We don’t want plastic packaging and food waste. At the same time, we want more fresh food. But fresher food and reduced waste cannot be implemented without plastic. We want chickens to live longer, have more space, be able to exercise more and have less climate impact. But while the first three requirements still work together, they do not go together with the fourth. A climate-friendly chicken is simply not a welfare chicken, unless you limit consumption.

Examples like these are endless. Hans de Gier, founder and owner of the Eindhoven-based automation company SyncForce, refers to them as the 'Goodness Paradox'. For companies in the fashion and food sectors, De Gier creates applications that integrate and make transparent product data throughout the chain. They allow his customers to assess their sustainability score with a simple click.

But De Gier sounds the alarm bell, as reality is sobering in two respects.

The data needed to make those calculations is largely missing. Once the data is available, companies will discover that they can rarely achieve all of their goals at the same time. If they are serious about sustainability, they will have to disclose the data and - however disappointing and painful - make choices between their objectives. More plastic and less freshness, for instance, or more freshness and accept that it leads to more waste. The same applies to broilers. You can't have a welfare chicken that is climate friendly, as the two concepts exclude another. And you can't have vegan and organic farming at the same time, as the latter needs real dung instead of chemical fertilizer.

Data that isn't structured in a meaningful universal taxonomy is useless. Every term must be used in exactly the same way throughout the chain
Sustainable Periodic Table
Zoom in a bit more and you'll discover how complex it is to collect and process useful data. Without data that can be trusted and meaningfully connected, the system is out of wack. If the denominators cannot be compared, they offer companies and consumers no meaningful insights. For example, the CO2 emissions of maize must be calculated in the same way as those of the fertiliser it took to grow the maize and those of the barn and the lives of the chickens that eat it. Otherwise, the label that tells the consumer how 'good' the chicken scores are says nothing because it is based on a mishmash of CO2-definitions. Maize, for example, absorbs and sequesters carbon. Is that positive effect included in the definition? And if so, did the taxonomy make sure the manure incinerated in power plants, as the Dutch do, is labeled extremely unsustainable? Instead, chicken shit should be labeled sustainable if used immediately to grow new crops in order to sequester carbon all the way form crop to food and from poo to crop.

Data that aren't structured in a meaningful universal taxonomy are useless. Every term must be used in exactly the same way throughout the chain. And this has to be done strictly, down to the most basic level. We need the equivalent of a periodic table for sustainable elements and the way we combine them meaningfully if we take our sustainable and ethical ambitions seriously. Chemists collect, dissect and combine data in terms of elementary particles and the ways they relate in ways that make sense. Those who dissect the world sustainably, need to do something similar and will discover that not everything can be achieved at once because of the contradictions in our ambitions.

Sustainability is about making choices as one cannot have a cake and eat it too as the classic broiler example shows. Yet it is the way to go, because data and digitisation will painfully produce the inconsistencies. As soon as media and customers start to notice, businesses will be in deep trouble
Setting up such a universal taxonomy is no easy task. It may even confront optimism. Sustainability is about making choices as one cannot have a cake and eat it too as the classic broiler example shows. Yet it is the way to go, because data and digitisation will painfully produce the inconsistencies. As soon as media and customers start to notice, businesses will be in deep trouble.

Sustainable short-circuit
During the Digital Food webinar on January 22, Hans de Gier discussed this dilemma. He gave several examples of what he calls the Goodness Paradox, the sustainable short-circuit in which companies and consumers can end up if they do not choose between one sustainable ambition and the other shooting off in the opposite direction.

Suppose you want to improve both animal welfare and biodiversity. You therefore commit to organic broilers. The animals can go outside freely, live 20-35 days longer and use their excrement outside to over-fertilise land on which nothing grows, while their feed has to be imported. In the barn they'll emit ammonia (nitrogen) via their faeces. This is bad for nature. However nature conservationists prefer to buy organic. The European Committee supports their inconsistent point of view. However, it can be made consistent by severly limiting consumption, setting standards right while justifying we mustn't import fast growing broilers form elsewhere as we have a true ambition to be sustainable.

Another example. The pharmaceutical industry wants us to live considerably longer by making more and better medicines. This causes more drug residues in our drinking water via our faeces. The environmental hazard permeates our food and poses a health risk that may shorten life. So perhaps drug residues and their impact may be another factor to consider in determining whether the pharmaceutical industry is 'doing the right thing'.

The first question facing companies and governments is how to transform our desire to do the right thing into coherent sets of requirements that are good for the climate, nature, animals and people at the same time
So far two examples show the nature and scale of the issue. The first question facing companies and governments is how to transform our desire to do the right thing into coherent sets of requirements that are good for the climate, nature, animals and people at the same time

Suppose we tackle this challenge by determining the divergent indicators separately. We then determine separately if X supports animal welfare. Then we determine indicators that show if X has a positive impact on nature and the climate as well as our disposable income and health. And finally, how it supports humanity to move forward by ticking all the boxes. You'll have guessed it by now: that does not work because it leads to high welfare, organic and animal-friendly agriculture and 0 emissions at the same time, while you know that you can't have your cake and eat it but try to ignore that.

