The team behind the Consupedia app are on a mission to create a more transparent and sustainable food industry, armed with a database of 250,000 products. With only a barcode scan, it tells consumers how sustainable and ethical their food choices are.
It’s early July on the vacation island of Gotland, in the Baltic sea between the coasts of Sweden and Latvia. The sun shines on rugged cliffs, white sailboats are packed tight in the marina, and a steady stream of people flock towards the center of its largest city, Visby. But its medieval squares and cobblestoned streets are full of people in suits, not summer dresses.
It’s Almedalsveckan—or Politician’s Week—and Gotland has been transformed into a camp for Sweden’s political elite. Every July, Sweden’s most influential politicians, journalists, businesspeople, and NGOs descend on the island. Officially, they’re here to discuss social issues. Informally, they come to network, to party, and to have lunch meetings that are a lot less casual than they seem.
At a restaurant on Stora Torget, the town’s main square, Roberto Rufo Gonzalez’s eyes scan the menu, searching for something sweet. His lunch companions watch him, showing an unusual amount of interest in what he might be having for dessert. They’ve spent the past hour discussing the connection between the food industry and the climate crisis.
Gonzalez finally places his order. “Can I please have the liquorice pipe,” he says—a traditional Swedish candy.
“Are you sure the pipe is vegan?” asks Göran Blomberg, the CEO of ICA-handlernes Forbund, the trade association of Sweden’s biggest grocery retailer. It’s a fair question: earlier, Gonzalez had to ask for the kitchen to prepare a special vegan dish, because there were no vegan options on the menu.
“Of course,” says Gonzalez. He pulls a battered phone out of his white jeans, opens an app, and scans the barcode on the wrapper of the liquorice pipe.
Unlike a lot of liquorice pipes, this one is vegan. Although the text on the wrapper is in Swedish, the pipe was produced in the Czech Republic. The nutrition and ingredient information, in text so small it’s barely readable on the wrapper, is available on the app, too.
Distilling all this information into an app places the world’s largest database of environmental impact, health, and justice related to food at consumers’ fingertips within seconds of scanning a barcode.
The liquorice pipe is rated in four different categories: Climate, Health, Justice, and Water. This pipe scores 38/100 in the climate category—based on criteria such as carbon dioxide emissions and transport involved in the production chain. That’s a below average score compared to other similar products and products in general, the app informs us. For health (drawing on facts such as ingredients, additives, or the presence of antibiotics in the food chain) the liquorice pipe—perhaps unsurprisingly—scores 33/100, significantly below average for food products in Sweden. The pipe does better on its social justice score—based on markers such as equality, animal welfare, and child labor issues—with 70/100.
Users of the app—named Consupedia—can also read about how the score is determined, which facts the information is based on, and get background information about topics such as greenhouse gas emissions, the use of antibiotics in the food industry, and use of child labor around the world. The app’s information is drawn from many sources (and acronyms), such as the RISE Food Climate Database, the WHO, FAOStat (the FAO’s data trove), the Gapminder Foundation (a Sweden-based non-profit fighting global misconceptions), the World Wildlife Fund, the European Food Safety Authority, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), the Water Footprint Network, Nutri-score, and the Bertelsmann Stiftung’s Social Justice index.
Distilling all this information into an app places the world’s largest database of environmental impact, health, and justice related to food at consumers’ fingertips within seconds of scanning a barcode. The database, which currently holds sustainability information about 250,000 food products on the Swedish market, is accessible via the app. Consupedia is connected to the main databases in countries where products are being registered by manufacturers or distributors. As soon as new products or changes are made in these databases, the same change occurs in Consupedia’s database. As a complement to these databases, Consupedia uses information-gathering bots.
Consumers can walk into almost any grocery store in the country, scan the barcode of almost any product, and see how the product scores—as well as compare them to similar products or other brands.
“That’s a lot of information,” says Blomberg.
But Gonzalez didn’t just pull up the app to prove a point about veganism. The app, and the database on which it’s built, is his life’s work. He’s spent the past six years creating it, with the help of professors from Stockholm’s KTH Royal Institute of Technology and Dalarna University. Now the app is ready to launch, but is still in BETA stage. A test version has been available since 2017, and Gonzalez and his growing team are ready to put the wealth of information behind the app to use.
The goal is to create more transparency in the food industry. He doesn’t just want citizens to be better informed about the products they’re consuming, making it easier for them to choose products based on their values rather than just price and packaging—so far the strongest influences on consumer decision-making. He also wants to use the database to nudge stakeholders, such as grocery retailers, restaurants, hospitals, and policymakers, to make more sustainable choices.
Blomberg leaves the lunch table, seemingly impressed with the app, but without making any promises.
“That went well, I thought,” says Johannes Thomhave, Consupedia’s newly hired COO.
“I know,” Gonzalez says, getting up to go to his next meeting. “I’m just tired of things moving so slowly.”
