Simple but not simplistic: can product badges encourage more sustainable consumption?
This article is written by James Hand, co-founder of Giki Social Enterprise. Before founding Giki in 2017, James spent 20 years in Asset Management, most recently as Co-CIO at Investec with experience in big data, behavioural finance, company research and ESG (environmental, social and governance) investing.
Many UK consumers want to shop more sustainably. They also want to buy healthier products and, increasingly, from brands that share a commitment to ethical principles such as corporate responsibility, fairness and transparency.
However, it’s incredibly hard for people to actually find products that meet all of these values.
In this article, we will look at how our start-up social enterprise Giki is attempting to tackle this problem, discuss some of the key issues in our approach and try to draw some early lessons for other consumer-facing organisations who are using technology for good.
The unmet need
For consumers, much of the challenge lies in accessing the information they need to make sustainable, healthy and ethical purchasing decisions. With more than 300,000 products on offer in UK supermarkets, from over 5,000 brands, it is perhaps unsurprising that most people default to price and familiarity when doing their weekly shop. Even reading an average consumer label, which may contain up to 500 words and take 2-3 minutes to read, is simply not viable for busy people who just want to finish their shopping trip.
However, this creates an unmet need as consumers are concerned that the goods they are buying, and the companies they are buying from, may not be aligned with their own values and beliefs.
This unmet need is the reason we founded Giki Social Enterprise in 2017. Our mission – written into our Articles of Association – is to drive sustainable consumption by inspiring people to make small, regular changes in their shopping which are good for them, better for the environment and fairer to others.
We achieve this through an algorithmic scoring process, which currently rates over 250,000 supermarket products by analysing millions of data points. Our ratings, which take the form of badges that can be awarded to products, cover twelve areas: responsible sourcing (e.g. Fairtrade), chemicals of concern, organic, UK-made, animal welfare, carbon footprint, nutrition, animal testing, additives, greener cosmetics, kinder cleaning and recycling. Our approach is transparent and is available on our website.
Consumers can then view these badges in an app. Despite the complexity of the scoring process, the app (illustrated in the screenshots below) is simple:
- Users find products by either scanning a barcode or searching for a product name
- Products are awarded badges across the 12 issues where they are relevant
- Users can select to learn more about a product, or
- They can choose alternatives with more badges.
Image: screenshots from the Giki app.
However, this simplicity also raises important questions in relation to our framework.
The challenges of Giki’s framework
Much of this comes down to two questions.
- How can such complex issues be reduced to badges, and
- Why does Giki get to decide what’s important?
In many ways, the second question is easier to answer: it’s not our intention to make a judgement about what is important. The app is free to download, free to use and we are transparent about how we rate products. In the future, we’d also like users to be able to input their own preferences, such as prioritising a low carbon footprint over the absence of chemicals of concern. Our aim is to provide a tool for people to use; how they use that tool is a personal choice.
The first question is harder, and this is an issue that we grapple with continuously. On the one hand, it’s almost impossible to present every single aspect of a product’s sustainability in a simple, intuitive manner, and there are often trade-offs between badges. For example, intensive animal farming systems can sometimes be more “efficient” than free-range and therefore have a lower carbon footprint, but perform relatively poorly on animal welfare (for further discussion, see the FCRN paper Animal efficiencies, animal welfare: either/or, or both/and?). At the same time, that very information overload, with so many different factors to consider, makes it hard for people to find products that fit all of their values and beliefs – and perhaps, in some cases, such products don’t exist. We hope that by providing easy to understand badges, whilst at the same time being transparent about how those badges were awarded, users can decide for themselves and, where they want to, do further research into these complex issues.
Indeed, this mirrors the reaction that we have had from many of the sustainability professionals that we have been fortunate enough to talk to as we have developed Giki over the last year. Broadly, they sit in two camps. One camp is “pragmatic” (we need to do something, try it and see what happens) and the other is “precise” (until we can provide full provenance and footprint for all products it’s too early to try this). The challenge is that both are right.
Here are some specific examples and why we have ended up in the pragmatic camp (and please note this is simply a naming convention and not to suggest that those in the precise camp are not pragmatic and vice versa!).
The general vs the specific
Some people have asked us whether New Zealand lamb is “better” than tomatoes grown in heated greenhouses in the UK, considering carbon footprints. While this question is of dubious value in the first place, since tomatoes and lamb play such different roles in the diet, counterintuitive examples such as this can lead to cognitive dissonance for the consumer and, frequently, inaction. We generally therefore prefer to look at broader information sets (for example, on average lamb has a higher carbon footprint than tomatoes) rather than the specific. Neither approach is free from counter-arguments, but it provides a less confusing starting position from which people can contemplate change.
Direct vs indirect experience
Direct experiences have a stronger influence on people’s behaviour than indirect experiences. Reading about environmental problems in the papers, especially when large numbers and tangential comparisons are used (“save enough CO2 to drive round the moon”) has markedly less impact than direct experience (e.g. seeing plastic on the beach). This is why we choose to have a device that sits in people’s hands and gives direct feedback, instead of a list of things that a consumer should do. Knowing that the product in your hand contains unsustainable palm oil, combined with a programme on orangutan habitats under threat, is more likely to lead to changes in shopping decisions.
