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.’
Demand will change the supply
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.’
Decisions at the point of sale
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.
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.’
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.