Planning Your App

Apps for Impact: The top UK apps for sustainability and net zero

Pocketworks

By Tobin Harris
Managing Director, Pocketworks
February 11, 2024
Updated March 18, 2024

Apps for Impact: The top UK apps for sustainability and net zero
Plant Motif Leaf

Apps are well known for their ability to engage consumers and introduce new behaviours. In this article, you can find the top sustainable apps in the UK and their varied business models. 

This article is written for people who work in organisations that care about sustainability and are considering developing apps to create positive change. The goal is to give you inspiration and insight to help you develop and grow your own app.

This article was inspired by the awesome Leeds GreenTech Gathering, which I started going to back in November 2023. I spoke to many friendly people, all passionate about using technology and behavioural change to reduce carbon emissions and advance towards Net Zero. It's a mammoth task, and I immediately pondered: 

"How are apps helping?"

Please note that this post is a work in progress; I'll add more apps to the analysis throughout 2024. I would keenly welcome your feedback on apps I've missed or data that looks dodgy. Right, let's get into the data.

Thirty three impactful apps

Below is a list of the apps that I've looked at so far. It's not conclusive or comprehensive; instead, it's a peek into the world of apps that aim to help people form better habits or make better buying decisions.

What drives people to use these apps?

As you know, the most successful apps help people get a job done. It might be as simple as ordering a taxi or as complex as learning a new language. Apps that facilitate sustainability are no different. Below, I have attempted to categorise the list of apps by why people use them. In other words, I've taken a stab at the main "job to be done" to see how many downloads apps are getting based on the need they fulfil. 

Here's what the labels mean:

  • Give stuff away: you could argue this could also be called "get free stuff.". It includes apps that enable us to reduce waste and production volume.
  • Lease stuff: a personal favourite. It's all about giving people an opportunity to borrow stuff rather than buy it.
  • Develop ecohabits: Some apps are all about helping people develop better habits, such as recycling.
  • Eat vegan: for people looking to eat less meat.
  • Buy used clothes: this could have been called buy used, but clothes seem to be a special case as there are so many apps in this category.
  • Buy sustainable energy for home utilities such as gas and electricity.

It may also be useful to see them by app store category:

Service first, impact second?

Here's an observation, or perhaps a hypothesis. The service or utility of an app is more important than the positive impact it generates. Let me explain. As mentioned above, when you develop an app, it's typically to help someone get a job done in the moment. E.g., buying clothes. Apps that offer a great experience and solve a pressing problem for the consumer tend to win. This rule seems to equally apply to impactful apps too. So, if you're developing an app in the green tech or net-zero space, your task is to make sure you solve a real problem for your audience and do that in a nice way. With this thinking, sustainability is secondary; it's the icing on the cake. I recently read that:

By 2030, every product will be a climate product. -- Connect Earth

There is something in this view. Sustainability is becoming a must-have. We already know that consumers prefer to buy from sustainable companies—so much so that it influences their buying decisions. Is it possible that every app will be an impactful one?

One exception is when your audience is people trying to change their habits. If that's the "job to be done," then of course your app is more about impact than service. However, I suspect this is a small market, which is why habit-forming apps aren't so popular. 

People love cheap and free stuff 

No sh*t, Sherlock. The most successful types of apps right now are ones that get people stuff for free or at a low cost. The positive thing here is that it reduces waste and, potentially, requires less manufacturing due to a thriving used market. 

Chart topping Too Good to Go achieves 200,000 monthly UK downloads and has had over 10,000,000 UK downloads in total. Sam at GreenTech Gathering told me that this company was founded in Leeds, not far from Pocketworks HQ 🔥 

Olio is another brilliant success story, with 50,000 monthly UK downloads and 3 million in total.

Wasted food is a significant problem because producing less food would drastically reduce global emissions.

Wasted food, that which is produced and not eaten, is an emissions source the size of India -- Nathaniel Bullard

It seems the clothing waste problem is a big one, too:

"Around 50 full trailers of unwanted clothing go into UK landfill sites every single day." -- Source?

I'm curious to see if there are more categories where this model would work.

Too Good to Go is also ranking at position 52 in the UK at the time of writing, which puts it just ahead of the NHS App and one behind KFC.

Freegle, reGAIN, and Thrift+ haven't quite managed to achieve the same levels of success, but they focus on a similar use case.

