EcoReview: Take Your Carbon Footprint Out To Dinner

Rachel Beglin, Parker Garman, Clare Hudock

Knight News Challenge Application

Project Title: “EcoReview: Take Your Carbon Footprint Out To Dinner”

Requested Amount: $25,000

Expected Amount of Time to Complete the Project: 6 months

Project Description

If you have ever found yourself wondering what your environmental impact is at the restaurants where you eat and drink, you are not alone. This is why we propose a smartphone application that reviews the environmental-friendliness of restaurants through professional surveys and crowdsourced reviews. The app would be designed in the style of Yelp, in which a user can type in a name of a restaurant or a geographic location and find reviews of restaurants. The establishments reviewed will include restaurants, bars, coffee shops, and other places that serve food or drink. However, these reviews would not assess the quality of the food and customer service; rather, these reviews would answer questions that are on the minds of environmentally aware people all over the country regarding food waste, recycling, local and organic factors, and more.

The way it would work is city-to-city. Initially, hired professionals would travel to the main restaurants in a city and answer the questions in a survey, fact-checking the restaurant contact’s answers and using his or her guidance. We will use Ann Arbor for example. The survey would answer the following questions about restaurants: do they recycle, do they compost, what happens to unused food, how far do ingredients travel to the restaurant, is the food organic, treated with pesticides, or grassfed,  are there vegetarian/vegan options, what is their carbon footprint? The questions would have multiple-choice answers, including an “Unknown” option to avoid unreliable responses. Using the survey results, each establishment will receive a one to five star score on various factors such as sustainability, health, waste removal, etc. If the app succeeds and yields a profit, this score can be updated yearly. After the initial survey, follow-up reviews and comments would be crowdsourced by app users. We will not remove environmental or food-related and relevant comments from the app in order to establish the app’s credibility. Users must have an account to comment, and in the event that users are paid by a company to write glowing reviews for that company, it should be balanced with other true reviews. This is the nature of crowdsourced information. Ideally, consumers will write reviews about their experiences through an environmental lens, and this app will facilitate the relationship between those who want to consume sustainably and those who want to provide sustainable products.

The most direct competitor to the application is Yelp, although the goal and target audience is different. Yelp does not rate restaurants on environmental impact, and our app is more reliable because of the professional initial investigation. There is also an app called GoodGuide that rates products on their environmental impact by scanning a barcode, but there is no app that rates restaurants specifically on environmental impact. Even within groups that care deeply about the environment, it is hard to know where the most environmentally sound places are. This app will align the places people eat with their values, hold companies accountable, and make information about food more transparent.

What unmet need does your product meet?

This year is the hottest on record, and most scientists concur that climate change likely has anthropocentric origins. Consumers want to make eco-friendly choices but don’t know which restaurants are best for the environment. Americans have to eat. They need to-go meals and their morning coffee. This app aims to say, “We know you need to buy these things, but let us help you buy them in an environmentally conscious way.” Today, people do not have access to environmental data on the restaurants they frequent unless the restaurant openly advertises it. If people knew that a burger from one restaurant was made with grassfed beef ten miles away and that a burger from another restaurant was African-raised and pumped with antibiotics, they might change which burger they purchase. For the first time, Americans will have easily accessible data about what happens to the food that does not get eaten or how many carbon emissions an entree requires. It’s not about taking away the burger; it’s about restoring the consumer’s agency in their purchases. Food products in the U.S. come stamped with nutritional health information – this app opens a space to have environmental health information stamped on restaurants.


Jasmine Sethi, female, Indian, middle-aged, employee at Earthen Jar, a vegetarian restaurant in Ann Arbor:

Sethi reported that customers at Earthen Jar tend to be very eco-friendly. Earthen Jar proudly provides food in biodegradable containers, uses eco-friendly cleaning supplies, and “recycles like crazy.” Part of the reason their customers like Earthen Jar, she believes, is due to their eco-friendly practices.

Bailey Minney, female, white, 20, Junior at U-M, PitE + Music double major:

Minney wants to know the environmental value of places she eats and does not feel that she has truthful access to this information. She feels strongly about avoiding industrial meat for both environmental and animal welfare purposes and attempted to recycle cardboard and plastic at a pizza place she used to work at.

Johannes Foufopoulos, male, German, middle-aged, Professor of Conservation of Biological Diversity at U-M:

Already a vegetarian, Dr. Foufopoulos said that our app sounded like an excellent idea and particularly liked that it simultaneously interests the general public as well as provides an incentive to make “restaurant owners think and act more ‘green.’” He is familiar with other green food movements, such as the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s fish list.

Addison Rutz, male, white, 23, Server at HopCat, a bar in Ann Arbor:

Rutz stated, “People always ask me where the beer is made and are really interested in drinking local, Michigan-made beers.” One of the first tabs on HopCat’s beer menu is the “Local 30” list, composed of Michigan beers from Traverse City to Grand Rapids.

Potential Market

The potential market for this app is substantial and growing. In a 2014 Gallup Poll, 45% of Americans said they actively try to include organic foods in their diets, and according to food research group, The Hartman Group, 42% of respondents said they were receptive to sustainable and healthy options in restaurants and food services. By starting our project in already environmentally-aware Ann Arbor, our app is likely to gain traction. Ann Arbor alone hosts 117,025 permanent residents and 43,625 University of Michigan students with an enormous foundation of environmentally-conscious movements like Think Local First, community-supported agriculture, and vegan restaurants.

