End of year report

It’s December 2020, about six months after we had expected to complete the first phase of the project. We began in January, with funding from the Brigstow Institute. But Covid intervened, and we had to change our mode of working with members of the public as we carried out our research. Everything took a lot longer. We still haven’t quite finished, but broadly speaking we have achieved everything we set out to do. We’ve learned a great deal about how people want to shop sustainably online, we’ve made a prototype browser plugin based on that knowledge, and in turn we have learned much from people’s reactions to it. We’re codifying that knowledge, and will publish papers in 2021. I’m also getting ready for the next phase, driven by my company matter II media, with the goal of bringing the plugin to the masses.

Stage 1. Focus groups and interviews

We began by reviewing the literature and holding focus groups with consumers – just before Covid struck. We found a strong appetite for shopping in a sustainable way, with individuals’ sustainability concerns ranging from plastic-free oceans to deforestation and human rights. They varied widely, however, in how much time they had to shop sustainably, in their knowledge, and in their sense of empowerment. Many people lead busy lives which allow them little time to make sustainable decisions. Others are like detectives who want to make sure that they are making their decisions optimally, on the best information – despite the existence of many grey areas.

One of the main things we learned was that online support for sustainable shopping isn’t just about helping people make sustainable choices when they buy online. Many sustainably minded people prefer to shop in physical stores, but online is still the best place for their research.

In a second round of research, we looked at sustainable shopping and research practices in more depth. This round was to have taken the form of physical workshops; Covid meant that we had to conduct individual online interviews instead. We recruited sustainably minded shoppers from the general public, watched what they did as they searched for items online, and probed them with ideas about how they might (or might not) want to influence or be influenced by other people. The findings were encouraging of the idea that an online tool had a significant role to play.

Online shopping is very difficult for many consumers, due to conflicting information, the complexity of sustainability issues (e.g. it’s organic but it comes wrapped in plastic), the lack of transparent brands, and the absence of complete information. But there is a marked group of consumers who are sustainably minded to a significant degree around a variety of different issues – even if it’s with a variable depth of understanding, and a variable amount of time to act.

The affective experience broadly focused on negative feelings: worry, exhaustion, shame, guilt. Finding sustainable items was laborious and hit and miss. However, some consumers were clearly excited when they found a product that they were happy with, and found ‘following the clues’ energising. Consumers use heuristics to help them through the complexity. Some want quick and easy heuristics to make decisions and that is all. For example, many simply default to the brands they trust. Others are prepared to go significantly further when it comes to shopping sustainably.

We asked about sharing and other forms of engagement. Consumers have mixed intentions of influencing others around them and brands. However, most would be happy to share their choices with the intention of influencing other consumers or brands, or helping others make more sustainable choices.

Stage 2. Sust, the prototype plugin

Based on the foregoing research, we designed and implemented a prototype plugin in the form of a Chrome browser extension called Sust, which we showed to twelve sustainably minded participants in online interviews, to gauge their reactions and learn from their responses. They made many useful suggestions for improving the prototype, but overall the reaction was very positive. It convinces us that this approach is worth pursuing.

Find out more and see a video of Sust in action here.

Next steps

We will be publishing papers detailing our research into online consumer behaviour with respect to sustainable shopping, and drawing general design implications for online tools.

Tim Kindberg of matter II media is looking for funding for the next stage of the plugin’s development, towards a roll-out in H2 2021. This will involve:

  • Porting the plugin to Firefox and Safari, including for mobile.
  • Improvement of the plugin’s robustness and the detailed design of its interface with respect to information provision and sharing
  • Development of social mechanisms with respect to the information repository that is the basis for the plugin, so that the integrity of the information upon which people make shopping decisions can be maintained, while allowing for debate.

Covid has disrupted all of our lives, and caused us to do even more of our shopping online. The proportion of online grocery shopping in the UK has roughly doubled to about 10%, for example. Covid has also led many of us to question the true value of many of the things we do and buy, particularly with respect to sustainability, whether our concern be plastic, the climate emergency, or the welfare of humans and the other species with which we share our planet.

We look forward to our work continuing in 2021. Would you like to join us? Get in touch!

Sust, the I Didn’t Buy plugin

Sust is the working name for our web browser plugin which is designed to help people shop sustainably. It works by identifying products for sale in web sites, and overlaying an interface which both presents sustainability-related information and enables the consumer to contribute sustainability-related information.

Our research engagements with sustainably minded shoppers told us that the plugin needed to support a variety of approaches to shopping sustainably, to sharing what individual consumers have found out, and to engaging further (or not) as a member of a community of sustainable shoppers.

We divided Sust’s functionality into three layers.

