
Q: Transparency is trending!
A: Exactly. Also let’s keep in mind that there is no such thing as a brand constantly getting bad ratings or only good ratings, many brands have single products that are excellent.
Q: I see it quite often, a conventional or “not so green” brand with one amazingly excellent product.
A: Yes, or take very affordable products that we often find out are really good. It’s this kind of curation delivery that’s truly helping consumers.
Q: Do you think Codecheck can influence the standards of how mainstream cosmetics and foods are produced?
A: There was a study that stated a clear green trend. This isn’t a direct consequence from what we do but I believe that we can move a few things.
Our product has to be really mainstream to reach as many people as possible. Even those not caring for the “green” topics, or those just starting out.
I believe that we already have the opportunity to influence many people due to Codecheck reach today – and the consumers have an enormous impact because only what is bought keeps being produced.”
When the decision to buy a product is a conscious one, the shopping experience changes. Even knowing that it’s not the healthiest product you picked feels different because you know your reason and don’t act on the wrong premise of treating yourself to something healthy and good. We had users who only had realised what they’ve been buying due to Codecheck.
I believe we help consumers buy products that truly suit their personal needs.
Thank you, Roman!