Transparently from the Field to Your Table
It is undisputable that there is a need for radical dematerialization in our western societies and a shift towards total transparency in food production in order to achieve an ecologically and socially sustainable resource use on a global level. We can’t all be self-sufficient and grow our own food, but we can all make more sustainable food choices when given the knowledge about what a sustainable food choice is.
Helsinki Wildfoods is a player in the food industry, and therefore we need to be aware of what kind of impact our production might have on renewable and nonrenewable resources. We also need to know what kind of social impacts our production might have.
At the current time, we know that we’re not doing everything perfectly - if there even is such a thing as perfect production - but what we absolutely do, is constantly try to figure out how we can do things as sustainably as possible with the knowledge and resources we have at use today.
Being a small startup company has an advantage; we can be agile and change our procedures into more sustainable forms quickly, if needed.
One step we see as crucial towards equal and fair food production is transparency. That is why we’ve chosen transparency as one of our core business values. We want to open about our business model and let our customers know what kind of products they are consuming and what impact this has.
What can we do to be transparent?
The obvious thing is to be honest about the origin of the raw materials. Where do our herbs come from? Are they wild or cultivated? If they’re cultivated, under what circumstances are they grown? Who forages the wild herbs and vegetables for us? What kind of package material is being used? How are the products transported and for what sorts of distances?
Then there are some more complicated questions. For example, what kind of material or carbon footprint does a product have? Complicated or not, everything could and should be measured in oder to understand what kind of impact the production of a product is having on the environment and climate. As a young startup company, we want to dig into these questions to be as transparent as possible. We don’t quite yet have all the knowledge to measure or understand everything about these questions, but being an inquisitive bunch of entrepreneurs we sure will strive towards a situation where we can give you our answers.
As an eternal student, I got the opportunity to look closer at the material footprint of a chosen product or service as part of an assignment for my environmental science studies this autumn. The obvious choice was to choose one of Helsinki Wildfoods’ bestseller products - the 100g Nettle Crush. As it was a group assignment, I was happy to have my co-students, Inka and Jenni, join me on this investigation of the Nettle Crush’s environmental impact and resource use.
At the moment, Helsinki Wildfoods’ nettle is cultivated organically and packed in biodegradable pouches in Eura, western Finland. The distributor is located in Rusko, in southwestern Finland.
What is the material footprint?
The material footprint is a way to calculate and optimize the resource consumption of both products and their ingredients and the production processes along the whole value chain. It covers the whole life cycle of the product, from raw material extraction to processing, distribution, consumption, recycling, and disposal. The method used for material footprint calculation is called MIPS (Material Input Per Service Unit). The MIPS indicator shows how much natural resources an activity or product has consumed during its life cycle. MIPS is a kind of an indicator of eco-efficiency. You can imagine that measuring the material footprint for a product is not a quick task, especially not for novice students, but ever more intriguing.
MIPS figures are usually calculated on five levels. These are abiotic natural resources, biotic natural resources, water, air and erosion. Abiotic natural resources stand for non-renewable materials, biotic natural resources for renewable materials. Air consumption means the amount of air constituents that are chemically changed by humans, that is, basically the amount of oxygen combusted. The quantity of oxygen burnt also reflects the amount of carbon dioxide formed, because air consumption causes carbon and hydrogen to be oxidized to carbon dioxide and water. Thus, the MIPS air consumption category roughly estimates the amount of carbon dioxide emissions.
With the help of the MIPS system, it is also possible to calculate, for example, the material footprint of a person’s life.
The more well-known carbon footprint value and the material footprint support one another excellently. Material footprint is the way to measure how our consumption choices consume natural resources whereas the carbon footprint measures how the total set of greenhouse gas emissions caused by our actions affect the climate.
Finns, the spendthrifts
We know that Finns are using far more natural resources than many other groups of people. If everyone on this planet would consume as much as us we do, we would need four planets to cover the environmental effects of our consumption. An average Finn is consuming 40 000 kilos of natural resources per year. In other words, the material footprint of a Finn is 40 000 kilos per year. How we live, what we eat, the way we travel and the services we use are all consuming the renewable and nonrenewable resources of our planet. 25-32% of the whole material consumption composes of food consumption. In order to decrease resource consumption to a level in line with our planetary boundaries, the material footprint of our consumption should achieve a level of six to eight tons per Finn.
Knowing this, as a company, we need to act as an environmental educator while also optimizing our products to be as eco-efficient as possible. Helsinki Wildfoods and all the other food producers should make it easy for consumers to choose environmentally consciously. That is also why companies need to be totally transparent about their production and in some way make the material footprint and carbon footprint values of their products and services available for consumers. That might be a utopian thought today, but I would hope the trend will take a turn and it will become a norm in the near future.
As a producer of consumer goods, we are obliged to know what kind of load our production is having on natural resources and with this knowledge, make the necessary changes to make our production more sustainable. Thus, the material footprint measurement of a product is a crucial and valuable indicator.
The material footprint of the nettle crush
Almost all the steps of production of one 100g bag of Nettle Crush consumes resources. The journey of the nettle from the field to the table, aka the life cycle of the nettle, gives us the material footprint value when using the MIPS method.
The life cycle of the Nettle Crush goes through several phases.
When counting the material footprint of a product or service, you need to define what you are counting and what you are leaving outside the life cycle system, set the boundaries. Theoretically, you could count everything all the way from the resources being used to build the production facilities to the materials of the dehydrator. In addition, we could also consider the disposal of the biodegradable pouch and all the processes related to recycling to be a part of the product’s life cycle. In practice though, some values are insignificant when counting the final material footprint. Basically, MIPS doesn’t always reveal the exact environmental impact but it is assumed to reveal this at a rough level, given the set boundaries.
We found out that for the 100g pouch of the Nettle Crush, the material footprint for the use of water is 1644kg/100g, for air 1,98kg/100g and for biotic, abiotic and erosion 9,2kg/100g. The air and water values come mostly from the electricity consumption of the dehydrator. The value for biotic, abiotic and erosion comes also mostly from the electricity consumption of the dehydrator (50%) but also from the use of fertilizers. The fertilizers are from natural recourses, but still the impact was noticeable (36%). We also found out that the variable crop amount would have an impact on the final values. If the yield would be doubled, the material footprint would be 18% smaller. The exact amount of the crop was quite difficult to estimate, so the real value might differ.
If wind power would be used, the material footprint value would be almost 50% smaller. The use of air would diminish by 96% and use of water would diminish by 99,2%.
The obvious first recommendation is for our business partners to switch from the use of conventional energy to renewable energy sources. In fact, educating our partners about the benefits of renewable energy is something we can and are already doing. It would also be useful to recalculate the material footprint with more accurate information about the different phases of the process.
The second recommendation would be to calculate the material footprint for Helsinki Wildfoods’ other products. This, and the measurement of carbon footprints, is actually something we are planning to do, starting with our new, upcoming Just Add products with the help of professionals.
When we’ll have these accurate footprint values, we’ll most certainly let you know. It would be ideal to have these values clearly on the product packages, on our website and web shop, and inform our retailers. We hope we can serve as an example for other companies as well to open up their production methods and their impacts and encourage their customers towards conscious consumption.
Photos: Aino Huotari, Anna Nyman, Inka Wessmann