Gonzalez returned to his native Sweden in 2014, after many years in the United States. He grew up in a tiny timber town in northern Sweden, meters from the pine-covered Bothnian coastline and the Söderhamn archipelago. His father, a Spaniard who’d grown up in an orphanage in Grenada and followed Gonzalez’s mother to her homeland, worked as a plumber, his mother as a school teacher. After high school, he followed his brothers to Stockholm and to KTH, Stockholm’s Royal Institute of Technology. After a few years of studying, and a gap year spent repairing roads and drinking vermouth in Grenada, he was awarded a grant to move to Los Angeles to study architecture at UCLA. For the next ten years, Roberto lived on and off in the US, working as a model and founding companies with an American friend.
When his father fell seriously ill in 2014, he returned to Sweden and his father moved in with him. Gonzalez wasn’t sure what he wanted to do next. He considered creating similar companies to those he’d built in the US—selling floating homes, designing clothes, or perhaps even launching an AutoGyro company. But the world didn’t really need more clothes, helicopters, or houseboats. What it needed, he thought, was a more conscious way of consuming. That’s how he came up with the idea of creating a consumer database guiding people and companies towards more sustainable consumption patterns.
“Whatever I came up with, nothing compared to Consupedia. It was the only project that was a solution to an existential problem,” says Gonzalez.
He started looking for more knowledge about the items he was consuming, whether it was food, clothes or electronics, but it was almost impossible to find. And then he started wondering if people would change their lifestyle and their consumption patterns if they were presented with the information he was looking for, and if they knew how it impacted themselves, the animals and the planet.
“I went back to my university, because my professors there are the smartest people I know, and I asked them whether it would make a difference. And they said yes, that research did point in that direction. I said, great, we know that information would make a difference, but how do we gather all this information? They didn’t know the answer to that, so I was left with that problem to solve,” says Gonzalez.
He registered the domain Consupedia.com at the turn of the year between 2014 and 2015, knowing he wanted to create some kind of database about what we consume, but not knowing how. And he got stuck.
It was April, 2016, two years since Gonzalez had left the US, and one since he’d registered the domain. He’d become better at finding the information he wanted before he made his decisions about what to buy and eat, but he still hadn’t figured out how to store the data or make it available to other consumers and companies.
Then one evening, while he was watching television with his father, a program about unknown people doing remarkable things aired. One of them was Sverker Johansson. He wasn’t interviewed because of his position—he’s part of the leadership of Dalarna University—but because in 2014 it had been revealed that he’d written 8.5% of everything ever published on Wikipedia.
“He’d figured out how to teach this bot how to gather huge amounts of information, package it, and automatically write an article that’s published on Wikipedia. On a good day, he said, he publishes 10,000 articles. I got up from the couch. Straight away I saw that we could use this system to gather and package the information for Consupedia,” says Gonzalez.
They had no idea it would take them six years to build the database.
He decided to convince Sverker Johansson to help out with Consupedia. He drove south in his 1971 Buick Riviera Boattail—powered by ethanol—bringing his beloved parrot Åke. When he arrived in Dalarna, he found out that Sverker Johansson was as passionate about parrots as he was about Wikipedia. Gonzalez asked him what he was currently writing about on Wikipedia, and Sverker replied that he was building a database that would gather information and write articles about every single beetle in the world.
“He also told me that the reason he’s doing this for free is that he believes in democracy and every person’s equal right to free information. That’s why Wikipedia is the only platform he uses, and why he spends a lot of time translating stories originally written in Swedish or English to minority languages,” Gonzalez explains.
“Don’t you think we could use this to gather information about something that would have more impact on society than beetles—for example on how our consumption impacts the world?,” Gonzalez asked him. Sverker Johansson was quiet for a moment. Then he nodded. “Yes, I think so. Let’s do it.”
Gonzalez had the consortium he’d wanted. Sverker Johansson and his team at Dalarna University would help with the database, and professors at the KTH Royal Institute of Technology would help out with their knowledge of fact-gathering and behavioral science. Gonzalez drove back to Stockholm, typed out a research proposal, and was awarded $400,000 from Vinnova, the Swedish government’s innovation department. With Gonzalez as head of research, he and his team got to work.
They had no idea it would take them six years to build the database.
Early on, Gonzalez realized he’d have to work with the grocery retailers rather than against them. His goal isn’t only to inform people about their behavior, but to help them change it. For that to happen, consumers need to be informed about their past behavior, and that requires the cooperation of the grocery retailers who store the information Consupedia wants to use.
These days Consupedia does work with grocery retailers, but the grocery retail business hasn’t always been very friendly to Consupedia.
In 2020, Consupedia was presented with a potential lawsuit. Consupedia had agreed with the Swedish grocery retailers association that the database could access their information in a signed contract. But suddenly the grocery retailers wanted to change the contract and make it illegal for Consupedia to publish the information, arguing that it would discredit some products if they received a low rating in the database. Gonzalez feared for Consupedia’s future. If he signed the new contract, it’d be the end of Consupedia; he’d still have the database, but he wouldn’t be able to use the information it held.
