The issue of letting consumers understand the environmental and social impact of their purchases was the main focus of the “EcoWidgy” project, initiated by a Berlin-based team during the 2019 Collabathon for the Open Climate Platform, with the participation of Open Source Lab. The 6-member team suggested the creation of a browser extension that indicates useful statistics related to the users purchases, such as the carbon dioxide emissions that are related to the manufacturing of the products.
The vision of the project is to form consumer awareness. Additionally, the increased consumer awareness may be reformed to a demand towards companies to increase the transparency of the production, including aspects such as their life-cycle assessment, their supply chains and their materials flow. The idea was included in the collaborative platform of the hackathon and attracted the interest of another 20 contributors in Paris, Yale and Los Angeles, who developed the concepts and several prototypical components of the software.
The contribution includes:
the development of the original idea which was submitted as a Collabathon task at the CoMakery (the communication tool of the Collabathon), which motivated two more teams to follow-up with ideas and contributions
research and brainstorming on the motivation, the state of the art and possible data sources
a pitch presentation summarizing the main concept
a wireframe prototype for the front-end (browser add-on) including the user journey (see below)
a back-end server prototype based on real data, able to present CO2 emissions for the manufacturing of specific product categories (see below)
Concept and User Experience
An extension (or add-on) can be installed by the user on their browser. When the user is browsing the page of a product in an online shop, this extension can produce a widget (or pop-up) which displays one or more aspects of the environmental impact related to buying this product.
The first image below indicates a mock-up widget that is displayed in the case of a user that is browsing the Amazon shop for buying a soap bar. The has identified the type of the product and displayed the CO2 emissions per 100g of soap. Then the user can see a link for the sources and the original database, as well as useful information about the production of the soap.
The following images indicate the functionality of an extended app, where additional features are considered. These features are subject to availability of data.
Calculation of the environmental impact
The current version is based the LCAcommons database provided by the US Authorities. This database contains the byproducts of the manufacturing process for several product categories (e.g. soap products, dairy, telephony devices etc.). Among the byproducts one can see fluid, soil and air outputs, and most importantly the CO2 emissions, which are considered crucial for their impact to the heating of the planet. For many product categories, the database provides the mass of emissions (in kg) that were emitted proportionally to one dollar of product (based on the Producer Price Index of 2013).
The current implementation has been provided in order to achieve a minimum viable product given the goals, the restricted time-frame of the hackathon and the available resources. After long research, one can conclude that the exact carbon footprint per single product is an unsolvable problem. It appears that supply chains are severely intransparent, and even the retail companies are unable to trace the exact path of their products from the original material through the whole manufacturing process. Disclosing this or any relevant information to the consumers remains yet another additional challenge. For this reason, detailed supply chain data are difficult to find and process.
The LCA databases seem a good approximation to the problem. Nevertheless, there are also several issues here:
Detailed LCA databases are provided through a highly costly license fee, which was not payable as part of this development
The publicly available LCA database only provides data on a level of product category (e.g. soap products). Therefore, it is at the moment not possible to compare different variations of the same product, or even different products of the same category (shampoo vs. soap).
LCAcommons also provides emissions related to the produce price of the product at the manufacturing stage. Resolving the real producer price of the product given its name remain as challenge and we only provide here a rough calculation.