Renewable Energy is in demand

This shows the popularity of sustainable energy providers in the UK. According to the national grid, about 47% of UK households use renewable energy providers. Despite this, Gas and Coal are at their highest levels of usage ever.

Both Octopus and Ovo are also seeing good numbers. Octopus is achieving almost double the downloads as Ovo, but both of these are in the top 10% of all apps I analysed.

For those that are interested, about 40% of UK electricity comes from renewables (5% of that is biomass, which isn't as green as wind, solar, and hydro are).

In Europe, investment in Energy beats Software, and Climate Tech accounts for 10% of global Private Equity  and Venture Captical investments. 

Should you build an impactful app?

Right now, I haven't reached a conclusion. A few thoughts:

  • Are you helping someone solve an urgent need or pressing desire? These apps tend to do well, whether it's getting some food or buying some clothes. 
  • Does your service offer high perceived value? You might be more convenient than competitors, or lower cost, or simply offer superior service.
  • Leasing and sharing-economy apps fit the bill here. For example, I love how Fat Lama allows me to rent an expensive microphone locally to record a song with. I'm avoiding having to spend £3K on a mic.
  • Marketplaces in general seem to do well (leasing, selling, and gifting) in this space. Are you connecting people and creating a win for all sides?
  • Apps designed to create ecohabits seem slightly harder to break through with; few seem to have high downloads. The Ecosia browser is an exception to this, with over 200,000 downloads globally each month. Treekly and Refill have very clear messaging and purpose with "turning footsteps into forests" and "live with less plastic.". They still haven't got mass adoption, but perhaps you don't need it?
  • Energy apps are used by people to manage their accounts. I need to do more research to understand why people buy those accounts in the first place. The sceptic in me thinks it's to save money.

What app do you think should be on here?

If I missed anything, feel free to find me on LinkedIn and make a suggestion. You're feedback, ideas, and corrections are all welcome.

P.S. Thanks to:

  • Martin Right for bringing By Rotation to my attention on LinkedIn
  • Greentech Gathering for mentioning Waze
  • Robert Allen for mentioning WeAre8, Treeapp, Gridcarbon, Depop and Hive. I couldn't find apps for Cushon and Tred but they are worth a look too. 

P.S. What's in-scope or out-of-scope?

With over 40 taxonomies for describing this space, it's been a little challenging to get my head around it. However, right now, here are the areas I've covered:

  • Ethical Shopping
  • Carbon Footprint Tracking
  • Waste Reduction
  • Eco-Friendly Transport
  • Car Sharing
  • Plastic Waste
  • Sustainable Food Choices
  • Sustainable Fashion
  • Renewable Energy For Homes

A few areas I need to cover more in the future:

  • Smart Home Devices
  • Smart Home Energy Reduction
  • Eco-Friendly Packaging
  • Green Investment

I also debated whether to cover apps from companies that are making strides in sustainability. For example, Transport for London is using more and more green energy to power its network. However, to keep this simple, I decided to focus on companies that are more directly linked to sustainability. It's a tough one, and I'll probably revisit it.

P.S. Apps covered in this report

Name Summary
Too Good to Go End food waste
Waze Make environmentally concious travel choices
Depop Buy and sell clothing
Vinted Buy pre-loved clothes
Olio Share more, waste less
Ovo Energy Reduce bills and carbon footprint
ZipCar Cars on demand
Ecosia Browse to plant trees
We Are 8 Social network for positive impact
Octopus Energy Renewable Energy
Forest Sustainable bikes hire
By Rotation The worlds largest shared wardrobe
Happy Cow Find vegan food
Freegle Don't throw it away, give it away
Refill Live with less plastic
Good on You Ethical fashion
Thrift+ Preloved fashion marketplace
Treeapp Plant trees for free
My Impact Connect with volunteers
Triodos Bank Savings and investments with impact
Treekly Turn footsteps into forests
Fat Lama Rent belongings to people nearby
Storey Wardrobe Share style
Lifeshare Companion Save the planet by car sharing
NoWaste Food inventory list
Giki Badges (Impact Score) Understand what you're buying
Earth Hero Take climate action collectively
JouleBug Develop habits for sustainability
Ailuna Ecohabits with impact
Scrapp Recycling made simple
reGAIN App Recycle clothes and get discount coupons
GridCarbon Track the grid intensity

About Pocketworks

Pocketworks design, develop and scale mobile apps for sustainable brands. We help them create organic customer growth and maximise top-line revenue. Tap into our education, consultancy and app development services.

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