A journalist from Dagens Nyheter, a leading Swedish newspaper, interviewed Consupedia about the conflict, but the story was never published. But in December 2020, Greta Thunberg was asked to serve as the newspaper’s editor-in-chief for one day. Gonzalez bought the paper out of curiosity. To his surprise, there was a huge photo of his face on one of the first few pages.
“The food industry wants to stop warnings about climate-hazardous products,” the headline read, and the article described the climate startup Consupedia’s battle against the powerful Swedish grocery retailers. The conflict died down, the threat of a lawsuit disappeared. Consupedia could continue their work, for now.
As a longtime vegan, Gonzalez might have been a frontrunner when it comes to aligning values with consumption, but he isn’t alone. During the years he worked on building the database, the demand for the knowledge it offers grew. According to a report by the consultancy company Accenture and presented at Almedalsveckan, 57% of people worldwide want to make their shopping habits more sustainable. Eighty-five percent of Nordic grocery consumers want to be more supported in their shopping to make more sustainable choices, and 70% of consumers would swap to a more sustainable retailer if they were presented with the right information.
Despite the rising awareness and the interest in living in a more climate-friendly way, most people struggle to make changes. According to research from Kantar, a data analytics company, 92% of people say they want to live a sustainable life, but the vast majority aren’t actually doing anything to change their lifestyle—only 16% do.
The failure to live according to one’s values has been labeled the intention-action or the ambition-action gap, and across the world people are now trying to understand how the gap can be closed or diminished. Many professors studying the gap turn to behavioral scientists, such as Daniel Kahnemann and Richard Thaler, who won the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences in 2002 and 2017 respectively for their work on behavioral economics. One of the main takeaways from their work is that it needs to be easy for people to change their habits, and they need to believe it will make a difference.
“People need to feel agency, and they want to understand what their personal role and impact is. We want people to feel like they have enough information that they can make a good choice. They need to know that if they do make a different choice, that it does make a difference. When people feel disengaged, they feel disempowered, and we want to avoid that,” says Edwina Hughes, who works with food at the World Resources Institute, a global, non-profit research organization.
But research shows that people need more than knowledge. Choosing differently is not only a question of information, but also of expenses, habits, and social questions.
“Knowledge does play a key role, but it can’t stand alone. Unless they’re hardcore engaged political consumers, the biggest factor in what people consume is habits. People do and buy what they’ve always done and bought, and it takes a lot to change those patterns,” Bente Halkier, who researches political consumerism at the University of Copenhagen, says.
It is possible for people to change their ways, though, but often the change is caused by social relations rather than by values alone, she adds.
“Perhaps your daughter comes home and informs you she’s a vegetarian now, your best friend tells you they’re only buying organic food, or the canteen at your office starts offering more plant-based food. For people to change their habits, and especially for those to stick to those changes, it often takes a social push,” says Bente Halkier.
At Almedalen, Gonzalez is wrapping up his day. Whenever he’s had a meeting with someone, whether it’s the suit-clad men at the top of the grocery retail industry or the PR people of NGOs, they’ve made excuses for their lifestyle: for eating meat, flying back to Stockholm rather than taking the ferry, or driving to their vacation house in Spain.
Whenever they do, both Thomhave, Consupedia’s new COO, and Gonzalez try to reassure them: “Consupedia is not about making people live according to Roberto’s values, to become vegan or only drink oat milk,” says Thomhave, who joined Consupedia earlier this year to help with the commercialization of the database.
“The goal of Consupedia is to give people the information they need to start living more in line with their own values, whatever they are. Maybe they care mostly about the climate, maybe they want to boycott products from Israel, maybe they only care about health. How people want to use the information is up to them. We just want them to have the information,” adds Thomhave.
Gonzalez has been at Almedalsveckan every year since he launched Consupedia. He spent the morning debating how to make grocery retail more sustainable. He argued that there should be more legislation, but first of all more information, so that consumers can start making more sustainable choices for themselves until the grocery retailers are ready to do it for them.
“We can leave the responsibility to sustainably transform the food system in the hands of the retailers, the day the Dalai Lama is the CEO of ICA,” says Gonzalez, the ICA being Sweden’s biggest grocery retailer. It’s the third time in a day he’s made the same joke, and the sixth year he’s traveled to Gotland with the same message.
“My message has remained the same, but the group of people I get to talk to has changed. It used to be hard for me to get a meeting with anyone, but now I’m invited to debates with the most powerful lobbying group and having lunch with the biggest grocery retailer in the country,” says Gonzalez.
Still, it’s hard for him to hide his impatience and exhaustion when they repeat their message, arguing that things take time, and that it will take them a while to start taking steps Roberto—and many consumers—are asking them to.
“We don’t need more time, we need more action. We have the information we need. It’s time to start acting on it.”