An online shopping platform that lets you see with one click how healthy and sustainable a product is and whether it’s locally made is on the way, reports Maria Slade.
Peanut butter choice is a deeply personal thing and the wrong brand at breakfast is a bad start to anyone’s day.
Left to my own devices, I go straight for the Countdown Essentials smooth – with added sugar no doubt, packaged in a plastic jar definitely, and a bargain at just $2.30.
In the interests of this story I’m prepared to have that preference put to the test, so I spend half an hour on Countdown’s online shopping site researching the options. The problems with my natural tendency soon become evident. Not only is the home brand adding more plastic to the environment, it scores just three stars on the Health Star Rating system, contains additives with numbers instead of names, and is made in China.
If I really want to save the planet, my health and the New Zealand economy in one purchasing decision I should buy Pic’s smooth peanut butter. Containing nothing but nuts and salt, it gets five health stars, comes in a glass jar, and is lovingly made in Nelson (albeit out of Australian nuts). It’s also more than twice the price at $6.00.
But that’s the thing. Who’s got time to sit down and evaluate 25 products before selecting their favourite toast topper? And even if you are willing to invest the effort, are you prepared to pay potentially double to do the right thing by your body and the world it inhabits?
What if there was a service that could answer all these questions for you at the click of a mouse or swipe of a screen? It’s a conundrum Auckland startup Crunch and Flourish is working on solving with an online supermarket shopping platform that rates products on a range of measures including the sustainability of their packaging, their healthfulness, and their provenance.
It’s begun with a system it calls the Packaging Star, rating products from one to five on how environmentally friendly their packaging is, and has plans to add the government-backed Health Star ratings and Buy New Zealand Made labels. As far as it’s concerned the sky’s the limit for the information it can provide, founder James Muir says.
The independent platform pulls together details from different sources and serves it up to online shoppers in a digestible way, allowing them to make buying decisions that are aligned with their concerns. “The nice thing about what we’re doing with the Health Star for example is we can deliver it in a way that’s useful to the shopper. So if you’re not interested in the Health Star but you are interested in salt, we can just flag that. We’re basically providing tailored granular information to the shopper.”
While the Health Star is not without its problems, people do use it and switch brands accordingly. But four out of five New Zealand products don’t carry it. “Crunch and Flourish is filling that gap,” Muir says.
Early results show its packaging rankings influence shoppers’ buying decisions. “In every trial that we’ve done we’ve seen people change at least one product and in many cases they change several brands because of the Packaging Star.
“Customers love it because they feel they’re encouraging the brands to lift their game.”
On the supermarkets’ side, providing this service would encourage people to shop more online and thus become a more valuable customer overall, he says. It also gives businesses another way to communicate with their customers. “New Zealand Made in many ways epitomises the challenge here, that there are organisations which brands and products have committed to but their way of communicating with the shopper is limited.”
Crunch and Flourish’s aim is to go global and be a part of changing the system. “We’re getting to a point where the business imperative and technology allow people to care and take action on a daily basis,” Muir says.
So far the startup is a small team of data scientists and developers beavering away at innovation hub GridAKL on the algorithms and image processing required to produce the consumer-facing information. But it is clearly tapping into a consumer awakening. While environmental groups may criticise the official demise of single use plastic bags on July 1 as a mere drop in the ocean in addressing plastic pollution, it has been a very high profile drop and has given people a sense they can make a difference. Initiatives such as New World’s ‘nude’ shopping and both major supermarket groups’ introduction of BYO reusable plastic containers at the deli show retailers and their suppliers are acutely aware that calls for sustainable grocery solutions are only going to grow louder.
Grocery Council CEO Katherine Rich applauds Crunch and Flourish’s effort. “I think any service that provides information to shoppers to help them shop more wisely is a good thing,” she says.
Her response comes with a large ‘but’, however. “What it has embarked on is very, very complex.”
It’s not a new concept and there have been attempts in the past to do this kind of thing for ingredients and healthfulness, she says. “The devil is often in how do you maintain a mammoth database of products and maintain its accuracy?
“Supermarkets will have between 8000 and 15,000 stock keeping units, or different products, and thousands and thousands of them will change every year. As firms continue on their own sustainability journeys packaging will also change.”
The industry has been working on the packaging issue for a long time, and many of the council’s members plus both Foodstuffs and Countdown have signed the New Zealand Packaging Declaration, which commits them to using 100% reusable, recyclable or compostable packaging in their local operations by 2025.
“The issue comes down to collecting data so you’ve got a good baseline and then you can tell what changes have been made.
“There is a bit of a watch out in that if you’re going to be representing a company’s products and you get information wrong, that will euphemistically lead to ‘discussions’.
In addition, grocery manufacturers may be able to offer this kind of information themselves by uploading it to the GS1 global barcode system. “Many of our members are starting to do that because they too want to be able to give greater visibility to retailers,” Rich says.
Kelly McClean, sustainable packaging project manager at Pakn’Save and New World operator Foodstuffs NZ, also says there are other tools out there, although they are still in a development phase and not yet consumer-facing. An example is PREP, the tool that underlies the new Australasian Recycling label which aims to take the confusion out of what can be recycled. The methodology is still being worked out to extend that system to New Zealand, McClean says.
“That’s quite a useful one for the industry, for packaging designers to use to understand what changes they would need to make to reach that recyclable goal.”
The other issue is doing full life cycle assessments for a product, she says. “It’s very time-consuming, so it’s quite a tricky ask to try to put a rating around it in an equal way for multiple product types. So I’d be really curious to understand how they [Crunch and Flourish] will manage that.”
On the packaging side Crunch and Flourish might be better off working in conjunction with the Australasian Recycling label, which was developed two years ago and is already being used by a number of major brands, says Adele Rose, chief executive of recycling solutions business 3R Group and programme manager for the Packaging Forum.
“But kudos to them for helping to spread the message that recycling packaging labeling and having a system consumers can trust is really important.”
However not all customers are looking for this kind of information nor will be influenced by it, Rose says.
“There are a group of consumers that absolutely want that, they are highly engaged and wanting to make those right choices.
“There’s another section of consumers who will still buy on price, and that’s out of necessity.”