20 pledges for 2020: Could technology help make me shop more sustainably online?

Truly ethical and sustainable beauty brands aren’t easy to find. Can Jessica Jones go a whole year without using anything else?

Tuesday 10 November 2020 15:44
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Young adults prefer online shopping because 'it's easier than going to the store' 
Young adults prefer online shopping because 'it's easier than going to the store' 

A week ago, I walked into Holland and Barrett and I realised that it was the first time I had actually purchased something from a physical store in months. Even before Covid happened I usually only shopped online, especially for sustainable products which are harder to find in supermarkets or high street shops. 

Hardly ground-breaking news or a significant revelation in terms of my sustainability pledge, but it did make me think. 

How has an increase in tech, data and digital affected our beauty and personal care habits? Are we more or less sustainable when we buy online? Could AI (artificial intelligence) and machine learning pave a way to positively impact people to make better environmental choices? In a post-pandemic world are people looking for more purpose-driven, sustainably focused businesses?

Lockdown has forced more people to shop online, many for the first time. The ease, convenience and safety of it is ensured by the fact that you can buy almost anything you like from the relative comfort of your sofa, making it a no-brainer for a lot of people who are self-isolating, shielding or, like me, just generally lazy.

The relationship between beauty and sustainability is a difficult one, laden with many issues such as animal testing, packaging and waste, overconsumption and the use of toxic ingredients and high inefficiency in manufacturing processes. To me, online beauty could go one of two ways. 

Negatively, it might result in an increase in overconsumption of products; with the satisfying sense of ease and instant gratification that comes with online shopping also comes the risk of getting click-happy and buying far more than we actually need. 

With second lockdowns already here and looking imminent for more areas of the UK, people might begin stockpiling the essentials again, perhaps this time online as they avoid the stress and possible danger of shopping in person. More online orders means more packaging for deliveries, and more carbon emissions as the products have to travel to be delivered.

Yet, there is also the potential for drastic change. A defining trend of 2020 has been the rise in conscious consumerism. Customers are also beginning to demand full transparency, and this is reflected in the number of brands who now provide the full ingredient list of their products. 

A new trend, ‘blue beauty’, specifically addresses the impact that the industry is having on our oceans, such as the vast amount of plastic pollution it causes, the use of toxic and coral-bleaching chemicals, and the harvesting of squalene, seaweed and other marine elements. 

New brands have already sprung up in reaction to this trend: Biossance is an American brand which uses biotechnology to create 100% sugarcane-derived squalane, which is an ethically and sustainably sourced alternative to squalene - an organic compound found in the liver of sharks. Its production is estimated to kill an estimated three million sharks every year. 

Established brands, such as Ren Clean Skincare, have adapted. REN uses post-consumer recycled plastic which is designed for circular recycling and they have pledged to become zero waste by 2021. 

Online shopping offers endless choice and search engines an easier way to find exactly what you are looking for, perhaps leading people to explore new lesser-known brands  with whose purpose they identify.

Social media influencers have a big effect on our shopping habits thanks to their product endorsements and the success of platforms like Instagram in integrating affiliate links and e-commerce into their apps. Sustainable brands are using this data to effectively target younger consumers with their advertising. 

AI suggestions and machine learning looks at your browsing history to cater your online shopping experience especially to you and your interests. AR (augmented reality) technology like Perfect Corp, Olay’s Skin Advisor and Estee Lauder’s foundation finder can now let you digitally ‘try on’ makeup or hair styles and identify skin “problems” before providing you with solutions. 

E-commerce companies are recognising that a highly personalised experience has a higher success rate in selling. It may also have an allure for the environment; customers are more likely to purchase a product which they know they will use and enjoy. So, instead of overconsumption, we as consumers will end up with products that better fit our needs and preferences.

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