Magazin #1 | Sommer 2022
Feeding Information for Sustainability: The Green Consumption Assistant
Not having any sustainable options when buying a product online should no longer be an excuse for unsustainable consumption choices. The Green Consumption Assistant project sets out to support consumers in easily finding and buying sustain- able products – by making use of
the existing machine learning infra- structures in the retail industry.
The fundamental dilemma observed by the project team around Tilman Santarius and Maike Gossen from TU Berlin, Felix Biessmann from the Berliner Hoch schule für Technik and the green search engine Ecosia was twofold. First, people say they want to make more sustainable choices but do not act on that desire when buying products. Second, the existing machine learning tools in the retail industry could be used to make sustainable consumption decisions a lot easier, but there is a lack of essential and comprehensive data about sustainable products to feed these systems.
The solution: Building green databases and making sus tainability aspects an essential criterium for an algorithm’s automated decisionmaking. In the sphere of online shopping, automated recommender systems could then rank sus tainable products more promi nently than nonsustainable products. Transparency about such databases would likewise allow for systematic checks of what sustainability definitions and certifications are being used as the basis for a prod uct’s labeling as sustainable. That would ultimately empower consumers to make more in formed choices.
The Green Consumption Assistant addresses exactly this lack of green databases. The project team has been working on creating the GreenDB, a database containing sustain ability information for consumer goods. The GreenDB is up dated on a weekly basis and includes over 220,000 unique products from the largest online retailers in several European countries. In contrast to previous approaches to sustainabil ity databases, the GreenDB covers only products that users are interested in: Its 26 product categories, currently mostly fashion and electronics, have been selected based on a care ful analysis of the search logs of Ecosia users. The database displays information on the type of sustainability information that underlies any given product in the database – be it either more credible third-party verification or non-verified private sustainability labels. The database is used in the shopping tab of Ecosia’s search site highlighting green products and thereby possibly encouraging consumers to make more sustainable choices. The GreenDB is publicly available and has two main purposes. One is for research. The other is for improving AI applications, such as recommendations and the reliability of sustainabilty information.
Beyond the usage of the GreenDB to drive sustainable consumption, it can also help to gain new insights into the availability of sustainable infor mation on online fashion retail – and potentially infer appropriate policy changes. The relatively small ratio of only 14 percent of sustainability tagged products in the online shops of Germany’s largest fashion retail ers are labeled with credible third party verified sustainability labels. This underlines the difficulty faced by consumers in determining how sustainable a product is. The widely used private and non-certified labels prevent comparability and add con fusion and uncertainty for consum ers. More clarity and information are urgently needed, especially political initiatives tackling the risk of green washing resulting from uncertified and weak sustainability information.