Sust: co-creating an open-source platform for empowering sustainable fashion consumers

How can an web browser plug in best support fashion activists to find and share information which will be useful to other consumers as well?

What if we all refused to buy anything that harms the environment, including goods and services that add to carbon in the atmosphere, impair our health, or impact upon wildlife?

In a previous Brigstow funded research project ‘I Didn’t Buy: Empowering online consumer activism against environmental collapse’, the team of researchers identified that some consumers are passively interested in sustainability issues and will take account of them in their online shopping behaviour only if it is easy and straightforward to do so. Rarely do existing brands support sustainable decision making beyond a superficial approach. However, they also identified that some consumer “detectives” are willing to put many hours into finding the information needed to make sustainable purchasing decisions, and to share this with other consumers and brands. They tend to restrict their shopping repertoires to narrow sets of brands they trust and would welcome a way to make sustainability searching part of their routine online shopping practices.

What did the project involve? 

In this follow-on research, the researchers aimed to identify how to effectively engage the enthusiasm and expertise of these “detectives”, and to deploy a digital infrastructure project that supports their willingness to share and communicate their findings with the wider community. Their hope was that this would potentially shift ‘passively interested’ consumers into routine sustainable shoppers, and reward brands for marketing sustainable products.

The project concentrated on Fashion, where 20% of purchases are online, where there is established activism towards improving sustainability, and where it is becoming normative for industry to respond. The team utilised I Didn’t Buy’s prototype web browser plugin (development funded by Brigstow and continued by Matter II Media), now called ‘Sust’. Sust annotates e-commerce web pages with trustworthy information related to sustainability. In this project the researchers concentrated on how to gather that information. They worked with Fashion Revolution‘s global network of sustainable Fashion activists to co-create an open-source platform for gathering information about brands and products.

The project asked: How can the platform best support fashion activists to find and share information which will be useful to other consumers as well? The team co-created and refined the ‘Sust’ interface by collecting input on functionality and design from our user groups, and iteratively improving and adapting the platform accordingly. The researchers paid particular attention to how to maintain the integrity of the information, how to summarise it for other consumers, and how best to enable and encourage activists to contribute effectively.

Who are the team and what do they bring?

  • Fiona Spotswood (School of Management, University of Bristol) uses social practice theory to explore social media marketing programmes and everyday practices and routines that are collectively performed. She is interested in the role of marketing in behaviour change and how marketing can be used as a tool to create value for consumers as they engage in more sustainable practices.
  • Chris Preist (Computer Science, University of Bristol) research focuses on the impact of digital technology on human behaviour – both intended and unintended – and the implications of this for the challenges of sustainable development.
  • Tim Kindberg (Matter || Media) is a digital technologist who co-devises creative and technological responses to issues including the environment and social justice, emphasising collective action.
  • Niamh Tuft (Global Network Manager, Fashion Revolution) has a background in fashion history and curation. She worked in fashion programming for the British Council for seven years where she led the International Fashion Showcase and created strategic programmes such as Fashion DNA, which aims to support fashion ecosystems across the world to develop business support and creative opportunities for local designers.
  • Dale Southerton (School of Management, University of Bristol) is a researcher and the co-lead of the Centre of Sociodigital Futures, the core focus of their research is the study of consumption, its role in organizing everyday lives and its significance in processes of societal change.
  • Emma Slade (School of Management, University of Bristol) is a Senior Lecturer in Marketing. Her research interests revolve around digital technologies and user behaviour, and she specialises in quantitative methods.

What were the results?

This research demonstrated the feasibility of this approach and has open up more detailed and nuanced research questions, which the researchers believe can be moved forward in two parallel strands:

The ‘Research Driven’ strand would use the evidence base to prepare a major research bid. The key broader research agenda behind this work is: To what extent are sustainability considerations integrated into current online consumer purchasing practices, and how can digital technology help reshape these practices? The researchers intend to use outcomes of this research to shape a broader funding proposal for such work.

Matter II media intends to roll out the platform for widespread use, and the results of this research will increase the likelihood of obtaining the necessary investment. Thus the ‘Application Driven’ strand intends to use the prototyping work to support bids for further development towards a product with interested partners, and the exploration of appropriate (potentially charitable) business models for wide release of the system.