Yet, that's what we currently do. Eventually, we will have to admit that we do not have a set of comparable indicators, let alone a coherent model of sustainability.

Industry should collaborate bottom up
In such a situation, how can companies show that they are 'doing the right things' and reap the rewards of that because consumers choose their products and may be willing to pay more for them?

We're not shortage of standards, labels and tags. There's growing army out there. Nutri-Score, Planet-Score and Eco-Score are the young shoots on the stem from which also MSC and ASC and industry standards GlobalG.A.P. and Fairtrade have grown.

La note Globale provides each product with a number between 1 and 100. The question remains, however, what exactly '68' means
How did these scores and standards come about? What remains of their meaning when compared? To tackle this problem, France tried La note Globale. This system provides every product with a number between 1 and 100 based on al large set of sustainability issues.The question remains, however, what exactly '68' means if it doesn't tackle inconsistencies in its algorithm (and it doesn't).

The EU is developing a top-down taxonomy that defines practices that contribute to a specific goal while not harming other goals at the same time. It undoubtedly puts us on the way towards a better world, but it cannot do what it suggests as long as it doesn't solve the challenge of incomparable data. Without doing so, even the EC is just fiddling around and glossing over the fact that sustainability is a matter of choice.

In order to make data from various sources comparable, the architects of sustainable must create an information model that defines how a sustainability fact is stored and what exactly it stands for, both in terms of meaning (what does it indicate?) and numerically (what weight do numbers have?).

This requires a chain that collaborates to provide the correct and intercomparable data and bottom up. Because it must be done globally - after all, we eat ice cream with palm fat from Indonesia and eggs from chickens fed with Brazilian soy - only companies can do so, as governments only have local jurisdiction and there's no global authority invested with the power and budget to realize the required data architecture.

Watch thee recording of the webinar The Goodness Paradox with Hans de Gier as part of the Digital Food series brought to you by Agrifoodnetworks.org and Foodlog.nl.

Those who want to demonstrate 'doing the right thing' need a taxonomy to assess what that means. Moreover, that system will have to work for all industries, all geographical regions and throughout the entire value chain - from raw material to product in the shop or webshop and home delivery.

This means, for example, that the data the food industry needs to determine the recycling value of packaging must come from the same system as the data on antibiotics use in animal husbandry in the US.

13% Recycled
That system must assign numbers an unambiguous meaning. If the packaging of product X now shows a recycle symbol with 13% next to it, what does this mean? That the packaging consists of 13% recycled material? That the product itself consists of 13% recycled material? Or that 13% of the product is 13% recyclable?

Suppose it means that 13% of the packaging material is recycled and it's a bottle of Kneipp shower gel. Then you need to know what percentage of the cap is recycled material, what percentage of the bottle itself, and what percentage of the paper cover. You need to know what weight each variable has relative to the others. Only once you have all that information can you make an underlying calculation that supports the claim that 13 percent of packaging material is recycled.

From thereon the real challenge is just starting: actually recycling packages. After all, we want to be able to say: 'brand X is doing really well because they recycle 40% of their products while brand B only gets to 32%'.

Zero emission
Another example. On a Nissan Leaf (an electric car) it says: 'zero emission'. A nice claim, but what does it mean? It is obvious that it is true for the moment you drive it. But if you charge the battery with electricity obtained from burning coal or even woody materials, the claim is already a lot harder to substantiate. Let alone knowing how zero emission the production of the car went.

The industry needs 1) clear indicators, data points and calculations, and 2) information about the lifecycle and value chain in which the product belongs. Then we must be able to link this data to reliable factual entities, such as brands, materials, or locations.

Facilitating interoperability
Industries, governments and NGOs make demands that add complexity to the picture: do they mean what the real data - once established - say? The importance of a universal taxonomic information model is hard to overestimate. Loads of tags and standards blossom that are unfortunately insufficiently concrete, incomparable and often not substantiated or insufficiently substantiated. If companies and governments continue to let the making of claims run its course, a situation will arise where in the end no one will trust any information anymore because smart journalists and NGO's will point out the contradictions and greenwashing behind it.

According to De Gier, the challenge is not to create one global standard, but to arrive at a collective of users of standards, standard-setters and technology providers that enable the intertranslatability of their standards. In jargon, this is called 'facilitating interoperability'. That collective can succeed if it stays out of the game of standard setting itself (as they all have their private interests) and only pays attention to interoperability. Therefore, De Gier advises:
  • keep it agnostic, far from any platform, organisation, data standard or implementation
  • avoid concentrations of power, such as a 'non profit' organisation, which owns the exploitation rights (such organisations abound and block true disinterestedness)
  • let it apply globally
  • accept and expect a variety of standards (precisely because they all have their own importance, you should even encourage them not to be ashamed of it)