This article first appeared in our Earth Day 2022 issue of My Green Pod Magazine, printed on 22 April 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, biodiversity loss 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 setting 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 mobile app, 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, we need to find a way to surface and translate all the underlying complexity.’
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. The saying ‘vote with your wallet’ suddenly 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 ‘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.’
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.
‘Many purchasing decisions are made in the spur of the moment’, Carl tells us; ‘if we rely solely on shoppers doing research before they shop, it’s unlikely we will see the rate and scale of change we so desperately need.’
Shoppers will use sustainability information more if it is clear and easy to understand, and if it can be accessed easily at the time of making a purchase choice.
Yet these are complicated and intertwined topics, and many of the underlying impacts are often at odds with each other. This level of complexity could never be captured in traffic-light systems alone, or meaningfully represented on two-dimensional labels.
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.’
With Sustained, users scan the barcodes of food products to see an estimated environmental impact rating from A (best) to G (worst).
At the time of writing, the Sustained public product database has over 156,000 products in its system that have been given an environmental rating.
The app also allows people to search the product database any time; a handy shopping list feature helps users to research and plan their next shop at a time that’s convenient to them. For those who shop online, a Chrome and Safari browser extension acts as a companion by overlaying ratings as users browse certain online shopping sites.
The power of tech led Sustained to opt for a digital-first approach, which supports packaging but makes all the complexity available in ways most of us would be comfortable with accessing, using our mobile phones or laptops.
Deeper layers of complexity and opportunities for further learning are available if wanted by the person engaging with the experience.
There are countless ways to assess the overall environmental impact of food; at Sustained, the approach focuses on the ingredients used to create a product.
Life cycle assessment (LCA) frameworks and databases are used to create what Carl describes as ‘the most scientific and evidence-based view of the impact that is possible today’.
The 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 impacts for products.
Sustained’s ratings framework covers the entire environmental spectrum by looking at a number of different 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’, ‘seasonal food’, ‘widely recyclable’ and ‘low CO2 emissions.’
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.’
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.’
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.’
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