In the first year of the Trump presidency, people under the wide blanket of “the resistance” have been casting about for ways to take a stance and make an impact. “Voting with your wallet” is one of the most accessible ways to do so–ethical banking institutions like Aspiration, which invests in clean energy and sustainability projects, are gaining traction as alternatives to big banks like Wells Fargo, and the #GrabYourWallet movement calls out companies to boycott over their ties to the Trump administration.
But even if you’re determined to shop ethically, and support only companies who source and manufacture sustainably while treating their employees well, you’d be forgiven for having neither the time nor the energy to perform a thorough audit before each purchase you make. A new startup, Impakt, wants to do that work for you, through a browser extension that pulls up detailed information about a brand before you get going on the checkout process, and offers up comparable products with a stronger ethical profile.
Cofounders Ridge Montes and Jonathan Hecht, who met through a mutual friend and started working together the day before the inauguration in January, have developed an algorithm that compiles and scripts a large swath of data sourced from publicly available sources like the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, CSRHub, the Global Reporting Initiative, and the Carbon Disclosure Project. Impakt will eventually work across all e-commerce sites–both boutique brand sites, as well as aggregators like Amazon. Tiny mom-and-pop shops, Hecht says, will be more difficult to fold into the algorithm because publicly available data is scant, but “the fact that it’s a tiny mom-and-pop shop is informative in its own way,” he says.
Every time you add a product to an online shopping cart, the Impakt extension will pull up relevant data on the brand. It will flag if, for example, a manufacturer underpays its workers, sends its waste to landfill, or supported Trump in the 2016 election. Users will then be able to click through to see alternatives, either on the same site, if on something like Amazon, or elsewhere, if shopping a particular brand’s e-commerce site.
Impakt launched a Kickstarter on September 27, with hopes to be fully launched by March of 2018. By then, Hecht says, the algorithm will be able to assess a product with around 85% accuracy. (He’s anticipating some errors along the lines of the algorithm misinterpreting a piece of Miami Dolphins merchandise, and generating data about dolphins being harmed by the fishing industry.) As Impakt’s user base grows, Hecht adds, the accuracy will only improve, as users will be able to report errors, or flag brands that aren’t included in the algorithm.
Impakt is far from the only tool out there to support ethical purchasing: Aspiration tracks purchases made through an individual’s checking account, and feeds them back an “Aspiration Impact Management” score, which rates companies on how they treat their employees and the environment; DoneGood, another browser extension, flags ethical and sustainable products in search and on aggregator sites, and often includes discount codes for those products. “But when it comes to actually getting people to change their minds and their behavior, the current market options were way too high-friction,” Hecht says. Aspiration informs users of their impact only after the purchase, and in the carrot-and-stick equation, DoneGood only serves up the carrot of ethical companies. By flagging problematic companies and teasing to more ethical and sustainable alternatives in the same extension, Impakt, Hecht says, is aiming to make the whole process smoother and easier.
And in the process, Montes adds, the startup will be collecting some compelling data. “We will be able to determine, through our users’ behavior, price elasticity–how much more are customers willing to pay for an ethical product?” Montes says. “Then we can go to these companies that are trying to cut corners and say look, if you stop cutting those corners you’ll still make money.”
While Impakt will be free, the startup will also offer a premium subscription-based model that will give users a deeper dive into companies, and how their practices have evolved over time. A premium subscription is one of the prizes on their Kickstarter, which Montes and Hecht are hopeful will raise enough funds to carry them through the launch. Hecht and Montes made the decision not to beta test Impakt before rolling out their Kickstarter. “Part of the story of our brand is that we want to be as democratic as possible from start to finish,” Montes says. The founders add that they want to see their user base grow organically out of a community of people who are interested in the information delivered through the product, and want to use it to inform how they shop.