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Hugh Weldon, Evocco app: 'Transforming food systems'

Our blogs highlight a range of consumer issues from different perspectives. Unless otherwise stated they do not represent the position of Consumers International.

AUTHORS: Hugh Weldon

As part of our blog series for World Consumer Rights Day, we asked thought leaders across the world to provide insight into the campaign theme 'The Sustainable Consumer'. 

Hugh Weldon is CTO of Evocco, an app that lets consumers track, reduce and offset the climate impact of their food shopping. He talks about we can transform food systems to be more sustainable.  

Why we might be waiting a while for a climate impact labelling scheme for food, and what we can do now.

Biodiversity loss, deforestation, methane emissions, eutrophication. It’s 100 seconds to midnight on the doomsday clock, and we need a full-scale revolution in our food system to turn it from carbon source to carbon sink and feed a burgeoning population of 10 billion by 2050. 

As earthly citizens, we gaze from afar at a wasteland of problems so vast, it’s seemingly impossible to know how to play our role in the revolution. Our agency goes far beyond how we consume, but let’s take a look at why voting with our euro, dollar or peso for more climate food friendly options isn’t as easy as it should be, and how we can already start making positive changes without waiting for the roll out of climate impact labelling.

The single biggest factor stopping us from easily choosing the most sustainable products in the supermarket is that we don’t inherently understand what make one product more sustainable than another. We’re not taught about it in school, it’s often communicated in scientific jargon, and vested interests zealously proliferate pseudo-scientific claims. Sustainable consumption is a minefield.

The obvious solution seems to be putting climate impact information on food packaging so we can make easy decisions at the point of sale. From talking to food industry stakeholders right along the supply chain about engaging consumers on the climate impact of food products for the last three years, here’s a brief summary of why I don’t think labelling is the saviour we’ve been waiting for.

The food retail perspective

Food retailers make money by selling high volumes of products. It’s a highly competitive industry where companies “live and die by price”, to quote the head of sustainability at one of Ireland’s biggest retailers. This competition has created an aversion to innovation that poses any risk to sales figures, even if there is potential for longer term gain. “In food retail, the industry moves as a whole. Nobody can afford to stick their neck out and take a bet that might negatively impact sales”, to quote another senior figure in Irish food retail. As a result, the primary role retail sees for sustainability is to make consumers perceive a higher value in their goods so that they can charge a higher margin. It’s not in the interest of the retailer to educate the consumer to carefully consider whether they are buying in excess or buying just enough, or the impact of meat and dairy against vegetables. What’s in the interest of the retailer is that they are the trusted source of sustainability information for the consumer, meaning they can use whatever shade of greenwashing they like to increase sales. Hence, climate impact labelling isn’t top of their agenda.

The food brand perspective

Where impact labelling has gotten the most traction is with food brands. There is clear incentive for the good actors to share their information to appeal to the climate conscious consumer and win their loyalty. Quorn and Oatly have led the charge on this, carrying out third party verified life cycle assessments on their products and now printing the results on their packaging.

However, the Big Food companies that dominate the industry have little to no incentive to follow suit. With too many skeletons in the closet and often without full knowledge of their supply chains, carrying out a lifecycle assessment of their products would be at best difficult and at worst damning. We won’t see big companies take these steps until they are forced to do so with regulation. The problem this poses for the consumer is greater than you might initially think. We process information more easily in relative terms than absolute terms. If you tell me that a litre of Oatly oat milk is X grams of CO2 per litre, it doesn’t really mean anything unless I know that the dairy milk beside it is Y grams of CO2 per litre. So, by refusing to prioritise the sharing of climate impact information about their products, Big Food actively devalues the work being done by those who already have.




The consumer perspective

As much as we might say we are in favour of a climate impact labelling scheme for food, the impact that this will have on overall behaviour change may be limited. Why so? Principally because we already suffer from information overload when we shop for food. Marketing is screaming at us from every angle, we’re already in a rush, and trying to process scientific information in this high stress environment is challenging.

So, where does this leave us now?

Retailers don’t want the labelling because they fear it will affect their sales, brand specific labelling is only a smart choice for best in class products but is not much use unless we have information for all brands, and even if we get that information we might not be able to process it easily when we shop.

This situation greatly erodes our power to change the direction of the food system through our spending and leaves us vulnerable to being duped by green washing. The good news is that there are some easy steps that we can take right away to improve the climate impact of our food shopping.

Here’s how we can do it:

  1. Focus on category impact, not brand impact

Research from Quantis shows that a massive 87% of food system emissions come from agriculture alone. Not the packaging, not the transport, the production. This means that simply knowing the impact of the different food product categories allows us to make impactful choices. Choosing plant-based proteins instead of animal-based proteins is one of the most impactful switches we can make, and it doesn’t require brand specific impact labelling for us to do it. This impact calculator can help you see what’s what.

  1. Break the associations of the past and forge new traditions with your friends and family

This is where we, the younger generations, take over. Just as how in the leadership void left by politicians around the world, we’ve stepped forward to drive the climate agenda, we must also step forward to drive the sustainable consumption agenda. One of the biggest things that is slowing the transition to sustainable consumption is tradition. Food choices are much more about social norms than they are about rational decisions. One meat and two veg, a Sunday roast, a burger and chips. These are all social traditions that embed high impact foods into our lives. We now not only have the opportunity but the obligation to forge new traditions in our social circles to embrace low impact foods. Veggie Christmas it is.

  1. Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good

Behaviour change isn’t easy, so don’t be too hard on yourself. Start to link your behaviour to impact, make the easiest changes first, and rather than stress over changes that seem less accessible at the moment why not try offsetting the impact by donating to an organisation that restores ecosystems to sequester carbon? This way you can get that carbon neutral freedom feeling right from the beginning.