Sustained: Meet the app empowering shoppers to make more sustainable food choices
Sustained, a London-based tech start-up, is on a mission to help everyone make sustainable choices when it comes to the food they buy. With the rise in corporate greenwashing, and a lack of transparency in food labelling and packaging, it can be a challenge to make positive purchasing decisions that truly reduce our impact on the environment.
The Sustained mobile app lets people scan the barcodes of food products, to see an A-G rating (A being the least impactful on the environment, and G being the most), and an at-a-glance breakdown of how that product performs across areas like global warming, land and water use, and ocean pollution.
Co-founder and CEO Carl Olivier was inspired to create an app that would empower customers to make truly sustainable choices. He said: “The reason I co-founded Sustained was to really drive systemic change in the way we consume and produce goods. This is only going to be possible through fundamentally empowering people to make choices that are better for the environment, driving the change needed on the supply and production side. I believe that technology can empower this at scale, ensuring this change can happen more quickly than without it.”
“People want to live more sustainably, but they often feel that they are not going to make any difference. I believe differently.”
Carl started his journey in product engineering in Cape Town, with a small start-up which built some of the earliest dynamic content management technology at the height of the .com boom, before moving to London in 2006 and forging an impressive product-focused career at leading tech brands including Skype, Microsoft and Twilio.
“I have been beyond privileged to work at some amazing companies, and have been part of building truly disruptive technologies, watching the value and impact of those manifest at a scale that I could scarcely have imagined. Millions of people use something I contributed to daily, for things that really matter to them. However, I wanted to put the things I had learned to use for something greater than myself, or the pursuit of profit.”
With the production of food causing more than one third of all environmental damage, from CO2 emissions to biodiversity loss, it has become more important than ever to equip people with the information they need about the sustainability of various foods.
Carl elaborates, “People, on the whole, don’t want to harm the planet if they can help it. The problem is, we are busy and we need help to make sense of complex processes, before decisions can be made. This is where technology helps. We live our lives intertwined with digital experiences for almost everything – including buying our food.”
Sustained uses state-of-the-art Life Cycle Assessment frameworks to score and rate food products, using their ingredients as the basis for impact calculations, which are backed up by defensible science and data.
The app is not a marketing tool for any product or service, but instead seeks to hold businesses accountable for the sustainable choices they are making.
“Ultimately, we want our app to benefit everyone. Businesses that demonstrate their commitment to sustainable changes will be able to command greater market share as consumers choose to move their share of wallet to more environmentally friendly brands, while consumers benefit from being able to make better choices.”
Sustainability is a huge topic, and one that is incredibly complex. Many aspects of the underlying impacts of various food products are often at odds with one another, meaning this level of complexity can never be sufficiently represented as a two dimensional label on the packaging of products.
Sustained has opted for a digital-first approach, one that supports packaging but also makes these complex levels of environmental impact more accessible to busy people.
“Many other eco-labelling initiatives that are on trial at the moment are all of a smaller scale and focused on displaying the label on packaging,” Carl said when speaking on how the Sustained platform addresses these issues of complexity, “We are able to match the scientific rigour of other eco-labelling initiatives, and we can do this at scale, both on the assessment side and on how consumers can interact with and use this data in their day-to-day shopping.”
A key challenge Sustained faces is that people are busy, and any additional steps in their normal shopping habits are likely to face adoption barriers. In order to overcome this, Sustained can be integrated into native shopping applications by retailers and delivery services seamlessly being part of peoples’ existing behaviours.
Sustained is underpinned by defensible science, built for scale and multiple user experiences ranging from physical to digital in highly integrated ways.
Over the past few years, there has been a huge drive from consumers towards buying more sustainable food. The People’s Climate Vote 2021 from the UN showed that food and the impact of food production was one of the most supported areas for investment, while ethical spending from consumers is also on the rise.
Talking about the growing trend of greenwashing in business, Carl comments, “Eco-friendly sells – people have shown that if they believe something is less harmful, they are willing to shift their spend, and often pay a premium. Sustained is all about trust and transparency, about giving people an unbiased view of the facts – something that has been missing until now.
“Price, availability, and quality are the three factors that are the most considered when making purchasing decisions,” Carl said, commenting on the factors impacting decision-making for shoppers, “This won’t change, and we are not advocating for that. We do, however, want to introduce a fourth part of the standard decision-making process – that of sustainability. Of course, in many cases price will still be the main consideration, but having the additional information allows for a trade-off to be made where possible.”
“Everything is a compromise, and people are only willing to make decisions if they trust the information they use to make them. This comes back to the need for visible, actionable information about the sustainability of the products we buy.”
Carl recognises that this is still a very young area, presenting a wealth of opportunity for Sustained: “Our aim is to be a credible solution to a lot of different actors, which is why our mission is so important, far more than just pure revenue projection. The market is huge – there are hundreds of thousands of products, all of which need to be assessed.”
“We are starting to talk to retailers and brands as we believe they have an essential part to play in the systemic change needed. Sustained has the tools to help them do that and we are going to ensure we work with them to implement the changes required.”
The app already supports most UK grocery retail products, with more than 194,000 products listed in its database. Sustained continuously expands this core data set in the UK, and is looking to do the same in a number of European countries. The underlying core technology means that other sectors, such as fashion and consumer electronics, are viable for Sustained to move into, although this is not currently planned. Sustained is also starting to talk to product brands and manufacturers about working together to improve the quality and coverage of the data and thus the rated products available in the app.
The last 15 months of bringing the Sustained app to market have taught Carl a number of unexpectedly valuable lessons along the way: “The smallest things really do matter, while this is not new, the visceral way in which it impacts everything has certainly been brought into stark focus for us!”
“Starting a tech business, or any business for that matter, is a daunting and incredibly fulfilling endeavour. It is always a rollercoaster with some days having you feel like there is no point in continuing, and others where you feel nothing can stop the business. Keeping focused on your ultimate goal and vision, while ensuring a balance of speed and quality on the execution is critical. You will make mistakes, accept that and build that into your culture, specifically to take those learnings and apply them to your next steps.
“Ultimately, this is a journey. We have only just started, and we will need help from a multitude of people and organisations along the way. As science and technology evolve, along with important milestones in legislation, we at Sustained will always strive to be open and transparent about the way in which we assess impact.”
Sustained is available as a mobile app for iOS and Android, with a companion browser extension for Chrome and Safari.
For more information, visit: https://www.sustained.com/