Conscious Consumption

You made a purchase, and you regretted it. Maybe you didn’t think it through completely, or maybe it was done on impulse. For years, this kind of buyer’s remorse was limited to brick-and-mortar stores, the sites of post-breakup self-care or idle Saturday afternoon splurges. But it takes on a different flavor in the era of online shopping. All that time researching the right blender might have brought you to descriptions of how the product was made or into the manufacturer’s corporate practices. Then you regret buying it not because it was an unnecessary purchase, but because getting it meant the abuse of people or the environment.

Being a more informed consumer is a noble goal, but it’s not easy to achieve.  Most people wouldn’t know where to look for information about a company’s manufacturing practices; however, companies are expected to be more transparent than ever before, and consumers have shown growing interest and concern surrounding the origin of the products they buy, particularly those put on or in their bodies.

Over the last couple of decades, this interest seems to have evolved: Now, consumers want to know where their products have come from and how they were made. This knowledge has become part of a broader cultural drive to reassure ourselves that we are giving money to companies we can feel at least somewhat good about supporting.

But shopping with your conscience is often not cheap.

Some economists have suggested that capitalist societies inhibit “conscious consumerism” because capitalism depends on consumption. So for those living in a capitalist society aiming to consume less, or at least be more choosy about what they consume, the capitalist structure does not make constant vigilance an easy task.

Aligning Ethics

The team at Impakt hopes to make consumers’ attempts to try to be more conscious of their consumption’s ethics, at least, a little easier. After the 2016 election, the team, whose members boast expertise in mathematics, philosophy, and the humanities, began looking for a way to help assuage the chaos that had ensued.

Empowering consumers seemed like a natural fit for their combined talents and expertise. As they batted around ideas, the team realized that the information on companies’ manufacturing practices did exist. The only problem was that it wasn’t easily and readily accessible to consumers. “Transparency was our solution,” Jonathan Hecht, the company’s co-founder, told Futurism via email.

And so the Impakt Browser Extension was born. It is, as its name suggests, a browser extension for Chrome and Firefox that allows users to glean information about the practices, politics, and ethics of companies in real time as they shop.

Image Credit: Impakt

In its final form, Impakt will offer users data on a range of metrics, from a company’s hiring diversity to whether they pay workers minimum wage. It will also look at the age of factory workers in factories (a possible indicator of child labor), as well as the company’s standards for environmental sustainability. Users will be able to customize the extension to show them the information they care about most. And it will work pretty much anywhere you’re likely to buy something on the internet: e-commerce sites like Amazon, online retailers like Best Buy, and brands like Sephora.

To begin building a tool like Impakt, Hecht and his team trawled government databases, industry reports, and news articles. The team wanted the information to be user-friendly, so a browser extension seemed to be “as low-friction as possible,” Hecht said.

Creating the browser extension was the easy part — the real challenge for Hecht’s team is to build up the database the extension would draw on to inform consumers. Even once the database is established, continuously honing its accuracy and usability will be a full-time job. With more sophisticated machine learning, the algorithm could scrape and crawl for data around the internet, ensuring that users receive the most up-to-date and accurate information. An artificial intelligence component will aggregate and store user data, allowing the program to learn about the impact that the extension has as users shop, which will allow for improvements down the road.

The team has created the bare bones of the tool, though it is not yet available for download. To complete the project, they first need to raise some funds.

To do this, the team needs nearly $30,000, which it’s raising via Kickstarter. As of publication, they’ve raised just over $17,500 and need another $12,000 before the campaign ends at the end of the month.

“As we gain the user base to justify it, we’ll hire a team to curate the database, expand the covered universe, and develop more powerful and intelligent algorithms to automate and scale,” Impakt’s tech lead, Chris Shaffer, explained via email.

Image Credit: Impakt

At first, the developers estimate that the algorithm will make more errors than than they would like. It might “[mix] up Miami Dolphins hats with a tuna brand that harms dolphins,” as the team noted on its Kickstarter page. Mistakes like that will probably happen about 15 percent of the time. Impakt hopes that users will submit error reports to help improve the algorithms.

Making Impakt easy to use and accessible could also help the “conscious consumer” movement shed its elitist reputation. It’s no secret that it can be a costly endeavor to consistently buy only products that are ethically-produced and environmentally friendly.

It doesn’t always have to be so expensive to shop with your conscience, however. There’s something called the “Whole Foods Effect” — people think they have to spend a lot of money in order to be ethical, Julie Irwin, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin’s McComb’s School of Business, told Futurism via email. People may even think spending a lot is the best way to be ethical, but, in fact, not consuming in the first place is the most ethical tactic of all, she added.

Developing that consciousness in the first place is a separate challenge. Tools that can explain what it means for a product to be “ethically sourced” or produced in an “environmentally-friendly” fashion could help narrow the gap created by those who haven’t been educated on the subject.

“We’re fighting for a world where corporations answer to our highest values, not only their bottom line,” the team wrote on its Kickstarter page.

It may be easy to think that individual actions can’t make a difference. But Irwin cautions that we shouldn’t get hung up on that idea. “I think people only say that when they want to be unethical,” she said. In truth, she said, every ethical action begins with just one person — and any person can be the one who puts change in motion. “It is still important to try,” Irwin said.

“All social movements and changes happen because a lot of individuals make the right decision,” Irwin said. “I know I work against hopelessness all the time, but in the end, individual action can make a difference.”