Frequently Asked Questions
What is sustainable food?
As a minimum, sustainable food systems are considered as those which meet the nutritional needs of our growing global population while aligning with environmental planetary boundaries, providing a fair wage to workers and high welfare for animals. However, this is just a minimum.
Given the gravity of the climate and ecological crisis, there is no reason why we should set our sights any lower than achieving a zero-emissions food system with thriving nature alongside thriving rural economies and affordable, nutritious food. There are some excellent, more detailed discussions around sustainability and food to be found here.
At Foodsteps, we strive to take an evidence-based approach to food sustainability, using the best available research to guide our environmental impact calculations and recommendations. We support our partners in reducing their impact on CO2 emissions, land use, water use and pollution, using the most comprehensive LCA database on the impacts of different foods.
Trends across our own work and research support the bulk of the scientific literature calling for a shift towards seasonal, plant-based foods as essential pillar of tackling the ecological crisis. However, we do not subscribe to any particular food philosophy. We believe this is important for making sure that our assessments are an objective inquiry into the best available evidence on the environmental impacts of food.
What information do you require to calculate impacts?
We offer two assessment streams. Based on your data availability and aims, you may find either approach more suitable.
1. Recipe, product or meal assessments
Here, we calculate the carbon footprint and other environmental impacts of meals, recipes or food products. This is the best choice if you are looking to add environmental labels to dishes, menus or food products, or understand which of your dishes are the most and least sustainable.
For this approach, we require an ingredients list with quantities for each recipe, meal or food product. We also request as much information as you can provide about the sourcing of ingredients, as this helps to make the assessments more accurate. Information on which wholesale supplier you use is usually sufficient to cover this.
We also have a large database of common recipes, meals and food products which we can use to help you fill in the gaps if needed.
2. Procurement assessment
Our procurement assessments are the most detailed and thorough way to understand your environmental impact and start making reductions. This is the best choice if you are looking to craft a Sustainable Food Policy that incorporates targets for carbon footprint and other impact reductions, or looking to integrate an existing food policy into company-wide sustainability targets.
Our procurement assessment will provide you with a look into your overall impact, as well as a detailed breakdown of the impact scores for individual products that you purchase. From here, we help you set targets for reductions and devise strategies to meet these targets.
For this approach, we require information on purchasing history. We also request as much information as you can provide on the sourcing of food products, as this helps to make the assessments more accurate. Information on which wholesale suppliers you use is usually sufficient to cover this.
How do you calculate impacts?
Foodsteps uses life cycle assessments (LCAs) of the environmental impact of food products.
The LCA figures that we use in our impact modelling are largely based on a study published by Poore et al., (2018) in the academic journal Science. In this study, data from LCA studies published between 2000 and 2016 are consolidated and standardised to give a dataset comprising 38,700 commercially viable farms in 119 countries, and 40 products representing 90% of global calorie consumption.
Impacts vary by source region, and so food impacts can be calculated for either global or regional production of products. The most appropriate can then be selected.
What do you include in your calculations?
The 'system boundary' of our calculations account for impacts from farm to retail store. This includes all greenhouse gas emissions and other environmental impacts associated with land use change, growing, processing, packaging, retail and pre-sale transportation.
See below for a more detailed description of how impacts are calculated at each stage of food production.
What's not included in your calculations, and why?
The system boundaries used mean that post-retail stages (cooking and consumer losses) are not considered at present. However, Foodsteps is working on incorporate this into our work.
We also do not account for carbon or biodiversity offsetting through avoided emissions or mitigative actions taken. We strongly believe that the most vital steps towards sustainability come from reducing existing emissions and impacts through procurement, efficiency or behaviour changes. This is in line with well-founded criticism of offsetting as a legitimate environmental strategy (e.g. see this).
Can numbers tell us everything?
Like everything, using numbers such as carbon footprint scores to capture the full-scope of sustainability has its limitations. For example, these numbers don't directly account for things like the impacts of specific farming techniques on local wildlife, or how fairly-paid the farmers were in making the products.
Nevertheless, there remain well-established and important insights that we can take from metrics such as carbon footprint scores. When coupled with knowledge about what these figures mean and how they are calculated, we believe that footprints scores can be a powerful tool for any chef, consumer, business or farmer to improve their sustainability. That's why we always couple our environmental footprint calculations with detailed accessible information and sustainability engagement tools.
Further, given the urgency of the climate and biodiversity crisis, we believe there is a lot to be gained by simply sparking the conversation around climate, nature and food. Numbers can be a relatable, thorough and accessible way to do this.