Heated issue

Competition Details

The UPC Project

by Sara Elliott
Co-authors: M. Sanjayan, Emily Whitted


The UPC Project is a simple innovation using existing technology and information that will put the power of change in the hands of those who contribute most to the impending climate crisis - the American consumer.

We all like to think that we are savvy consumers. Certainly the public has come a long way in terms of say product safety. However, one massive threat to the planet now threatens - climate change driven by consumer behavior. And even the most conscientious consumer will has an extraordinarily difficult time determining which items in a supermarket shelf are environmentally benign.

Anyone who has suffered a weight loss program knows that the first thing you do is count calories. What would happen if we could do the same for the carbon impact of common products - thereby giving consumers the power to decide for themselves what the real choices should be? And what if we could do this using two technological innovations that are sweeping the planet – cell phones and open source - combined with the most ubiquitous piece of graphic design in the world?

The UPC Project will create an open source database of carbon numbers (based on average production and transport costs for example) linked to the bar code on the back of consumer items. Using cell phone cameras, consumers will click to take a picture of the code, connect to the database and instantly (via the cell network) determine the carbon number for the product. This way, each consumer can compare the environmental impacts of products and understand the impact of their consumer choices.

Click, Choose, Contribute. It's easy to live the good life: It is much harder to be good in living.