I Didn’t Buy

Fiona Spotswood, I Didn't Buy

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 plug-in with sustainably minded consumers.

The I Didn’t Buy project was set up to develop a web browser plug-in that would allow people to rapidly access information on the sustainability of products they were researching. We want to ensure that sustainability features 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 at all, and that has changed thanks to now assumed technologies that afford user generated content. We suggest that sustainability information should be the same, becoming a completely normal part of everyday online shopping.

Furthering that, we want to encourage consumers to be an active part of the plug-in, rather than simply receiving the information. The plug-in makes it easy to review information and share thoughts with other consumers and with manufacturers – for example, calling for better sustainability information and transparency, or actively choosing a brand because of their policies, and pointing others in the same direction. This approach promotes agency, envisioning a kind of online community of sustainable shoppers who empower themselves and each other.

Since the project launched in January, we have been able to hold two face-to-face focus groups before moving 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 surrounding shopping with sustainability in mind, with complex trade-offs making it difficult to act in line with professed values. People found that corporate sustainability language is difficult to follow, often buried, or potentially untrustworthy. Consumers often either rely on the brands they know and regularly use, or simply give up. Often, in order to guarantee the provenance of the products they are buying, many people avoid online shopping altogether. But they still see value in researching products online.

The interviews gave us rich, nuanced data to work with. Using thematic analysis and presenting findings in report form, we developed a set of requirements for the plug-in. We have developed a prototype which we are now ready to test. The final phase of research is the most ambitious: it involves three stages, with seventeen sustainably minded consumers. These range from rapid, largely unreflexive shoppers, to those who are more considered and careful, and keen to share their experiences. Participants will be shown a video of the prototype 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 plug-in would have been useful. Finally, an hour-long online interview will be conducted, where the plug-in 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.

Read more about the I Didn’t Buy research project here.