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Can Browser Plug-ins Push Consumers To Shop More Sustainably?

October 26, 2022

Article below pulled from Vogue Business BY BELLA WEBB

Many people want to shop sustainably, but lack of time, money and/or knowledge stops intent from turning into action. A new wave of fashion tech startups are hoping to change that.

The Beagle Button, Miigle+ and Changing Room are web browser extensions that pop-up with sustainable alternatives as users shop on other fashion e-commerce sites. To date, they have less than 10,000 users between them, but the potential impact could be huge, says Simona Azzolini, sustainability strategy director at change agency and consultancy Futerra. “For consumers to adopt new behaviours, they need to be easy to implement, seamless to use, attractive and convenient in terms of affordability and other barriers to access. Browser extensions tick those boxes.”

In recent years, activists have fought for brands and institutions to take more action on sustainability, rather than pushing the responsibility onto individual consumers. However, changes to consumer behaviour can still have an impact. Demand-side strategies (including policy and consumer behaviour, especially among high-net-worth individuals) could cut overall greenhouse gas emissions by 40-70 per cent, according to the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report. “Now is the time for consumers to take responsibility for their shopping habits, as well as brands,” says Azzolini.

The challenge is convincing consumers to download the plug-ins, and developing the technology enough that people actually use it. The sustainable fashion space is increasingly over-saturated with certifications, retailers and third-party organisations scrambling to define sustainability, and lay out clear guidelines for what is or is not a sustainable product. Are these browser extensions simply adding to the noise?

Each platform takes a slightly different approach. UK startup The Beagle Button was co-founded by Daniel Hemsley, Dave Henry and Tara Button, who also founded Buy Me Once, a platform testing and selling the most durable versions of everything from frying pans to waterproof jackets. Launched in May, the free browser extension uses a combination of machine learning, natural language processing, and domain knowledge to read the product pages customers are browsing and suggest more sustainable and ethical alternatives. Recommendations are pulled from a growing database of 3,000 products, across 200 UK brands such as Finisterre, Thought and Clean Faced Cosmetics, based on a sustainability marking system developed with third-party consultants.

The Beagle Button

The Beagle Button doesn’t claim to be a certification, says Hemsley, and leans heavily on third-parties that have the resources to corroborate brands’ claims. It also uses information that brands publish online and in their impact reports to inform scores. Its framework was developed with climate tech accelerator Sustainable Ventures and Ensight Consulting, with categories built around five key values: reducing waste, minimising emissions, supporting workers, protecting animals and avoiding harmful chemicals. Users are able to filter recommendations by their personal preferences, and how they define sustainability.

Since launch, the most popular categories chosen by consumers have been ethically made (15.7 per cent), plastic-free (15.1 per cent) and low carbon (13.4 per cent). Other categories include organic, vegan, cruelty-free, long-lasting, reusable, locally made, palm oil-free, saves you money and gives back.

A common critique of sustainable fashion is that it tends to be more expensive than fast fashion or the high street. To help bridge this gap, The Beagle Button is working with retailers and brands it recommends to offer users exclusive discounts of up to 25 per cent off. This cost is fronted by the brands, which is a potential barrier for smaller, independent labels. Hemsley argues that it is a worthy customer acquisition investment. “We also try to educate consumers on cost-value,” he adds. “The product may be three times as expensive, but it lasts three times as long.”

An open forum

Miigle+ also earns commission on recommendations that result in sales, but with the added option for brands to buy a dedicated page on its website, and populate this with its sustainability messaging. Featured brands will still need to meet a minimum sustainability criteria, defined by the platform’s users, to remain on the platform. Users will be able to vote brands off the site, but Miigle+ takes a forgiving approach. “We don’t expect brands to always do things right or be perfect, but we want them to be transparent and empower consumers to make informed decisions,” says founder Luc Berlin.

Brands using the platform for free will be listed on the website and appear in search results based on their ranking, while those paying $240 per year will appear at the top of search results and have a dedicated brand page, with an article of up to 1,000 words published on Miigle+ each month. For $450 per year, brands can share up to three monthly articles (and double the length), as well as earn 10 per cent commission on sales.

The Los Angeles platform, launched in 2016 recommends brands rather than specific products (like The Beagle Button), currently including Patagonia, Toms and The Honest Company. It operates more like an information aggregator than a recommendations tool: “We welcome various definitions of sustainability, above a minimum criteria,” says Berlin. This will come into fruition in “stage two” of development next year, when Miigle+ will start crowd-sourcing rankings from consumers — like a Wikipedia for sustainable fashion — and turn into an open forum for brands to answer users’ questions. Berlin says this will also allow former or current brand employees to contribute inside knowledge anonymously, though profiles will be vetted on the back-end to make sure they are real people.

This approach of inviting consumers to rank brands taps into shifts in consumer sentiment – where people now trust other consumers more than experts – but it carries risk, says François Souchet, global head of sustainability and impact at communications agency BPCM. “Professional analysts already struggle with the lack of product-level data available from brands. If you use peer-to-peer information, there’s the risk of falling into opinion-led appraisal rather than science-based appraisal,” he explains.

“Consumer input might be useful for other aspects, like product quality and longevity, but there is still a need for curation, so rankings are representative and valuable, instead of just being the lovers and haters,” continues Souchet. It might be worth combining the open forum between brands and consumers with expert input, says Azzolini.

“We’re not putting out a report telling consumers to buy X brand because they are the best, we are letting consumers share their experience of that product,” says Miigle+’s Berlin.

Overcoming hurdles

When Jeremy Yao first had the idea for Changing Room, he wanted to divert people away from fast fashion purchases and recommend sustainable alternatives, similar to Miigle+ and The Beagle Button. The New York startup — which is supported by Columbia Business School and launched in 2021 — quickly pivoted, when Yao realised that the higher price of sustainable brands was limiting its potential to convert customers.

Now, it sticks to secondhand products or circular economy alternatives such as rental. While users shop on firsthand fashion sites, the plug-in scours secondhand platforms for similar products. Right now, this includes 10 sites who pay the startup through affiliate links, from Depop to Poshmark, Vestiaire Collective and The RealReal, as well as two peer-to-peer rental sites local to New York. Yao says the startup is keen to work with brands to recommend products from their integrated resale offerings too, so the plug-in would not necessarily divert people away from brand websites, but simply towards more sustainable choices.

One of Changing Room’s main promises is that it saves users time searching through secondhand sites, which can be a long and sometimes painful process, blotted with bad images, hidden flaws and less-than-satisfactory customer service. However, relying on secondhand brings challenges, such as the lack of product information available, especially where listings are peer-to-peer. This makes it harder for Changing Room to categorise products.

The next hurdle is making the recommendations system smarter, so the plug-in can read images as well as text, and make recommendations based on colour, silhouette, style, size and price. “We’re still learning what users want our recommendations to replicate,” says Yao.

No matter how sophisticated the technology, browser extensions still rely on publicly available information about brands’ production, materials and supply chain, which is notoriously opaque. There is also potential for browser extensions with different definitions of sustainability to divert consumers away from brands’ and retailers’ sustainability edits, confusing consumers. Growing legislation around sustainable production and consumption could bring clarity and cohesion here, says Souchet, pointing to the increased brand data disclosure put forward in the New York Fashion Act, international greenwashing investigations curbing false claims, and the conversation around Product Environmental Footprints (PEF) which could provide a stronger baseline for sustainability.

Technology can aid sustainable shopping but consumers should be empowered to make better decisions on their own, concludes Azzolini. “Sustainability is a complex issue and we shouldn’t try to remove critical thinking from it. Consumers need to act as investigators.”


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