How is your idea innovative?

Our idea focuses on the growing concern for environmental practices around the country. This app would let customers judge restaurants on their level of environmentally supportive practices. It fills a desire that Yelp failed to meet, and that is judge a restaurant not only on their food, but on their business. What restaurants do behind closed doors is something not many people know about or many restaurants share, and this app provides that insight. If a restaurant isn’t recycling at all, doesn’t try to engage in eco-friendly cleaning or cooking, throws away all their food instead of donating or composting it, this is not the type of place environmentally-friendly people will want to support. Regrettably, many environmentally-conscious people do support these restaurants but might change their practices if they had access to this data. In general, eco-friendly apps are not common, but awareness of the importance of our earth will most likely increase. We can help spread this awareness and thus fill a growing need and want by developing this app. By using professionals to first gather information we would develop a more reliable review of a restaurant that would remove some of the bias from customer-only reviews.

Financial Sustainability

Ideally, we would attempt to make the app extremely popular before we began generating any revenue streams, so it would be a year before we began trying to advertise or make profits. During this time we would be relying on investments to grow the app.  In terms of revenue streams, advertisements would be the main source income. We could also offer to let restaurants pay to be sponsored so they show up at the top of search results. Restaurants would pay us to run traffic through their reviewed site, so we would be looking for investors to help us get the app off the ground. This would mean salaries for programmers who would design the app, and they would remain on salary to update and run the app. We would also need researchers willing to conduct our environmental survey in restaurants around Ann Arbor.  After that the data collection on restaurants would be crowdsourced by the public and would come at no cost. The money from the grant would go toward paying employees and the start-up computer programing costs.

Why are we the right people to develop this project?

Ann Arbor, an environmentally-progressive town, is the ideal atmosphere an app such as ours could start and succeed. Customers here care about where their food comes from, as evidenced by residents’ and students’ participation in farmer’s markets and local businesses. Furthermore, college campuses are wrought with students willing to invest time into innovative technologies for very little money and are breeding grounds for innovative ideas that can catch on quickly. We are students who wish we knew what our dollars were supporting, and on a politically and socially active campus like ours, we are surely not alone in this.


About rbeglin

University of Michigan Class of 2018, Program in the Environment Major

3 Responses to “EcoReview: Take Your Carbon Footprint Out To Dinner”

  1. This sounds like an amazing idea! I would definitely download this app. The main issue I was thinking about while reading your grant proposal, and that you will likely face when/ if you try to get sponsors, is how will you verify restaurants’ responses about recycling, composting, and the other environmentally friendly practices your app aims to share. Will owners of restaurants simply answer the survey and it will be posted on the app? Or will you have some sort of fact checking system to ensure the information is accurate? On a similar note, how will consumers trust in this information? Will it be verified by a prestigious/legitimate environmental group? Other than these few questions, your app seems well thought out and it is clearly presented. Good work!

  2. What a great idea! I personally would use this app and could see many of my other environmentally conscious friends do it as well. It is the perfect time for an app like this as the new food movement largely emphasizes the locality of food and sustainable practice around all aspects of eating and growing.

    Yelp has had a powerful impact on the food industry and restaurants such that sometimes employees are hired just to respond to poor reviews. This app generates the eco-conscious pressure for food establishments to be implementing eco friendly aspects. Yelp directs me where to eat and this too can direct where the public consumes.There even is the potential to expand its market beyond food like yelp has done and reviewed an array of establishments.

    One aspect that could be limiting is the survey in which you are rating these establishments. Whatever it takes for an establishment to get a certain rating doesn’t necessarily encourage further development of a sustainable food system. How would you deal with places that have some local and some non-locally sourced food? How would you differentiate restaurants that truly embody sustainability and those that just hit the criteria list? Would farmers markets be included in this?

    One concern is that a lot of establishments do not have the information of where their food is sourced beyond the purchaser so gathering accurate information could pose difficult and this information would be necessary to generating wide-spred use.

    Overall, great job, well written application and I loved the burger example!

  3. Hi, Rachel, Parker and Clare. I agree with the earlier comments: excellent idea! I like your plan to consistently gather information about a range of criteria. I agree with the comments suggesting that it will be difficult to get consistent, verifiable information. But it is worth a try. Think about how you would verify that the info provided by the restaurant is accurate.

    Your collection of survey-takers reminds me of the health inspectors who already are supposed to go into restaurants to review compliance with a range of health ordinances. For example, these inspectors verify that food is being stored in a prescribed temperature range. There are many stories over the years of inadequate restaurant inspections. There typically aren’t enough inspectors and enough time to make the required rounds.

    I wonder if this is an area where crowd sourcing can help. Also, could the people you are using to gather survey data somehow partner with health departments to perhaps tip off health inspectors to any health-related problems that your survey-takers might observe.

    Restaurant inspection reports are available to the public by using the Freedom of Information Act. I believe that a professional journalism organization called Investigative Reporters and Editors regularly requests restaurant inspection reports from all 50 states, cleans the data and makes it available (for a small processing fee) to journalists. You might want to look into how that works for IRE and ask for advice there on how to collect, verify and manage the kind of data you want to collect.

    Also, how will you respond if the judges question your ability to sustain this app by selling ads?

    Again, good work on this!

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