However, the counter to this approach is simply that individual product decisions are so small in the context of wider environmental challenges that they are nearly meaningless. Does it really matter if I switch to an organic yoghurt, recycle more and buy local fruit & veg if no one else does? Early indications for our users suggest differently – an initial swap leads to interest in other areas that lead to more swaps and over time the entire shopping basket changes – but we will need to collect more data on this over the coming months. This may include some basic rewards and gamification to ensure we see positive reinforcement.
Working with the axioms of behaviour change
The academic literature dealing with behavioural change covers a wide range of reasons as to why a person’s intent is often different from their action. The following factors often apply to supermarket shopping: lack of knowledge and information; too busy; too difficult and don’t know where to start; a belief that one’s own actions won’t make any difference; doom and gloom message doesn’t motivate; big intangible numbers about millions of tonnes of carbon are not motivating; and confusion over eco labelling. The list goes on.
During our research we found a need for an approach that was simple, intuitive and practical, giving consumers very clear information on their choices and easy options for what to do next. Even rating scales and traffic light systems seemed to create some confusion whereas simple badges have been easily understood in our user feedback groups and surveys.
However, a key issue with this approach is that, whilst it appeals to many mainstream users who want a simple approach, it is unattractive to consumers with more detailed knowledge or particular preferences about certain issues. What we have tried to do in these cases is to map out a process whereby a user can learn more and more about the badge and the issues by following steps in the app and on the website. Around 25% of users are using this feature to dig deeper.
The illusion of control
Supermarkets invest in R&D to optimise store layout and individual product positioning, while brands work hard to ensure their products have a unique “voice” in the marketplace even if many brands are coming from a single company. How many consumers, for example, know that Napolina pasta, Ben&Jerry’s, Marmite, Dove, Pukka Tea and a Pot Noodle all come from the same company?
The factors that supermarkets tweak to optimise profit – availability, position in store, price, and so on – tend to exclude many variables that influence the decisions of consumers, such as sustainability concerns. Using badges allows us to cover multiple areas in an easy-to-understand manner. It also highlights why it is important to have very broad product coverage. In giving people back control of the decision-making process, based more closely on their own criteria, any offering needs to be at least comparable to what they are doing currently (using ethical websites, searching online, asking friends) to research these issues and be able to help them in their weekly shop (i.e. cover much of what they can find in the supermarket).
The counter here is clear: why is Giki any better placed to reframe the decision than a brand, a supermarket or any other participant in the supermarket value chain? We hope being a free, independent source helps to explain why we can provide a role as one, of many, stakeholders but have also formed an Advisory Board to provide guidance on the methodology we use. At present this includes members from WWF, Oxfam, CDP, Bonsucro and industry but we are extremely keen to find new advisory board members with expertise in organic food & drink, chemicals and nutrition. If you are interested, please do get in touch.
What about feedback from the most important people, users? The most common words people use to describe Giki is that it is “addictive” and “fun”. The process of discovery (scan a product, find information, seek alternatives) is something that empowers consumers with the payoff being clear if they select a product with more badges as a result. It is also very different from many of the previous approaches, which have stressed the downside of inaction. However, two other bits of feedback are noteworthy. First, and to our surprise, users have been willing to fill out a long, time consuming form if they find a product that is not in our library. This speaks to a cohort of super-engaged ethical consumers who could surely be utilised more effectively. The second is that whilst Millennials are the largest user group – as expected – for Generation X, so far, we have seen an even split between men and women, which runs counter to some of the assumptions about demographic groups who are most engaged on ethical issues (see here for a paper that discusses the perception of eco-friendly behaviour as “feminine”).
It is also interesting to note the concerns that potential users have. Our best source for this was online comments following a national newspaper article and they broadly split into four areas:
- Don't tell me what to do,
- All that matters is price,
- Ethical is not my thing,
- Product performance is poor (or more directly, “all these products taste like cardboard”)
This highlights that a truly mainstream solution needs to be able to compete on price and quality as well as issues. Interestingly it also shows some of the basic tenets of behaviour change which are driven by:
- Individuality – what do I want to do?
- Financial – what can I afford to do?
- Responsibility – does the tragedy of the commons impact me?
- Practicality – what can I do?
However, by far our favourite comment was, “if I wanted this sort of cr*p I’d read the Guardian”.
Finally, what lessons have we learnt in the short time that Giki has existed? It is perhaps too early to draw any conclusions about the success, or failure, of an app that uses badges to encourage sustainable consumption. However, one clear lesson is that in order to use technology for good, and to appeal to the large Millennial cohort, a much more agile, experimental and transparent approach is required. “Fail fast” is a common Silicon Valley refrain and a willingness to try new technologies, strive for a good outcome rather than a perfect one, and constant desire to improve sit at the heart of that methodology. Until we have full ingredient provenance, detailed product ecological footprints and better company ethics transparency, I believe this approach is necessary to help move consumption onto a more sustainable footing.
If you are interested in becoming a member of Giki’s Advisory Board, get in touch with James here.