Bringing transparency to sustainable food choices

As consumers, reducing our consumption of meat and dairy products is the single biggest way to reduce our environmental impact on the planet. But the amount of information we are exposed to and the lack of transparency surrounding our food can be confusing and can keep us from making informed decisions. We took on the challenge to break down the complexity surrounding the agricultural industry and to redefine our relationship with the food we consume.

We designed Ecotrack, a concept for an integrated platform that offers a clear sustainability rating for all foods, as well as an application that allows consumers to build a broader awareness of the impact of their food, while also suggesting the sustainable alternatives available to them. In providing clear information in an engaging way, Ecotrack helps consumers opt for sustainable food choices intuitively and on the go.

This project is a collaboration between Edward Brial and John Bertolaso conducted as part of a Human-Centered Design course organised by and +Acumen.

What is a sustainable diet?

Sustainable diets, as defined by the Food and Agriculture Organisation, “are those diets with low environmental impacts which contribute to food and nutrition security and to healthy life for present and future generations. Sustainable diets are protective and respectful of biodiversity and ecosystems, culturally acceptable, accessible, economically fair and affordable; nutritionally adequate, safe and healthy; while optimizing natural and human resources”. (FAO report)

Whilst this definition works in theory, putting it into practical use for normal consumers is far more difficult. The ways to assess the sustainability of foods in practice are often debated given the complexity of the supply chain and in recording and quantifying environmental impact data from farm to fork. As many co dependent variables are being compared, assessing sustainability is very nuanced and therefore makes it difficult for consumers to understand what makes a sustainable diet.

However, a recent study has compiled extensive datasets covering 90% of what is eaten across 119 countries to assess the full life cycle impact of these foods. It revealed that avoiding meat consumption is the single most effective way to reduce our environmental impact as individuals. While meats and dairy only represent 18% of our calorie intake and 37% our protein intake, their production takes over 80% of all farmland and produce 60% of all agricultural greenhouse gas emissions. Beyond greenhouse gas emissions, the production of meat requires very large amounts of freshwater and has a tremendous impact on water and air pollution.

Environmental impact of different food groups according to land usage, GHG emissions, air acidification, eutrophication and water scarcity, which are all measured per functional unit. The plot clearly highlights the significantly higher values for meats such as beef and lamb, and animal products such as cheese. [data reference]

Learning from people and experts

The project began with a question: how might we encourage more sustainable and diverse diets in urban environment? We took on the challenge to break down the complexity surrounding the agricultural industry and to redefine our relationship with the food we consume.To start answering this question, we conducted extensive desk research to better understand the environmental impact of food production and what constitutes a sustainable diet.

Our next step was to gain a deep understanding of people, their needs, desires and their relationship with food. So we went out in the field and spent the rest of our research phase talking to people from different backgrounds, interviewing experts and immersing ourselves in various environments. This was a key step to identify our main insights and reframe our questions into actionable starting points. The 3 main insights that we identified related to transparency, awareness and attitude.

Food shops (both online and physical) offer consumers overwhelming choice, making purchasing decisions based on provenance, seasonality and environmental impact complicated. As sustainability is a mixture of all these it also means that these choices are not absolute and need to be learned and improved over time.
→ How might we help consumers make sustainable food choices intuitively and on the go?

People are unaware and do not realise that adjusting their diet is the most effective way to reduce their environmental impact on the planet.
→ How might we use branding and marketing to enable consumers to take control of what they eat by providing clear information about the environmental impact of food?

Although meat production is one of the most harmful types of agriculture, people still consume too much of it and are in denial about how much of it they consume. Cultural significance, trends and convenience all shadow environmental consideration of the food.
→ How might we make the consumption of sustainable alternatives to meat more convenient through culturally considered and desirable options?

While addressing elements of each of these how might we questions, we decided to focus primarily on raising awareness by bringing transparency to the food we purchase in supermarkets.

A big part of our research process focused on future probing. We spent a lot of time looking at how technological, environmental and socio-policital forces are transforming the way we operate. Part of this involved mapping out signals and identifying patterns to help us develop a comprehensive solution.

Choosing the relevant metrics and developing a compound score

The production of food has a complex influence on the environment and a variety of contributing factors can be used to evaluate their impact. Although this makes for a complex set of variables, it also means that each food product has potential for climate impact mitigation, giving consumers control and knowledge will allow for better decisions and will increase pressure on producers and suppliers to improve their product.

In order to break down the complexity of the food system and the repercussions it has on our environment both on the production side and consumer side, we developed a compound score that combines a set of normalized metrics into one single rating. We selected the 5 most significant metrics based on academic research, but also considering how easy these are to grasp conceptually from a consumer perspective.

GHG emissions: These are the prime contributors to global warming largely in the form of methane, nitrous oxide and carbon dioxide.
Water usage: This refers to the water used for the production of crops, animal feed and livestock, including runoff into the soil.
Land usage: This corresponds to the square mileage required to produce crops or breed livestock. With livestock both the land they use and the land for their feed is incorporated.
Transportation (food miles): The distance travelled from farm to shop. This metric is not inherent to a product as it depends on where it is produced and where it is sold.
Packaging: This refers to the amount packaging used per unit mass of produce. This metric is not inherent to a product as it depends on the way it has been processed by the retailer.

The compound score is represented as a simple A / B / C rating that can be understood quickly and intuitively. By bringing to light information that is typically hidden from the consumer, the score enables anyone to make informed decisions about how sustainable an ingredient or product is.

An integrated platform

The platform combines a sustainability rating present as a clear label on food products with an application that provides detailed yet accessible information about the environmental impact of our food. By providing an augmented interaction with the food we purchase, we can encourage more sustainable and responsible consumption habits on the go.

The label is the first touchpoint with the food products around us. A simple A / B / C score indicates the sustainability rating of the products is complemented by a QR code that links directly to the products page on the application.
The application provides further information about the products, giving the consumers a more nuanced description of the compound score. It also aggregating data about our consumption habits and assist us more personally in improving our consumption habits. The application allows consumers to build a broader awareness of the impact of their food, while also suggesting sustainable alternatives and recipes.
First, scan Ecotrack labels.
Then access the product's data.

Future vision

Ecotrack is part of a grander vision to augment our relationship with the food we consume and shape what the future of sustainable and resilient food production system might look like.

By suggesting alternatives to the traditional archetypes, we will help define new food paradigms and encourage more responsible forms of nourishment. And as consumers start consuming more sustainable products we will see increasing pressures on producers and suppliers to become more accountable for their climate impact.

To ensure the sustainable growth of ecotrack beyond a supermarket niche the following practical steps will need to be taken.
→ Building mechanisms within the production and distribution processes to record the most critical metrics at the source to obtain more accurate values throughout the process.
→ Using these metrics to inform better consumption practice and to optimise transport and packaging in particular.
→ Adopting a unified sustainability scoring system across supermarkets and fast/slow-food chains.

Project in collaboration with Edward Brial. 2018 | ODC Research