Conscious Consumption with GreenScale

Team: Talladega Knights

Rachel Connolly

Jimmy Brancho

Julia Paige

Project Title: GreenScale

Requested Amount: $15,000

Expected Amount of Time to Complete Project: 1 year

Describe your Project:

How much energy does your food use? Recently, food labeling movements have provided clarity for consumers looking for organic, non-GMO, or recyclable products, but when it comes to energy input and environmental influence, customers are in the dark.

We will develop a rating system to indicate to consumers the impact the food they consume has on the environment using life cycle analyses. A life cycle analysis (LCA) studies the environmental aspects and potential impacts throughout a product’s life from raw material acquisition through production, use and disposal. While life cycle analysis is a complex process, we will simplify the calculations for both consumers and companies to make it more accessible.

Our LCAs will take into account the energy usage, carbon emissions and waste. We believe that those three factors are the most important determinants in the environmental impact of a product. Our LCAs will assess a product from cradle to market. This means companies will measure their energy usage, carbon emissions, and waste from the raw material acquisition of a product to when it reaches the market where it is to be sold to consumers.

However, consumers need context for information. Therefore, we will also develop a rating scale based on what percentage of products have less environmental impact than a particular product so that consumers can compare products. A product with a higher rating will have less of an environmental impact. Labels will be printed and distributed to both grocery stores and companies so that consumers can compare in the store, without pulling out their phone, what the impact of their choices is. Companies can also choose to incorporate the label into their packaging.  Our label would give companies the option to improve their brand’s reputation by clearly communicating their achievements in accurately measuring energy usage, emissions, and waste and disclosing the results.

In addition to the in-store labelling, consumers will be able to visit our website to search a database of products and find information about their environmental impact. The database will initially be populated with the top 200 most-purchased products as well as the products of company partners that sign on to pilot this program with us. The website will be mobile responsive so that consumers can quickly pull it up on their phone while they are shopping. Consumers will also be able to browse categories of products, such as cereals or peanut butters, to compare products. In addition, the website will crowdsource information about products by providing an interactive form that consumers can complete for products that they regularly purchase. The form will prompt a user with a series of questions that have simple drop-down answers and number inputs. The website will encourage them to make their best guess about what they know about a product and also suggest industry averages for energy use and waste production by factories. We want consumers to contribute what they know without feeling paralyzed by what they do not.

What unmet need does your product meet?

People want to know the impact of their choices, but finding information and assessing its reliability is difficult. While companies promote eco-friendly aspects of their products, such as having a smaller carbon footprint, using less packaging, or being dye-free, consumers do not know how much of a difference these marketing angles have.  GreenScale will provide a way for consumers to quantify the environmental impact of environmentally friendly marketing. Therefore, consumers can hold companies accountable to their promotions. In addition, information about the environmental impact of products needs to be expanded beyond those products that companies market as eco-friendly. Companies may not be aware of the positive environmental impact of their products and, therefore, not market them as such. GreenScale will empower consumers to understand what it means to be eco-friendly and make informed choices that fit their lifestyle.

Interviews:

Andrew Nowak, 36, contracted driver at Fed Ex and union organizer, Ann Arbor, MI (734-546-2213)

“I care more about fresh food and quality food. If it’s local and organic, then all the better,” says Drew. The energy and environmental impact of his food purchases are on his mind as well. But, he acknowledges that nailing down data on whether a product really is environmentally friendly is easier said than done. He would turn to the Internet. When asked if he thought that was reliable, he laughed and said no. “Time is always a barrier for everything,” he added. “That’s why I enjoy labels, and I hope the government will get even more and more labels.”

Kim Daley, 25, chemistry grad student and food activist, Ann Arbor, MI (216-407-9027)

Kim is involved in two food justice organizations on campus and has strong opinions on what makes a good food purchase. “When you purchase local food, it positively affects your community.” When it comes to assessing the food’s impact on the environment, she would turn to primary scientific literature – a convoluted resource to which most people don’t have ready access.

Jennifer “I Like National Parks” Lau, 53, Teacher, Old Greenwich, CT (914-826-5517)

Jennifer is a mother and teacher whose primary concern when shopping is affordability. She looks for the cheapest price per unit without sacrificing the quality of the product. Jennifer usually only tries new products when they are on sale.  Although she doesn’t generally consider the environmental impact of her choices, she does make sure to recycle packages and has considered buying local food because she thinks that will reduce her carbon footprint. Jennifer makes environmentally sustainable choices such as buying recyclable light bulbs that have a low impact on her day to day.

Yasmine, 21, Student, San Diego, CA (yzein@umich.edu)

Yasmine is a senior at University of Michigan living off-campus in a large house. When shopping for groceries she says she looks for brands that she recognizes or ones that look healthy, based on labels. “Sometimes I just know the brands from friends or ads. If it says stuff like ‘locally grown’ or ‘only 50 miles from source’ I look for little comments like that.” When asked about packaged foods she said “I look for a compostable cardboard box or some sign that they recycle. You can assume it’s a brand that values sustainability and health.” When it comes to the life cycles of the products she buys, she says she knows “very little, but I would like to know more.”

How big is the potential market for your idea?

There is an appetite in the United States for informed eco-friendly consumer choices. In 2015, SurveyMonkey found that one in three consumers would prefer eco-friendly options. Furthermore, 35% of people are willing to spend more money on products that are better for the environment and 56% of respondents were at least moderately or slightly likely.

