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Tuesday July 28 General

Counting Carbon: Fighting Climate Change One Salad at a Time

By Sandra Noonan, Chief Sustainability Officer, Just Salad and Leigh Anne Statuto, MBA in Sustainability Candidate at Bard College and Summer 2020 Sustainability Fellow, Just Salad

“A calorie label simply isn’t enough anymore – we need to know how our food choices affect our well-being at a planetary level,” says Sandra Noonan, Chief Sustainability Officer of Just Salad.

Half of Americans feel “helpless” when it comes to solving climate change. Yet we have an extremely powerful tool available to us three times a day – what we eat!

With the food supply chain making up a quarter of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions annually, there is a huge opportunity to mitigate the effects of climate change through more conscious food choices. In fact, Project Drawdown has identified the adoption of plant-rich diets as one of the top five actions we can take to curb global warming significantly.

Enter Just Salad’s newest sustainability endeavor: carbon labeling. Our commitment is to display the estimated greenhouse gas emissions for each of our menu items by Climate Week NYC 2020.

A Collective Responsibility

Just Salad has already taken a number of steps to run a climate-smart business. In 2019, we replaced grass-fed beef on our menu with plant-based Beyond Beef® and launched a food scrap separation program in our kitchens. We’ve run a Reusable Bowl program since 2006, keeping waste out of landfills, and we’re now requiring guests to opt in for plastic utensils on our digital ordering platforms including orderjustsalad.com.

This year, as COVID-19 gave many of us a new perspective on human and planetary health, Just Salad saw an opportunity to shine light on the link between our dietary choices and climate change. Our decision to carbon label our menu was inspired by studies showing that consumers support climate-related disclosures on the products they buy.

A team of MBA students from New York University’s Stern School of Business worked with us to determine how we would estimate the emissions of our menu items. With limited financial and staff resources for this project, we decided to estimate “cradle to farmgate” emissions which include farm-level production and upstream resources. Eventually, we’d like our calculations to also reflect transportation, which generally makes up less than 10% of food-related emissions.

So what did our calculations reveal, and how does one read a carbon label? 

  • For starters, 1 kg CO2e is equivalent to the emissions from driving 2.5 miles in an average passenger vehicle.
  • The emissions from the daily American diet are 4.7 kg CO2e per day on average -- though that number needs to come down if we are to reduce food-related emissions to levels recommended by climate experts
  • Three-quarters of our menu items are below 1 kg CO2e altogether. By contrast, a quarter-pound beef patty has a footprint of 3.75 kg CO2e.

Through our carbon labels, we’re trying to inspire a new way of eating that takes planetary health into account. We call this “climatarianism.” The Nutrition Facts label was introduced in 1994 and today many of us can’t imagine making food purchasing decisions without glancing at the calorie count. In a few years’ time, perhaps we will say the same thing about carbon labels.

Universal Carbon Transparency

Your daily carbon footprint goes way beyond your diet. It includes things like air conditioning, plane trips, and every product you purchase from shampoo to clothing. According to the organization Carbon Calories, each of us should be living within a daily carbon quota of 16,668 g CO2e (or 16.7 kg CO2e) for the year 2020. Furthermore, that quota must fall 7-12% this decade to meet global emissions reductions targets.

Without universal disclosure of carbon emissions, it’s impossible for consumers to track or budget their daily carbon emissions. Luckily, carbon labeling on consumer products is beginning to gain traction. Companies like Unilever, Logitech and Oatly have committed to carbon transparency on their products. This is what it will take to move us towards a future where we count carbon the same way we track calories or daily expenditures.

Climate Week NYC 2020 should mark the start of a consumer-led shift toward carbon transparency, an age when we collectively reduce carbon emissions by learning to live and purchase within planetary boundaries. The first step in doing that is to understand the impacts of our choices. Carbon transparency is an important step in that direction.

Over to You

*Offer valid for new customers only on orderjustsalad.com. Offer ends 8/5/20. Minimum order value $10 before tax and tip. Cannot be combined with any other offers or promotions.

Just Salad is a member of the Climate Action is Our Business campaign run through Climate Week NYC.

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