Because Food Miles Don’t Go Far Enough.

You need this –

It is super cool. You’re in Aisle 11, looking at toilet paper. One brand’s packaging has a frog in a little green triangle. Another one features a big green tick. One is totally friendly. The other one donates a few bucks to some dodgy enviro charity, while pumping bleach into China’s waterways. You can’t tell which is which. Pop quiz hotshot – what do you do? is gonna save you.

You wander into a shop, scan a barcode with your iphone, and the website gives it a score out of 10. It’s an average of the environmental impact of the product, the health rating, the labour conditions involved in its manufacture, etc.

The idea is to make the unobservable product qualities observable.  This website lets you find out all the stuff the company doesn’t want you to know.

If you’re not iphone equipped, you can browse products on the web in advance. currently takes no advertising, and is run by the guy who made famous the state of labour conditions in Nike factories in Asia. The number of products reviewed is a bit thin at the moment, but it has potential.

I’d been thinking recently about a service a little bit like this.

My idea was just focussed on the environmental impact of a product. I wanted to be able to find out a product’s water use implications, particle emissions, water pollution, carbon emissions, forest clearing and landfill implications, to name a few.

The reason? I get revved up by people who are obsessed by food miles. Carbon is not the only by-product of growing food!  A food mile is a ludicrous measure of a mouthful’s environmental impact.

I’ll concede that flying pumpkins around is probably dumb.  But putting snowpeas on a train might have benefits relative to growing them where soil quality means fertiliser is needed, and where water is scarce. Equally, eating local pigs might pollute the environment more than bringing home the bacon from a place where piggeries’ waste products are properly dealt with.

That such an inherently limited idea as food miles had captured the public attention was a clue that a proper information service would be invaluable.

Properly determinigng the environmental impact of your choices would involve two pretty difficult steps:
1.Gathering info from across the product life-cycle (production, transport, retail, use and disposal)
2.Finding a way of equating the environmental impact of a cleared acre of Amazon, with the impact of, say, the pollution of a local river.

(I thought maybe a cool way to find out would be an online market that would allow trade in those goods – ‘intact rainforest’ and ‘clean river’ – in order to find the exchange rate between them.)

That’s hard enough. Doing what good guide does, and collapsing point of origin information and health implications into a single score is going to be either very tricky, or very useless. They need to be very sharp on allowing people to personalise the way their scores are made, or their service will drown in compromise.

Thoughts? Reckon you’d use How could they do it better?

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Thomas the Think Engine is the blog of a trained economist. It comes to you from Melbourne Australia.

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