You know when you buy food with barcodes, the packaging has one of those little tables telling you how many milligrams of this and that you’ll be ingesting? These exist because we care about what we put in our bodies. Or I suppose more accurately, because someone somewhere wants us to care.
What if we were to care that much about the planet? I don’t particularly care how many carbohydrates are in my bag of self-raising flour, but I’d like to know if it took an acre of rainforest and 92 litres of water to produce. Wouldn’t that be a neat thing to see on the label?
So, what sort of things should show in this little table. Land area, to start with, but that alone doesn’t make sense. Maybe one lettuce and one cob of corn took the same amount of space to grow, but the plot of land used for the lettuce is only needed for a few weeks. So that bit of land can produce, say, 25 lettuces each year. But the corn takes a full year. So the comparable statistic must be something like “square meter days”. If a head of lettuce takes one tenth of a square meter of land to grow, and grows in 10 days, that’s 1 square meter day. If corn takes, say, 100 days to grow, that would be 10 square meter days.
Lettuce is easy, what about something complex like breakfast cereal. How much space does sodium ascorbate take to grow? They’ll work it out, I’m sure. But the real important part is that packaging is included. Individually wrapped tic-tacs, I’m looking at you.
The consumer need not understand all of this. The marketing boffins can come up with a cool name like ‘land cost’ or something. The consumer only needs to know that big is bad, and to show some small preference toward products that require less space to make.
So big food companies have an incentive to design products that source ingredients with lower land cost, lowering the value of crops that require making orangutans sad.
Water. This demonstrates that this isn’t just about food. A lot of water goes into your jeans. There are probably responsible and less-responsible ways to make jeans, how is the consumer to know which mindset was applied to their leg coverings? This is trickier though because water is sustainable, sort of. And it’s regional, sort of. There’s no such thing as a ‘global’ water shortage, because ‘saving’ water in Sydney (and letting it run to the sea) doesn’t help anyone anywhere else. So if you’re buying a product made in a country that doesn’t have water shortage issues, it makes no sense to penalise them for using lots of water, and you certainly wouldn’t want to pressure them to spend money on implementing water-saving measures if there was no benefit to anybody at all. Hmm, so maybe not water.
Greenhouse gas emissions (carbon, methane, the rest) would be a must, and again expand the potential range of this from food to watches, TVs, cars and houses.
The important thing is always that I can look at two boxes of cereal, or two TVs, or two cars, and have some sense of which one is causing the planet more damage.
I don’t think there needs to be a lot of metrics. Two or three should do it. Lowering land use gets us our forests back. Forests soak up CO2. This will slow the warming. Water use is tricky, maybe not needed in version 1. Carbon emissions are a no-brainer. In 2030 we will look back and be amazed that in 2020 the shelves of supermarkets didn’t tell you how much CO2 was produced in the making of your products even though we knew it was the single biggest problem facing humanity. We will look back and we will laugh.
Attempts like this are fraught with danger. You can imagine a world where a producer chooses to use some dodgy additive instead of palm oil because it will get their ‘land-cost’ score down, leading to a worse result for the consumer.
I propose a ‘game the system’ competition. After a draft plan is put in place, a bunch of people who can think like greedy corporate types are asked to come up with ways to cheat the numbers. Whoever comes up with the most irresponsible idea wins the role of CEO at a big pharma company. OR, you could just let nature run its course, let greedy corporate types cheat the system, and hold an annual awards ceremony each year (The Shameys) for the brand that tried to fool its customers most egregiously — for each ‘winner’ of this competition, their competitors get a free ad spot to talk about how they care about their customers and the planet.
And it seems mad to say, but some concern is valid over inciting change too quickly. If everyone stops buying palm oil at the same time, the unwealthy countries who make a sizeable portion of their moolah from such crops may suffer. Yes, I do enjoy being naïve, thank you for asking.
Also, someone has to pay for this. And if the price of food goes up, it’s the people who are financially worst off that feel the pinch the most. That’s not OK. So we want smart people to work out ways to make this exercise as cheap as possible for producers, and governments/non-profits to foot the bill.
Having thought about it for a total of 30 minutes, I’m thinking something like this:
- A non-profit works out the numbers for the most popular products out there. Corn flakes, Coke, Mars bar. Crowd source it, people love being able to volunteer without leaving the house.
- They make an app that can search or scan barcodes and allows users to look these things up. Early adopters will do this and start spreading the word about products they just learned are 10x more damaging to the planet than sensible substitutes.
- They publish their methodology for how they went about it and are open about how many person-hours it took to generate the numbers. So Coca-Cola or Mars or Kellog can do the sums and say “right, it’d cost us x million dollars to do this for all of our products, update packaging, etc” and know how much they need to take out of the marketing budget to get it done.
- One of the smart countries, maybe Estonia or Canada or New Zealand or Japan, mandates this. Perhaps targeting companies with more than x products in their range to start with (we don’t want to make life harder for non-global-conglomerates).
- Any producer with ‘eco’ as part of their branding would be well advised to add one of these little tables too. Perhaps this could be worked in to the definition of ‘organic’. Really, “organic” carries connotations of goodness. And if you’re good, you care about the planet, you’ll want to be showing this little table of metrics.
- Speaking of ‘good’ an ‘organic’, people will soon enough learn that GMO foods can take up a lot less space than regular stupid foods and people can start to get educated about the positive impacts GMOs could have. At the very least we could shift the conversation from “no never!” to “what are the pros and cons?”
Thank you for reading about my ill-thought-through idea that is probably already done in Estonia.