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Designing sustainable food

This tech company makes it easier to design, manufacture and choose more sustainable foods
Katie Hill - Editor-in-Chief, My Green Pod
Lab experts checking data on a clipboard and laptop

This article first appeared in our COP28 issue of My Green Pod Magazine, published 30 November 2023. Click here to subscribe to our digital edition and get each issue delivered straight to your inbox

At current trends, the world faces a food system collapse in the next 50 years.

We know we can’t continue on the path we’re on and our buying habits are shifting in response.

Today’s shoppers say sustainability is a core factor when they make purchasing decisions, and 84% of customers feel that poor environmental practices will alienate them from a brand or company.

Yet finding sustainable food options isn’t always easy; in a recent pan-European EIT Food survey conducted by Ipsos, two-thirds of respondents said they believe food brands pretend their products are more sustainable than they really are.

Greenwash is indeed rife in the food sector yet it’s not always malicious in nature; businesses often don’t have accurate information to inform green claims and can instead focus on popular (though often misguided) strategies.

The challenge for businesses

‘Businesses face similar challenges to shoppers’, says Carl Olivier, co-founder and CEO of tech startup Sustained. ‘They too need trustworthy information if they are to accurately measure the impact of their products and the connected value chains. This is a complex problem, with challenges ranging from the availability of reliable, relevant data to the standardised, harmonised methodologies for accurate measurement.’

Without the right information or methodology for measuring it, companies can’t credibly report or market their products’ environmental impact – and shoppers have no hope, even when the will to make more sustainable choices is there.

‘Identifying sustainable food is very difficult, almost impossible’, accepts Carl. ‘Shoppers can end up relying on the ‘facts’ to which they are more generally exposed – many of which are just downright incorrect. Agency of choice is only really possible when the facts are made readily available at the time of decision; we need environmental impact – at a product level – to be displayed alongside price, quality and availability’, he explains.

Sustainable food made possible

Carl co-founded Sustained in a bid to promote transparency in the food sector; the platform helps to take the guesswork out of sustainable food shopping with eco-labels that display a simple A-G rating for a food product’s overall environmental impact, considering the damage potential from a range of categories including climate, water, land and pollution.

The platform also helps brands and manufacturers to more effectively communicate their targets, progress and overall sustainability.

‘This is key to ensuring trustworthy information about the environmental impact of the brands and products people choose between’, Carl explains.

While these are useful aids for quick decisions, Sustained was created to facilitate the design of more environmentally friendly products over time, which will translate into a better range of options for shoppers.

In the long term, this should in turn put an end to the production and consumption of the most environmentally damaging products.

No silver bullet

Regulation and consumer demand for transparency will mean that some time soon, every physical product will require a continuous Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) that evaluates the environmental impacts associated with all the stages of a product’s life – from raw material extraction to materials processing, manufacture, distribution and use.

Companies that act to address this need for transparency and environmental impact reduction will be well placed in the competitive landscape of the future.

Currently thousands of manual LCAs are conducted each year; in the next five years this will need to be in the hundreds of millions – yet today’s manual LCA processes are just not up to the task.

‘LCAs only reflect one moment and therefore decay over time’, Carl explains. ‘This means we really need to be able to LCA everything we produce, all the time. The current LCA focus on carbon and other greenhouse gas emissions is also too narrow; LCAs can and should measure all environmental impacts.’

Isn’t it easier and more effective to advocate organic, local and seasonal produce? ‘In many cases factors such as buying local are less impactful than what you eat, and certain farming practices are good in some ways, but less so in others’, Carl responds. ‘Think land use vs pollution, water use vs emissions. We need to measure all of these things and understand the inevitable trade-offs, allowing for informed decisions and intentional investment in research and improvements. There is no silver bullet here.’

LCAs for the future

The Sustained Impact LCA calculation engine is based on the European Commission’s PEF (Product Environmental Footprint) LCA methodology.

The system uses product-level and value-chain data to evaluate the estimated environmental damage for 16 different impact categories including water scarcity, land use, pollution, biodiversity loss, climate change, resource use, eutrophication and more.

The underlying assessment allows for comparison and improvement tracking over time.

Sustained LCAs are automated, continuous and conducted at scale, meaning food manufacturers and brands are able to actively and intentionally reduce the environmental impact of their products.

The platform enables LCAs for all the products a business sells, integrating value chain data with existing business systems such as enterprise resource planning (ERP) and product lifecycle management (PLM) platforms.

This means environmental impact can be at the heart of NPD and EPD activities, empowering product teams to target iterative environmental improvements at the design stage.

These targeted reductions are guided by the risks and opportunities uncovered at the baseline analysis stage, allowing brand-level reduction targets to be defined. The platform also performs ongoing monitoring and target tracking.

Sustained Impact is designed to be sector agnostic, meaning that adding support for other sectors in the future is a relatively painless process that won’t require additional engineering work.

‘As to which sector is next, this is not yet decided’, Carl tells us – ‘though consumer electronics and fashion are likely to be considered. People care about what they eat and they increasingly care about the environment – and given that we purchase food on a daily and weekly basis, it means we can empower people to make better choices in tight decision loops. There is huge potential to drive positive change.’

CASE STUDY: The Compleat Food Group

One business that has been able to use Sustained’s platform to make a positive impact is The Compleat Food Group.

Sustained met Compleat at the end of 2022, through an organisation aimed at solving the food-related environmental impact dilemma through education at a business level.

The two organisations quickly realised there was a great deal of alignment in terms of what Compleat wanted to achieve on an environmental level and what Sustained was working to deliver to businesses on this journey.

Compleat was looking to address a number of issues, though the underlying desire was to understand how and where its products were making an environmental impact.

When armed with this information, the goal was to confidently create plans and product roadmaps, aligned with company-level impact reduction targets, to reduce environmental impact.

It was important for the information and progress to be easily communicated to both internal and external stakeholders; Compleat wanted to be able to eco-label its products and speak confidently about improvements to customers and partners.

Reporting was another area of interest to Compleat, as both regulatory and corporate disclosures increasingly require environmental impact material to be reported as part of the usual course of business.

‘In other words’, Carl sums up, ‘achieving all of these outcomes meant Compleat must measure the impact of everything it manufactures and sells.’

By partnering with Sustained, Compleat has been able to capture the data for its entire branded product range; this in turn will lead to a comprehensive baseline of the environmental impact of its products.

From here, the product teams will be able to seamlessly use the modelling and forecasting capabilities within the Sustained Impact platform to design lower impact versions of their existing products, and ensure any new product designs factor in the environment from day one.

‘The work is by no means finished and Compleat’s journey has many more stages to go’, Carl acknowledges. ‘The benefits at this stage are that Compleat is now armed with far more granular and actionable information and insights about where it can actively reduce its environmental impact, where it needs to obtain more accurate data and how to proactively engage with its value chain and partners to reduce impact even more. All of this with the very real benefit of being able to confidently report, communicate and market environmental successes.’

By partnering with a business that really wants to engage and improve, the Sustained team has learned a lot about the way food is produced and manufactured.

The process has also highlighted challenges around data collections and current processes across the value chain. This has led to incremental improvements to help meet these needs and deliver real value, not only to Compleat but to all the other businesses, current and future, that use Sustained.

‘Ultimately Sustained Impact must help reduce impact’, Carl tells us, ‘and for this to happen, partnerships and deep learning is required.’

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