Augmented reality sustainability: 6 strategies every brand needs to try

By Matthew Wagaine

While COVID-19 has dominated the headlines for the past two years, infectious disease is not the biggest problem we face right now. According to the United Nations, the climate crisis significantly escalated in 2020 and 2021. But, a report by the organisation that will only be released later in 2022 apparently says that “the worst is yet to come.” 

If it wasn’t obvious before, last year’s extreme weather events have made it clear that, when it comes to saving the planet from irreversible environmental damage, time is running out. In the words of the former General Assembly President María Fernanda Espinosa Garcés, we have less than 10 years to “avert catastrophe.” 

Young people, who will see the worst aspects of climate change materialise, are especially worried and proactive when it comes to mitigation. Not only are they adopting a more eco-friendly lifestyle, but they are also campaigning for brands to use more sustainable practices in their business models. 

The good news is that companies are listening. As many as 90% of executives believe that sustainability is crucial. The bad news is that only 6 in 10 businesses have a sustainability strategy in place. 

While brands know that they must make an effort to become more sustainable so as to stay in favour with customers, in reality, doing so may seem like a challenging goal. But it doesn’t have to be. 

Even taking small steps, like offering customers virtual try-on solutions, can have a huge impact on how much waste a company produces. But that’s just one example. The truth is that augmented reality (AR) can be a powerful tool for any brand that is determined to cut down on its environmental impact and promote sustainability.

Here are some of the ways that AR can help. Either one (or all) of the six augmented reality sustainability options below will help you go green. 

1. Virtual try-ons

The unfortunate truth is that, overall, the fashion and beauty industries are environmentally unsustainable.

The beauty industry alone is responsible for around 120 billion units of packaging a year globally. Yet packaging is just one part of the problem. Unsold or returned products and unused beauty and clothing items sitting in customers’ bathrooms and wardrobes are also contributing to the cosmetics and beauty industries’ waste. 

Through personalisation, retailers can reduce the amount of waste that they produce. 

Technologies like AR, virtual try-ons, and evidence-based skin analyses give brands new ways to personalise their customers’ experiences. Businesses can digitally guide customers to the best products for them, which not only increases the conversion rate and customer satisfaction but also reduces returns and overconsumption. 

For instance, the AR try-on experience we worked on for the makeup brand NYX Professional Makeup allowed users to try on different lipstick shades from their Lip Lingerie XXL range through Instagram face filters. 

With some stores still wary of reintroducing makeup testers and fewer people willing to use them anyways, the AR try-on provided an alternative way for customers to figure out which lipstick shade suited them without having to buy multiple lipsticks. 

On the other hand, the AR visualisation element we designed for Speedo enabled shoppers at physical Speedo stores to “put on” swimming goggles via magic mirrors. 

Sales assistants at Speedo stores with this functionality no longer had to open goggles’ packaging to let customers try them on and then replace the packaging if a customer decided that the goggles don’t suit them after all. 

2. Product visualisation

Research indicates that online purchases are almost three times as likely to be sent back compared to items bought in-store. The environmental consequences of this are dire. In the US, every year, returns generate 15 million tonnes of carbon emissions and 5 billion pounds of waste. 

AR-enabled product visualisation helps mitigate this problem. Thanks to product visualisation, shoppers can see how items, from notebooks to coffee tables to pet beds, would look like in their environment. 

Customers who can better gauge whether a product will suit their homes or lifestyles are less likely to make bad purchases and, in turn, less likely to return products. Having to transport fewer goods means that retailers can use less fuel. The result is reduced CO2 emissions. Furthermore, the fewer returns retailers have to deal with, the less plastic packaging they have to use and dispose of. 

A business that is well known for its product visualisation is IKEA. With its IKEA Place app, shoppers can view furniture and home decor through AR right in their home before buying. 

3. Face filters

Now, more than ever, customers are interested in the impact that their purchases have on the environment

Almost 1 in 3 consumers say that they have stopped buying specific products or even brands due to their poor sustainability practices. However, a similar number admits that a lack of information is preventing them from figuring out which brands have ethical values. 

Augmented reality face filters are an excellent way for beauty brands to educate their prospective clients about everything they do to positively impact the environment through sustainability. 