The potential market for GreenScale is anyone who purchases groceries. In 2014, there were about 134 million households in the United States. If 33% if those households are interested in making eco-friendly choices, 44.22 million households would be interested in a rating scale that informs them of the impact of their purchases.

Sources:

https://www.surveymonkey.com/blog/2015/05/11/more-consumers-are-opening-their-wallets-for-eco-friendly-products/

http://quickfacts.census.gov/qfd/states/00000.html

How is your idea innovative — new or different from something already existing?

GreenScale has one overlapping competitor; Quantis maintains the World Food LCA Database. However, its website is focused on corporate interests and not designed for a typical consumer. Quantis does not provide information on products that consumers buy; instead, it provides information on ingredients. Moreover, to access information about life cycle analysis, you have to download a CSV file and search for an item through hundreds of rows. Quantis’ database lacks the user design and context that GreenScale will provide.

In addition, GreenScale will compete against existing labelling, such as  organic and non-GMO labels, for attention and public interest. While organic and non-GMO are established consumer concerns, a consumer’s attention to organic and non-GMO does not necessarily exclude interest in life cycle analysis. Currently, consumers have no way of gauging the environmental impact of their choices without excessive outside research. GreenScale provides an accessible, reliable source of information about products’ impact. Consumers will be interested in GreenScale because the environmental impact of a product has a more tangible, measurable effect than organic and GMO.

Sources:

http://www.nongmoproject.org/about/history/

http://www.quantis-intl.com/microsites/wfldb/index.php

How will your idea be financially sustainable?

GreenScale’s primary expenses will come from the maintenance of the website and the printing of labels. After the initial costs associated with the web app development and LCA analysis for the 200 most popular grocery items, GreenScale will be financially sustainable through accreditation application fees and consulting fees. While information will be crowd-sourced through the website and companies are free to contribute, companies and products verified independently by GreenScale will be eligible to include their GreenScale rating on their packaging and will be designated on the website. GreenScale will offer consulting services to companies that want to reduce their environmental impact (and simultaneously reduce production costs) as well as grocery stores that want to stock more environmentally friendly products. Raising awareness about the life cycle impact of products will increase consumer interest in environmental sustainability and create a market for GreenScale’s expertise and services.

Why are you and your team the right people to develop this project?

Rachel is a Computer Science major and can build web app component which cuts the cost of development. She’ll also be able to maintain the website and can manage the development of any additional technological mediums such as mobile apps. Julia has a minor in Sustainable Food Systems at the University of Michigan and has performed several life cycle analyses of products in the course of her college career. She is aware of the pertinent issues and challenges when it comes to food sustainability in the United States. Jimmy is connected to a variety of food justice organizations, both at the University of Michigan and elsewhere, and can use his experience as an amateur science blogger to rapidly generate publicity for the project. Collectively, our passion for environmental sustainability and combined skillsets make us uniquely positioned to educate the public about the environmental impact of food products.

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About Julia Paige

I am a senior at the university studying Cultural Anthropology, Sustainable Food Systems, and Writing. I love to bake, cook, ride my bike, and eat cookies.

3 Responses to “Conscious Consumption with GreenScale”

  1. This project seems like a great idea! I think it is important for consumers to make sure they are supporting a company that has sustainable energy practices. This is an unmet need since it would be so easy for grocery shoppers to see the LCA at the store. However, this project may difficult to get started. What is your plan for getting grocery stores to use your labels? The companies that would be willing to have their LCA displayed would probably already have an environmentally friendly reputation. Companies that are not so environmentally friendly would most likely not be interested. Additionally, companies may also not be interested at first due to application fees to use your labels. But if you could overcome the initial start up hurdles, I would personally be excited to use your product!

  2. I really like the idea. I know a lot of separate labeling systems exist (e.g., GMO-free, Organic, etc.), but your pitch seems to really to be holistic and reliable. Something I would consider though is: why does your LCA only look at cradle-to-market? I’m sure I am not introducing the concept of cradle-to-grave to you all, but the “to-grave” part can have significant ramifications on said product’s environmental impact. For (a quick) example, fish at a supermarket can be bought either straight off a bed of ice (and wrapped in butcher paper) or come pre-packaged in Styrofoam and plastic. The fish could have come from the same place, but since you’re not counting the Styrofoam, in theory, your rating system could show the same amount of ecological impact for each product, despite the Styrofoam’s impact sitting in a landfill. This is rather antithetical to your whole idea’s goal.

    It would require more work, research, and data, but I think it’s a worthwhile investment to make your product as complete and reliable as possible.

  3. Hi, Rachel, Jimmy and Julia. This is a great idea! I especially like the statistics you gathered showing that people might use this kind of labeling system. My biggest concern about your product is that you might be sued by companies that produce low-ranked products. So, you would need a legal defense. You might want to consult with an attorney, perhaps someone on our Law School faculty. I don’t know Jessica Litman, but it seems like she might have some useful thoughts for you:
    http://www.law.umich.edu/FacultyBio/Pages/FacultyBio.aspx?FacID=jdlitman
    Also, I encourage you to try and talk with SNRE professor Greg Keoleian about this idea. He specializes in Life Cycle Analysis. At one point a few years ago, I believe he was talking about sharing his students’ work in a more public way. He might be a mentor for you if you decide to go forward with this idea — which I hope you do!
    The key would be to find partners, perhaps someone that already has a large audience of people interested in green products. For example, Treehugger or Grist.
    Again, very good work on this!

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