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Actionable sustainability

A new app is making it easy to see and understand the impact of different foods
Actionable sustainability

This article first appeared in our World Environment Day issue of My Green Pod Magazine, published on 02 June 2022. Click here to subscribe to our digital edition and get each issue delivered straight to your inbox

Many of us want to buy food that’s better for the planet, but making informed choices isn’t always straightforward.

Farming systems, supply chains, water use, air miles and packaging are just some of the many things to consider when looking for sustainable food – and they’re not easy to analyse in a supermarket when you’re in a rush and your mind is on other things.

A good first step is to buy as much produce as possible that’s local, seasonal and organic – but for Carl Olivier, co-founder and CEO of Sustained, this approach doesn’t go far enough.

‘It may be easier to shop that way’, Carl says, ‘but given the complex nature of production processes, and the broad nature of the impacts on our environment, it’s not the best. We need to find a way to surface and translate all the underlying complexity.’

Consumers influence production

Food production causes more than one-third of all environmental damage, from CO2 emissions
to biodiversity loss. The industrial scale of the production of certain food types is driving even more damage.

‘This needs to stop’, Carl says; ‘we need to find better ways to feed ourselves as a species. If enough of us change what we eat, by choosing more environmentally friendly foods more often, the demand will change the supply. All of a sudden the saying ‘vote with your wallet’ takes on
massive significance.’

There is a wealth of evidence to support the idea that people want to buy more sustainable food; the People’s Climate Vote from the UN showed that food and the impact of food production was one of the most supported areas for investment.

Spending habits are another indicator, with annual ‘ethical’ spending and investment in the UK surpassing the £100 billion mark for the first time in 2021. This is a five-fold increase over 10 years.

‘People, on the whole, don’t want to harm the planet if they can help it’, Carl concludes. ‘The problem is that we are busy and we need help to make sense of complex processes before we can make informed decisions.’

Data transparency

The lack of clear, actionable information about the sustainability of various foods compounds the problem, especially when we consider the importance of presenting clear details to shoppers at the point of sale.

In order to help address this, producers, brands and manufacturers need to become far less opaque about the impact of their production processes.

By sharing data using industry-leading and standard frameworks – and transparently communicating the environmental impact of their products – companies can help their customers make the choices they want to make. This is good for business and for the planet.

Tech holds the key

For Carl, who has worked at Skype, Microsoft, Twilio and Zoopla, this is where technology has a key role to play. ‘We live our lives intertwined with digital experiences for almost everything – including buying our food’, he says. ‘Having seen first-hand the power technology has to help facilitate change at scale, we were inspired to create the app and the data and systems behind it, plus the tools producers need to increase their transparency.’

Building the infrastructure to allow companies to assess the environmental impact of their products at scale, in a recognisable and validated way, is essential if system-level change is to be realised in our lifetime.

These assessments are complex, based on varied and complicated supply chains and manufacturing processes.

Sustained provides the framework and the tools to translate this complexity into a form that is easy to understand and action by busy consumers. The framework uses a rating system from A (great) to G (bad) for a product. This rating is derived from a host of data used by Sustained in its calculations and assignments.

Going (well) beyond carbon

There are countless ways to assess the overall environmental impact of a product; at Sustained, the approach focuses on the ingredients used to create it.

Lifecycle assessment (LCA) frameworks and data are used to create what Carl describes as ‘the most scientific and evidence-based view of the impact that is possible today without primary data from the producers’.

The UK ratings currently available from the Sustained app are estimates due to the use of background LCA modelling, which uses the typical or average impacts for foods and ingredient production practices. The goal is to change that over time by working with brands to provide actual ratings for products.

The Sustained ratings framework covers the entire environmental spectrum by looking at a number of impact categories: climate change, land use, water scarcity, resource use, damage to plants and animals and human health.

The Sustained system also assigns additional information icons, including ‘local product’ and ‘low greenhouse gas emissions’. There are plans to add ‘no plastic packaging’ and ‘seasonal food’ as well.

Sustained was built to be as easy to download and use as possible, so the current version has no. registration or log-in requirements. The flip side is that there is no scope to personalise the app to reflect what sustainability means to different users, but that is something that could change.

‘People do indeed care about different parts of sustainability’, Carl acknowledges, ‘so in future we will provide personalisation options – such as the ability to indicate which impact categories matter most to them – so we can tailor each user’s experience more specifically.’

The provision of alternatives and swap options – a key ask from Sustained app’s users – will also be added soon.

How to make a difference

Price, availability and quality are the three most considered factors when making purchasing decisions. This won’t change, and Carl is not advocating for that; instead he wants to introduce a fourth dimension to the standard decision-making process: that of sustainability.

‘Of course, in many cases price will still be the main consideration’, he accepts, ‘but by making the additional sustainability information readily available, we are allowing for trade offs to be made where possible.’

The app, and similar uses of the ratings system, grants quick and easy access to the most sustainable options on the supermarket shelf.

Most things in life require some level of compromise, and people will be better equipped to make decisions if they can trust the information used to make them.

‘At the heart of it, we want the Sustained app to empower people to contribute to how we live in a meaningful, positive way’, Carl explains. ‘Ultimately, I believe this is not going to be something any single audience or actor will be able to solve alone. Consumption and production are intrinsically linked; regulation will help, but not fast enough.’

Instead we need to ensure that there is near-term and long-term value to being more sustainable, and to be more transparent about the state of our products. For that, all parties involved in the lifecycle of a product will need to play their part.

‘This is a journey’, Carl reflects. ‘We have only just started, and we will need help from a multitude of people and organisations along the way. Science is evolving, and technology is being created to facilitate this at scale. With that in mind, we will always strive to be open and transparent about the way in which we assess impact. At the heart of it, we want Sustained to empower people and businesses to make more sustainable choices based on evidence in a way that provides them and others with real value’.

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