For example, we recently partnered with the cosmetics brand Kiehl’s to design a “Mr Bones Pore Excavator” AR TikTok effect. As part of the effect, users could “dig out” items out of their skin — a reference to the “sustainable” excavation of raw materials that are used to make all of Kiehl’s products.

4. Augmented world effects

In addition to filters, companies can also use augmented world effects to demonstrate the impact we have on our environment. 

SUPR (Single-Use Plastic Reduction), a partnership between Oceanic Global, Nexus, and Accenture, is committed to addressing single-use plastic waste in sports stadiums. 

However, instead of using traditional methods to educate individuals, the partnership opted for an augmented world effect. Augmented world effects add AR effects to a person’s surroundings. 

The effect involved a virtual ocean scene that was annotated with relevant facts and statistics to bring individuals’ attention to the impact of plastic waste in the ocean.

On the other hand, the environmental documentary film Eating Our Way to Extinction (EOWTE), in which Kate Winslet narrates the ecological and environmental repercussions of the food industry on our planet, used an AR world effect for promotional purposes at the film’s premiere.  

Upon entering the building where the documentary was to be screened, guests were prompted to scan a QR code with their smartphones. Doing so triggered a 3D earth skull logo, which they could resize, rotate, and take a picture with. They could then share the photo with their friends and followers on social media, thus further spreading the message. 

5. Gamification

For an even more interactive experience, companies can create augmented reality games that make learning about sustainability fun. 

EcoGotchi, developed by the Salzburg University of Applied Science, is an imitation of Tamagotchi, a digital pet game that became one of the most popular toys in the late 90s and early 2000s. With the original Tamagotchi, users spent hours of their time “caring” for their digital creature. With EcoGotchi, players are instead inspired to lead a greener lifestyle. 

In the EcoGotchi version, the location-based, mixed reality game features a colourful pet that “inhabits” a user’s smartphone and that must be “fed” as much CO2 as possible for it to grow. 

augmented reality sustainability
EcoGotchi, a sustainable version of Tamagotchi

However, for users, acquiring CO2 to feed their pets isn’t so easy. Indeed, players have to partake in sustainable practices, like purchasing local or fair trade groceries and other goods, choosing more sustainable modes of transport (such as taking a train, riding a bike, or walking), and learning about sustainability before they can feed their pets.

6. Image tracking

Every year, the average person throws away an estimated 37kg of clothes, and every second, the equivalent of a rubbish truck worth of textiles ends up in a landfill. Less than 1% of the material that clothes are made of is recycled into new garments. 

Unsurprisingly, interest in sustainable fashion is growing among both consumers and retailers. Brands are increasingly offering shoppers access to their own second-hand marketplaces and coming out with sustainable clothing lines.

But there’s one brand that is doing something a little different. Last year, the Ukrainian fashion company FINCH released an AR clothing line — the first one in the world. As the metaverse comes closer to reality, we will likely see more brands doing the same. 

Enhanced with image tracking technology, the clothing pieces from FINCH’s AR collection feature 3D animations visible in virtual reality that users can activate by scanning a QR code. 

Because each piece can have various different animations, users can continually “upgrade” their garments. This means that they are less likely to get bored of their clothes and, as a result, less likely to throw them out, too. 

Besides clothing, paper waste is also concerning. Each year in the US, individuals and businesses throw out about 1 billion trees worth of paper. While recycling can help, only 66% of paper used in the US was recycled in 2020

One way around using paper is switching over to digital instead. For example, rather than handing out paper flyers, businesses can ask customers to activate them through a QR code printed onto a wall, table, or shelf. 

Likewise, food and drink producers can use AR-enhanced labels to minimise the amount of packaging they use. 

Similarly, restaurants can enhance their menus with AR elements or even offer customers menus that are entirely in AR.

We collaborated with the Mexican-style street food restaurant Wahaca to augment their paper menus. Diners can scan the menu with their smartphone to see additional information about the food, including where it was sourced and other sustainability practices.

Augmented reality sustainability in 2022

When it comes to AR, many businesses initially only see the technology as a way to better engage their customers and surpass their competitors.

However, as demonstrated above, through features like virtual try-ons and augmented world effects, AR also has great potential to reduce a brand’s environmental impact and educate customers about the consequences of climate change and their own sustainability practices. 

Want to use AR to help make sustainability a core goal in your 2022 business strategy? Reach out to us today, and we’ll help you choose the best augmented reality sustainability options for your brand. Your customers will thank you. 

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