  • To inform: the user finds shortcuts to sustainability information about products and brands, and brands learn about the preferences of consumers in relation to their market offerings.
  • To influence: the user seeks to influence others on the basis of that information, including brands and other consumers.
  • To engage: the user adds to or improves that information as an opportunity to engage more deeply with sustainable consumption. This is to create a community of involved, empowered shoppers engaged both in the market’s sustainable offerings and in the sustainability strategies of brands with an online presence.

Our imperative was to provide shortcuts in all three layers, in order to cut down on the complexity of sustainable shopping. For example, rather than having to find a brand’s statement on sustainability when they visit its website, the plugin provides a shortcut to it from any page of the site.

We created Sust as a Chrome browser extension (plugin) with the following functionality:

  • Product discovery. The plugin automatically discovers products in web pages
  • Information repository. The plugin communicates with a server-based database which collates and provides information about products and brands across websites.
  • Information overlay. The plugin provides information both about the website and about the individual products within it. The product-based information takes the form of “traffic lights” and online reports with respect to sustainability choices, links to alternative products, and information about whether other sustainably-minded shoppers gave a particular product a sustainability “thumbs up” or “thumbs down”.
  • Sharing shortcuts. The plugin streamlines actions such as communicating with a brand or posting on social media about a product, and giving a product a sustainability “thumbs up” or “thumbs down”.
  • Contribution shortcuts. The plugin streamlines actions such as contributing links to further sustainability reports, or to sustainable alternative products.

We showed Sust to sustainably minded participants in online interviews, as it operated on the John Lewis and Asos websites with selected products. We are in the process of fully codifying the results, but the prototype received an enthusiastic response, and many excellent suggestions for improving it.

In 2021, we will be putting those improvements into effect and making Sust available to the public.

Our prototype plugin: ready for testing!

It seems like a long time ago that our project team met for the first time in a crowded, very much un-socially distanced Boston Tea Party on Park Street. It was hard then to envisage a time when we would have a ‘minimum viable product’ available for testing. But here we are! Next week we enter the final stage of the Brigstow funded part of our project – testing a plugin with sustainably minded consumers.

The I Didn’t Buy project was set up to develop a web browser plugin that would allow people to rapidly access information on sustainability of products they were researching and ensure that sustainability featured as one of the normative evaluation criteria for online shopping, along with price, appearance and customer review. Thinking back a few years, online shopping did not take customer opinion into account, and that has changed thanks to new and now normative technologies that afford user generated content. We are intending that sustainability information does the same and becomes just a normal part of everyday online shopping. We also want to empower consumers to work with, and for, this information and the plugin makes it easy and appealing to share thoughts with other consumers and with manufacturers, for example calling for better sustainability information and transparency.

Since the project launched in January, we have been able to hold two face to face focus groups and then moved our methodology over to online interviews. These two research phases were focused on understanding how sustainability minded people shop, and the experiences they have of shopping online. The findings emphasise the confusion and complexity surrounding shopping with sustainability in mind. Corporate sustainability language is difficult to follow and often buried. Consumers rely on known brands or just give up. Many people avoid online shopping altogether if they can, so they can better guarantee the provenance of the products they are buying.

Using our rich data, analysed using thematic analysis and presented in report form, we developed a set of requirements for the plugin. We have developed the MVP and are now ready to test. The final phase of research is the most ambitious and involves three stages with 17 sustainably minded consumers who range from rapid, largely unreflexive shoppers to those who are more considered and careful and keen to share their experiences. The shoppers we have recruited will be shown a video of the MVP as a short familiarisation and training exercise (online, with a synchronous question and answer session). For a week they then go about their normal lives, but we ask for a short survey to be completed each time they search for something online (or a minimum of three times). These questions prompt reflection about how the plugin would have been useful. Finally, an hour long online interview will be conducted, where the plugin will be interrogated for its design features, depth of content, presentation of information and usability.

We have had to adapt our methodology considerably during lockdown and it has certainly slowed us down. We were initially hoping to finish the project in April. However, the slower pace has allowed more detailed reflection about our approach and the chance to theorize our findings. It has been fascinating working in such a strongly interdisciplinary team from both academia and practice. Our modus operandi has been communication and clarity at every step. We might have different ways of describing or researching phenomena, but through good humoured conversation have always managed to reach a point of agreement. The next step is publication (for the academics) and securing further funding to facilitate marketisation.

Getting started!

We held our first team meeting on 14 January, 2020.

We’re busy planning our first focus groups, which will be held on the evening of Thursday 6 Februrary. We’ll be recruiting shortly and will be posting details here and on Twitter at @ididntbuy.