Tracking the Carbon Footprint of Food
By Lori Atherton
One of the questions that sustainability entrepreneur Ajay Varadharajan (MS/MSE ’11) gets asked most often is which lifestyle changes have the biggest impact on climate change. Varadharajan, whose clients include food companies for whom he’s developed sustainability strategies, decided to meet the growing interest in a sustainable lifestyle by focusing on one aspect of it: food.
Varadharajan is the creator of GreenSwapp, the “first carbon-neutral grocery store app” that tracks the carbon footprint of the food items you buy, suggests lower-impact products that can reduce your cart’s footprint, and offsets the rest of it to make them carbon-neutral.
GreenSwapp—which Varadharajan likens to an “environmental nutrition label”—utilizes scientific data, including life cycle assessment and science-based targets that were set during the Paris Climate Accord, to calculate the impact of each food product and personal carbon budgets.
“If you knew that a food item, like a pot pie, had 350 nutrition calories, how would you know if that’s good or bad, unless you knew that the recommended daily intake was 2,000 calories?” Varadharajan asks. “We determined what the weekly carbon footprint budget for food alone needs to be for each of us, so that as you add items to your basket, you can measure their impact against a carbon budget to determine if you are below the recommended limit of 1.5 degrees Celsius,” which experts consider to be the tipping point for global warming.
GreenSwapp separates each food item according to its carbon footprint—low, medium, or high impact—and assigns it a corresponding color. A red thermometer denotes items with a high carbon footprint, for example, while an orange thermometer signifies products with a mid-level carbon footprint and a green thermometer denotes those with a low carbon footprint. If users select items so that their cart’s total exceeds the allotted carbon budget of 1.5 degrees Celsius, they can swap those products with lower-impact alternatives (giving the app its name), thus reducing their carbon footprints and getting back below the budget.
In addition, every order automatically includes a contribution to a “Verified Carbon Offset” project, such as those that plant trees or invest in renewable energy, to ensure that your groceries are carbon neutral.
Currently, GreenSwapp’s consumer app only delivers in Amsterdam, where Varadharajan lives and operates GreenSwapp and his consultancy firm Green Insights. However, it is available as an online monthly subscription service—Varadharajan calls it the “Fitbit of Food Sustainability”—for corporations, supermarkets, and other food businesses across the globe that want to track, reduce, and eliminate the carbon footprint of their food.
“Our mission is to stop climate change,” says Varadharajan, who was a dual major in Sustainable Systems and Mechanical Engineering at U-M. “Anybody who has ever heard of climate change or sustainability knows the dire situation we are in. The time to act is now.”