Title: I Didn't Buy: Empowering online consumer activism against environmental collapse

Project Details


This project aims to empower online consumers in responding individually and collectively to the climate breakdown and other environmental emergencies. These emergencies are core features of 21st century life, and much of the current response is accordingly online, in petitions, comments and articles. Another, earlier response is Ethical Consumption: making purchase decisions to support companies with progressive environmental policies, or putting pressure on companies selling environmentally damaging products by not consuming them.
Some critics say these approaches bring about insufficient change in everyday consumption or the wider market system, but both have achieved notable successes, e.g. in the move away from plastic straws. We will explore the opportunity to combine the approaches, and empower citizens to be more effective as both ethical consumers and online activists.

People understand living well with respect to the environmental emergencies in different ways, with varying priorities and levels of commitment. Not everyone agrees on what 'well' means when, e.g., boycotts might put people out of work, or lead to paying more for alternative products. The information required to understand e.g. whether a product derives from unsustainable palm oil is sometimes absent, disputed, or in proprietary hands. Furthermore, consumers have differing relationships with activism, and we do not yet understand the positive or negative roles digital technologies play in consumer activism and
shopping behaviours. In this project a team of researchers and designers in social marketing and human-computer interaction will work with citizens to:

(i) Understand how citizens wish to engage individually and collectively with the
environmental emergencies while making online purchase decisions. Engagement may include the decision not to buy/consume or the social sharing of ideas and purchase experiences.
(ii) Understand how/whether citizens experience feelings of empowerment online as they engage in different types of activism, and understand the new affordances that digital technology offers in shaping their experiences. We will understand how their decisions connect with their existing digital practices and self-narratives.
(iii) Co-design and create a digital prototype, ‘I Didn't Buy’, to enable critical reflection on these emerging understandings through actual experiences.

Our prototype will differ from existing apps such as Giki Badges and Buycott, which are based on scanning the barcode of a product in your hand and receiving classificatory information about it. We propose, instead, to overlay a tool for activism on top of existing e-commerce websites. A browser plug-in will respond to the products consumers are looking at e.g. shampoos, fridges or financial products, informing the consumer about the environmental impact of the product and the company producing it, and providing means to engage in digital activism related to any issues raised.

Our approach has potential benefits in its applicability to everyday online shopping practices, and in terms of scalability and transparency. But many questions remain. We require input from computer science, consumer research and behaviour change to explore the potential of our idea. Rapid co-prototyping will help cement our understanding of how consumers might engage with the overlay technology we are proposing.
Effective start/end date1/01/2031/03/20

Structured keywords

  • MGMT theme Sustainable Production and Consumption
  • sustainable shopping
  • activism
  • anti-consumerism
  • behaviour change


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