Putting sustainability knowledge at shoppers’ fingertips

We met with James Hand, co-founder of sustainable shopping app Giki, to understand his story, the challenges for app-based startups and the ethos behind the brand…


Tell us about Giki.

Giki is a sustainable shopping app that gives consumers the ability to link the product in their hand to issues that they care about. They can scan one of 250,000 supermarket products and find if it’s got recyclable packaging, sustainable palm oil, good animal welfare and so on.

Where did the idea come from?

My wife Jo and I were thinking about the types of things we wanted to buy, and talking to our friends about it, and everyone kept saying the same thing: there are lots of issues I care about, but I find it difficult to get the information. So we said, let’s go see if that’s possible. We spent the first couple of months in R&D finding out what people care about, and if the data and technology were available, and then we built a prototype in late 2017 and gave it a crack.

What is the biggest challenge you’ve faced?

The data has been the biggest challenge. Some of it is taken from product packaging. Sometimes it’s brand or company-level information. We’ve worked with campaigning organisations to compile information on specific issues, and we have to bring it all together and present it in a way that’s simple and clear.
The second challenge we face now is that we’ve got this platform that’s really powerful in terms of what it can do, but only a few thousand people have downloaded it. So how do you as a very small brand get it out there?

Giki holds a spotlight up to big corporations and their sustainability credentials. Has that been difficult?

Our ethos is all about being positive. We’re into helping people find the right products to meet their values. The big brands are thinking about these things anyway, so if their action is in line with their intent, then what we do should be good for them. We haven’t had any confrontational discussions so far, but it’s early days.

"The bit that makes us proud and happy is when we get that little message from someone saying, we like your app, and most of all when someone says, we used your app and we found this product and now we’re using it instead, and it’s more sustainable."

James Hand, Giki Apps

What are you most proud of so far?

The bit that makes us proud and happy is when we get that little message from someone saying, we like your app, and most of all when someone says, we used your app and we found this product and now we’re using it instead, and it’s more sustainable.

Have you seen changes in consumer interest in sustainability issues?

There do seem to be a lot of organisations and people who are much more interested in these topics than they have been in the last couple of years. We’ve all known about climate change, deforestation, plastics and so on for a long time, but there are more people who want to translate this into action.
David Attenborough’s Blue Planet II has been a big influence in terms of the focus on plastics – although the gap between intent and action on plastics is still enormous. And there has been a real resurgence in interest in palm oil in the last couple of weeks, with the controversy about the Iceland ad on palm oil that was banned. We learned early on that people care about lots of different things, and you’ve got to cover them all to appeal to the largest number of people.

What can big brands learn from a start-up like Giki?

It’s hard for someone of our size to teach a big brand very much, but I think there could be two things. In the start-up world and the tech world there’s a lot of talk about pivoting or failing fast or agile development, and there’s a temptation on the part of bigger brands to think that they have to do the same. But you’ve got to think about how those things work for you in the context of your own company culture. Sometimes you don’t have an option to fail fast. By all means take from what start-ups do, but apply it in a way that suits your own culture.
The second thing that Giki can perhaps teach them is that we’ve got some information about the market now that we’ve cut and sliced in a way that’s different to most of the research out there, so we’re hoping we can share that with companies to encourage change.

What does innovation mean to you?

It’s not always about building something new from scratch. There are so many technological tools available to you as a start-up now, that you can do most of what you need to do without developing your own technology. It’s more about understanding the tools and seeing how they can work for you.
Secondly, innovation means doing that in the most technologically lightweight and cost-effective way possible. You have to innovate in terms of how you do everything to keep costs down to a minimum.
Thirdly, you have to be providing something new. That, for me, is the true definition of innovation. And you have to have a hard look at yourself in the mirror when you think about that one. It’s easy to say something is innovative, but in what way is it innovative? You have to give a true message to your user about why they should pick it up.