Alberta tech startup is combating climate change and social inequality one purchase at a time

Alberta tech startup is combating climate change and social inequality one purchase at a time

December 8, 2020

Caught in the wake of information overload, we are constantly bombarded with news about seemingly endless global issues—social, political, environmental, to name a few. Accompanying this information is the implication that we must take drastic measures to turn this ship around.

It is, without a doubt, everyone’s duty to participate in the fight for a better world. But, inextricably linked to this effort is the question of how much change can realistically be brought about at the individual level. Starbucks’ commitment to removing plastic straws from all of its stores globally is anticipated to save over one billion straws each year. In comparison, an individual’s commitment to halting the use of plastic straws makes seemingly no difference at all.

So who is going to make the changes we so desperately need to ensure the longevity of a cleaner and safer world? Can anyone enact real change and make a positive difference on an individual level? Or are climate change and social inequality really so vast that it’s going to take the world’s largest players to make any sort of difference?

Maybe the answer is less complex than we imagined. Maybe the answer is, plain and simply, both. It’s come time for individuals to do better and hold businesses accountable for the same.

It’s no secret that technology has enabled the democratization of information. With consumers learning more about the corporations supplying the products and services we consume, many want better, kinder and more transparent business practices—and rightfully so. But how can we make sure that every time we buy something (or as often as possible), we’re supporting brands that are doing good by the planet and the people?

Enter Arbor, a Calgary-based tech startup that developed a clever product to address exactly this issue at Alberta’s first ever open finance hackathon hosted by ATB Ventures.

Arbor: Working with the earth to shelter us from the heat

Behind Arbor is a small and mighty six-member team passionately developing products for the future. A competitive force in the Fintech startup space, Arbor went on to win first place at Microsoft’s Discover AI Challenge in 2020 after securing a spot in the top three at ATB’s open finance hackathon in February.

At the hackathon, teams took on some of the toughest challenges facing humanity today, including: environmental sustainability, mental and physical health, and financial wellness. When asked which challenge the team was inspired by, Alex Todorovic, CEO at Arbor, summarized the team’s ambition: “In true Arbor fashion, we decided to try and tackle all of the challenges with one singular app,” adding that, “the team’s main focus was sustainability; But, executing it in a way that it could be applied across many different industries and ways of life.”

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Developing their product in ATB Ventures’ API sandbox, Arbor impressed the judges with a revolutionary mobile application in less than 48 hours. The team describes their unique product offering simply as “an application that showcases how well your transactions align with your values.”

Arbor demonstrates that, by blindly supporting certain businesses, we unconsciously make a broader impact on the world around us through our individual consumption habits. Thankfully, Arbor also educates us about how and where we can consume more mindfully and intentionally.

Fast forward to today, the team has launched an Arbor browser extension with plans of releasing a full mobile application in the second quarter of 2021.

How does Arbor work?

Enabling and encouraging consumers to make purchasing decisions rooted in ethics, Arbor makes shopping more sustainably simple. How? By collecting and presenting information about which companies align with your individual values—and which don’t—based on 22 different categories including: environmental emissions, hiring diversity, and fair labor compensation.

As a user, all you have to do is download and install the browser extension on your favorite browser, surf the web as you normally would, and Arbor takes care of the rest.

By assigning a score—called the Arbor Index—to companies based on four categories (governance, social responsibility, environmental impact, and size/locality), Arbor equips you with information to discover your impact; But, most importantly, it empowers you to alter your consumption habits by providing suggestions for more ethical and responsible alternatives. And it doesn’t stop there. The team at Arbor is serious about removing barriers to ethical consumption, offering discounts and coupons to save you money at highly rated companies that align with your values.

Take, for example, a fashion student who prioritizes safe working conditions. Let’s call him Jeremiah. When Jeremiah buys a wool coat from a Canadian retailer—let’s call it Company X— Arbor gathers and shares data about its supply chain practices and evaluates them against Jeremiah’s core values (which he would have entered upon downloading the browser extension). This evaluation scores Company X anywhere from 0-100 based on multiple factors such as environmental impact, diversity of the leadership team, wage transparency, size and locality, among others. All the while, Arbor leverages AI to prioritize factors that resonate most strongly with Jeremiah’s value set.

If Company X’s factories don’t measure up to industry health and safety standards, or fall short under any of the evaluated categories, Arbor will suggest alternative retailers that better address Jeremiah’s concerns about the fashion industry. For Jeremiah, this application replaces the lengthy brand research process that a busy student doesn’t have time to conduct on a regular basis.

Why are we so excited?

Nav Dhunay, ATB’s Managing Director of Innovation, explains that "Arbor is collecting insights into consumers' spending that they've never had before and putting them right into the palm of their hands." He adds that “during Covid-19 there has been a real push to buy local and buy sustainable. I really like that Arbor is focused on that.”

It’s true; The global community is pushing brands to act more responsibly on multiple fronts such as labour rights, environmental impact, and diverse representation. This trend towards brand accountability is exhibited by initiatives such as the 15% pledge. Pioneered by Canadian fashion designer Aurora James, this pledge calls on major retailers in Canada and the US to represent brands on their shelves proportionately to the diversity of each country’s population. The 15% pledge’s success to date is proof that putting pressure on businesses to do the right thing is necessary to drive immediate change, and that we as consumers are willing to apply that pressure.

Arbor is a robust example of how AI and technology can be used for good. They can be leveraged to bring power back into the hands of consumers and instil hope for a longer, cleaner future for humanity. And that’s exactly what we need right now.

When can we hit download?

The short answer is: Sooner rather than later.

The long answer is: The Arbor team is planning to release a full mobile application in the second quarter of 2021 but for now, their browser extension has just launched and is available in the Chrome store. Abdullah Choudhry—Arbor’s visionary— offers an insight, sharing that this extension “enables users to identify how they support virtual businesses; whether it’s how they spend time online (on freemium companies’ sites like Facebook and Twitter) or where they’re shopping. It also provides alternatives within the same categories that better align with the user’s values.”

It’s time to get ethical about our consumption habits.

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