How grocery lists can green the world

Meatless Mondays and transparent supply chains are not enough to cut global emissions from food. What is the ‘green consumer revolution’ that UN Environment Programme Young Champion of the Earth Hugh Weldon is pushing for instead?

customers shopping china
Customers shopping for food in a supermarket in Nanjing City, China. Image: imaginechina, CC BY-SA 2.0 via Deposit Photos

Two global reports on biodiversity and the climate crisis have given us stark warnings about the devastating impact of our food system. With global food production required to increase by 56 per cent by 2050, feeding the burgeoning human population, expected to reach nearly 10 billion people by 2050, while returning to our planet’s carrying capacity is a problem deepening in complexity.

Big Food – the handful of major companies that now dominate the supply chain – is already starting to act. Unilever has committed to halving the greenhouse gas impacts of its products, Nestlé has pledged to halve food waste by 2030, and Mars said it will spend close to $1 billion over the next several years to reduce its environmental impact and fight climate change.

But these actions amount to a few firehoses against a cathedral blaze. That’s because achieving a “great food transformation” will take more than devising complicated dietary guidelines, swapping soy for steak or buying stock in meat alternatives. It will require nothing less than a re-imagining the way we value food as a society.

As is stands, the value we place on food is on volumes, not on sustainability. As a result, innovation primarily focuses on how we can produce more food at lower cost right now, rather than creating the most sustainable products in the long term. This means that we’re currently investing more money in making things worse than making them better.

Fortunately, this is changing.  Pushing beyond Meatless Mondays, Beyoncé’s 30-day vegan challenge and transparent supply chains, a substantial eco-consumer movement with the potential to chip away at the some 26 per cent of global emissions that result from food is picking up pace. 

This growing trend is driven by people who make purchases based on a product’s eco-credentials and involves making sustainability the guiding principle of everything we eat. The 2018 Ethical Consumer market report found that the sale of products with eco or ethical credentials grew 16.3 per cent in the UK in 2017, compared to an average food retail sector growth of just 1.1 per cent.

The value we place on food is on volumes, not on sustainability. As a result, innovation primarily focuses on how we can produce more food at lower cost right now, rather than creating the most sustainable products in the long term.

When consumers demand more sustainable products, they wield power to push boardrooms to do what’s right for the climate. We eat three meals a day, seven days a week. If we vote for the environment every time we pay food, we have a chance to catch Big Food’s attention.

But the great food transformation will take a combination of regulation push and market pull, and until the green consumer movement reaches sufficient scale, innovation will continue to focus on maximising short term profits. 

Critical to tipping the balance in favor of sustainability is quality information about a product’s source and environmental impact.

Right now, scoring food on its sustainability is a challenge as the required supply chain data points needed to measure this are not yet recorded and verified on a product by product basis.

Life cycle analysis to calculate a food category’s generic environmental footprint is currently the best approach for determining a product’s impact, but it’s critical for consumers to discern among brands based on their respective environmental impacts.  Studies show that even products of the same type produced in the same region can have a variance in climate impact of up to 50 times dependent on the processes used. 

The European Union has taken a forward-thinking regulatory approach to bringing this information to light.   Their Product Environmental Footprint framework is seeking companies to test the now standardised calculation methods for calculating environmental scores.

We need product footprint calculations to evolve into product footprint minimum standards. Just like car manufacturers must undergo rigorous emissions testing before releasing cars to market, and face hefty fines for breaching these rules, food companies should be required to achieve minimum sustainability standards.

Companies and brands that “get it” soonest, share impact data about their products, and make a move to convince us that they actually care about sustainability are poised to become the new consumer champions. Studies already show that brands seen as unethical have a higher chance of losing customers.

Furthermore, with consumer information at the core of achieving one of the UN’s global sustainable development goals focused on consumption and production, food companies could make a critical difference by sharing the impact of their products with consumers.

Now is the time for companies to join the green consumer revolution, to become part of it, to drive it. To not just provide information, but to actively encourage sustainable consumption. The time for companies that exist solely to generate financial gain for shareholders has come and past. In the food industry, feeding the future depends on it.

Hugh Weldon is a United Nations Environment Programme Young Champion of the Earth and founder of Evocco, a smartphone app that helps consumers align their purchasing behavior with their environmental ethics.

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