Food for thought

With the global population set to hit 9.7 billion by 2050, food stands at the forefront of our climate change and sustainability crisis. Mia Tagg takes a look at some of the innovations where the food business meets good business, to see what brands and retailers are doing to address climate challenges.

Food production is responsible for over a quarter of CO2 emissions globally, and we all need to eat.

Food is not like other consumer goods. It is not only that human beings need to eat to survive; what, how, when and with whom we eat defines us. Whether tucking into a weekday favourite with your family, at a neighbours BBQ, on holiday, in a restaurant with your special someone or eating out of a saucepan alone on the couch – our memories, relationships, community, culture and identity are connected to food. Changing our eating and shopping habits is not easy – partly because some of the most common ingredients in our modern diet are literally and physically addictive, but also because our food is so intertwined with who we think we are, and where and with whom we think we belong. 

Since the Paris Agreement came into effect in November 2016, the 196 participating nations are taking steps to tackle their CO2 emissions. Some countries are beginning their journey to zero emissions by focusing on their industry, infrastructure and manufacturing; others have begun by addressing consumer behaviour, particularly with regards to the way we buy, eat and dispose of our food. Food production is responsible for over a quarter of CO2 emissions globally, and we all need to eat. It’s a good place to start slowing global warming – not just in reducing a nations own CO2 emissions, but in changing citizensconsumer attitudes and behaviours by introducing small changes in daily routines.

Many food producers have begun their journey towards carbon neutrality and some, like Italian manufacturer Gran Cereale, have already achieved their certification. We have mainstream food heroes in the UK too – Warburtons is overhauling every area of its production and distribution and the Coop is leading the charge on the retail side, committing to becoming the first supermarket in the world to produce carbon neutral own-brand food and drink by 2025. Saying that, there is one company I have come across that is doing something very interesting and innovative – not just on the road to its own carbon neutrality, but in its commitment to the customer experience and retail innovation. 

As a certified Swede, I can vouch for my motherland having a long-standing tradition and firm belief in civic education – and has approached its food consumption and CO2 emissions accordingly. The Swedes are especially focused on reducing their carbon dioxide equivalent – or CO2e for short – the unit by which carbon footprints are measured. Swedens goal is to halve the CO2e of its food consumption by 2030. While the concepts of CO2e and carbon footprint, as tools to measure our environmental impact, has been hugely helpful – it has not made it simple, straightforward, or even particularly affordable, to be an ethical consumer. 

Sweden’s goal is to halve the CO2e of its food consumption by 2030.

One of the challenges for consumers is the dissonance between environmental impact and the price of goods – so can we make it easy, uncomplicated and inexpensive to make purchases than align with our moral values? How to redress this imbalance, has been hotly debated, and last year Swedish food brand, Felix opened Klimatbutiken (roughly translated to The Climate Store) in Stockholm, a shop where all the products are priced according to their CO2e. 

Felix is a very well-known and established Swedish food brand, dating back to the 1930s and a Czech immigrant called Herbert Felix. Initially specialising in vinegars, pickles, jams and condiments, Felix eventually branched into ready meals and fresh produce, all of which are available in all well-stocked supermarkets and corner shops across Scandinavia. Consequently, it caused quite a stir when Felix opened its own food shop. However, it immediately became clear that Klimatbutiken was no ordinary shop, and the interest that the concept sparked across the world, inspired Felix to set up a digital version, simply named Klimatbutiken.com. 

The idea behind the online store is even more ambitious than the Stockholm store; encouraging customers to shop within the UNs 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which means not only pricing and labelling goods according to their carbon footprint, but also introducing a weekly CO2e allowance. And in so doing, the klimatbutiken.com website allows customers an interactive tool that explicitly illustrates the climate impact of their weekly shop in five easy steps:

  1. Each shopper gets a weekly allowance of 19 kg CO2e, in line with the UN’s SDGs 
  2. The shopper uses the CO2e allowance to choose items to add to their basket
  3. Products are priced in accordance with their climate impact – the lower the impact, the lower the price
  4. Customers choose as much as they think will feed them for one week
  5. Shoppers who meet the challenge are rewarded 

Klimatbutiken.com has provided an engaging way to illustrate a complex set of criteria of measurement for consumers, allowing them to experience the limitations of our current food production practices, and it has also been hailed a brave move by a private enterprise. So why has Felix gone down this road? Opening a physical shop on the high street could be seen as risky, and seems especially ballsy during a pandemic. While Felix is publicly passionate about sustainability and the environment – and I have no doubt that they are – is it the only reason for opening a shop like Klimatbutiken?

Can we make it easy, uncomplicated and inexpensive to make purchases than align with our moral values?

Being an ethical consumer can be confusing – shoppers are often forced to choose between fair trade, organically grown or carbon footprint – and choosing the morally sound alternatives is prohibitively expensive for many low-income households. This means that many who would prefer to shop ethically simply cant, and with most consumers restricted by the price of goods – many businesses that make up global food production, cant effectively detect consumer demand for more ethically sourced, produced, packaged and transported goods. What Klimatbutiken has shown is proof of demand. 

Felix has pre-empted legislation on emission coming into effect in the next few years and provided the first environmental retail platform that prioritises an interactive customer experience of climate neutrality. Felixs customers feel seen and understood, impressed by a company that does the right thing”, despite being under no obligation to do so. Yet. 

And so, in future-proofing its operation, Klimatbutiken and Klimatbutiken.com have made Felix a consumer hero. While others appear to be dragging their feet, waiting for consumer demand for ethically produced goods to affect market conditions, Felix has created the demand. Or rather, it has proven that demand exists by being concept-driven, innovative and active. 

Felix has pre-empted legislation on emission coming into effect in the next few years and provided the first environmental retail platform that prioritises an interactive customer experience of climate neutrality.

If we make changes to our food consumption purposefully and incrementally, and global food production supports consumers by making good choices easy and economical, the transition will barely be noticeable. And not only will we be able to tackle the worst of the climate crisis, but additional benefits may emerge as side effects of CO2e pricing. As diets become increasingly plant-based, the obesity pandemic may subside and there may be positive mental health implications of a better diet too. 

Unfortunately, I havent found any English language versions that rival the klimatbutiken.com experience, but until we get something similar, you can check the annual CO2e value of your favourite foods and drinks here. 

Join The Good Business Festival for more food focused solutions on Friday 9 July.

Mia Tagg grew up in Sweden and now lives in Liverpool, where she works as a project manager and writes about art, culture and ethical living. 

miatagg.com

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