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!