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Fi Europe 2021

Using sustainability intelligence to regenerate food systems [Interview]

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Fi Europe participants can put to the test a sustainable intelligence platform that not only assesses the sustainability of products, but also helps manufacturers to find ways of making a positive impact. João Brites, Director of Growth & Innovation at HowGood, explains why the platform is so transformative, and why we should start talking about regenerative food systems.

‘Achieving sustainability’ has become an identifiable aspiration - we all want to act in a manner that doesn’t compromise the future. In the food sector, however, a key challenge is that innovators, producers, marketeers and consumers often don’t really know the true environmental and social impact of their food products, and tend to underestimate their impact.

“In a recent study from BEUC, only 10% of European consumers agreed that what they eat has a negative impact on the environment, whereas 63.6% disagree,” Brites points out. “At the same time, according to the European Commission, food consumption is the main driver of negative environmental impacts generated by households in the EU. So, you have this underestimation about the impact of food.” 

Going beyond sustainability 

Providing greater transparency around sustainability could be key to achieving systemic change. Though, to do this, everyone along the supply-system needs to play their part in assessing sustainability and making products even more sustainable.

“This is really about changing the paradigm,” says Brites. “Food is not just something we eat; it can be an instrument for human and planetary revival. In other words, we need to think about going beyond sustainability, towards regeneration.”

Such out-of-the-box thinking has inspired Brites throughout his life. An economist by training, he has used break dancing to empower youth; worked on conservation projects in the Amazon; and been global director of sustainability at AB InBev.

“Working on going beyond sustainability is how I met the HowGood team,” he explains. “I joined the team in May, and my job is really about helping large CPG companies, startups, and innovators to incorporate sustainability insights in their decision making – and to build a platform for the future.”

Platform for change 

This sustainability intelligence platform Brites is referring to, which will be demonstrated at Fi Europe, is all about leveraging transparency and using information to empower change.  

“‘Sustainability Intelligence’ relates to three core capacities,” he explains. “The capacity to measure the social and environmental impact of our food in the context of planetary boundaries; the capacity to improve this impact; and the ability to communicate this impact with integrity. In other words, we don’t make claims we can’t support.” 

Brites demonstrates how the platform works. Using a chocolate bar as an example, he inputs the likely ingredients: rolled oats, cocoa powder, agave syrup, sea salt and an emulsifier like lecithin. Unless already known, the platform automatically calculates the most likely sourcing locations. The percentage of ingredients is also added. 

Using this data, the overall sustainability score of a product is calculated, using eight different sustainability metrics.

“Everything is measured in spectrum, from red to green,” Brites explains. “And sustainability is not the end point of the transition. To be regenerative, a product needs to have a positive net impact, i.e., it needs to sequester more carbon in the soil than it puts out.” 

This tool is therefore really about using the potential of food to drive positive impacts.

“If we only measure sustainability after a product has been formulated, we have much less room for change,” adds Brites. “The earlier we can include sustainability impacts, the better. That is why this tool is so transformative.” 

Moving towards regeneration 

The platform not only shows how sustainable a product is, but it also provides the tools to improve the product. Users can change sourcing locations or ingredients, and assess how this affects the overall score. The platform provides pop-up explanations as to how sustainability is measured. 

Other platform modules include an ‘export to market’ function. Here, users can find explanations for a particular product on what sustainable attributes can be communicated in e-commerce, or in store, and what sustainability ratings can be put on packs. EU proposals for mandatory front-of-pack sustainability labels are already in the pipeline.

“We see this platform as providing a connection between retailers, producers, suppliers and food citizens,” says Brites. “After all, everything is connected. Shifting the food system requires a strong network.” 

HowGood has used the platform with a number of major retailers in order to put sustainability ratings on products they sell.

“What we found was that products with the best scores from HowGood saw an uplift in sales of 238% over a three-month period, versus controlled stores,” says Brites. “Industry feedback has been amazing, in part, because a lot of companies simply don’t really know the impact of their food.” 

At Fi Europe, participants will have the chance to try out the platform for themselves. Brites proposes that they try to produce a food product with the best possible social and environmental impacts.

“This game is rooted in indigenous wisdom, which I learned when I was working in the Amazon,” says Brites. “The saying goes something like this: ‘As it is in the game, as it is in life. As it is in life, as it is in the game.’ They believe games can surface and shape how we play our lives.” 
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