Technology is usually developed by niche industries and then re-adapted for other purposes as it becomes more accessible. The social sector has traditionally been a late adopter of technology as it often faces budget constraints and is frequently drawn to immediate problem solving. However, in the last couple of years, many nonprofits, social enterprises and sustainable companies recognized the power of not only adopting, but staying at the forefront of technological advancement to enhance operations and increase engagement.
In the past decades, social innovation has used various pioneering technologies to solve crucial challenges encompassing the optimization of resources, management efficacy, increased accessibility, community engagement and outcomes. A good example of this is the adoption of virtual reality technologies for activism, education and medical purposes.
Early in 2016, the Berkeley Animal Right Center set up a VR station outside of the Bart station. Within a couple of seconds people found themselves flying over chicken factory farms, breaking into the warehouses and walking through the isles. The technology allowed activists to bring large groups of people to see animal cruelty with their own eyes, creating awareness and gaining support for their actions against food giants.
Teachers also started bringing VR headsets to their classrooms, taking their students on extraordinary adventures across the world or even to other time periods. One of the most popular programs is Google Expeditions, which takes inner-city students to American National parks through virtual reality, bringing them closer to nature and promoting conservation. The technology allows instructors to increase student engagement, motivation and overcome budget constraints for experiential learning.
In the health industry, VR is increasingly playing a role in medical training and patient recovery. One of the most fascinating cases is the Walk Again Project, where virtual reality images responded to brainwaves created by paraplegic patients. The patients were then put into robotic legs that move along with the image seen in the headset, giving them actual agency to move. Finally, this induced interaction between brain commands, image and actual movement incited the regeneration of the nervous system and control of muscles that had been paralyzed.
Following this trend, some of the leading sustainable apparel companies have recognized the opportunity that virtual reality presents in addressing consumer behavior, production transparency and customer engagement. As emails and other advertisements overwhelm consumers, the product that the customer willingly purchases is often the best communication channel between a company and its clients. Currently, most of what buyers know about products is either written in the permanent “care tag” or the temporary “price tag”. The “care tag” tells us what country the garment was manufactured in, what materials are in it and how to clean it, and the temporary “price tag” usually indicates the cost, size and model.
However, trends indicate that the demand for sustainability information is increasing and customers expect a lot more information to make their purchasing decisions. People want to know how much water and energy is used to make something, what the raw materials are, how they are processed, who made the garment, under what conditions, the carbon footprint of transportation, how long the product should last, how it should be repaired and how to dispose it at the end of its life. But how to deliver all this information?
At the same time, companies that are truly concerned about the environment, conservation and fair trade, are interested in teaching their current and potential customers about the importance of sustainable practices, how this affects the pricing of their products, and the added value of supporting their brands. But how to inspire long-term behavioral change?
Virtual reality is a great answer to these two questions. If customers can immerse themselves in material sourcing, product manufacturing and supply chain, meeting the people involved and becoming aware of the impacts, they will generate a stronger emotional attachment to the garment, understand the value of the product and make companies accountable for their business decisions. This in turn will lead to slow-fashion, less waste creation, ethical labor conditions, low-impact production and greater demand for sustainable business. Could this idea be adapted for other industries to scale sustainability practices?
As entertaining as virtual reality can be, its use for social innovation and sustainability go far beyond entertainment. So, why not leverage the power of this and other technologies to enable better life conditions for people around the world and ensure the best use of our natural resources?