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Waste Not
What Does 'Upcycled Certified' Mean for Our Food System?

Upcycled Certified is a big step towards a circular economy, and a food system that acts like nature itself — a place where there is no waste — and where shoppers can participate in the best solution to climate, via the products they buy.

In 1980, the National Organic Standards Board met for the first time, and that started the organic food revolution. Today, you can find organic products in almost any grocery store (or even gas station) in the US; rather than being a rarity or even a novelty, people expect to see organic products. Last month, the Upcycled Food Association (UFA) launched Upcycled Certified, the first third-party-verified certification system that shows which products help to prevent food waste. UFA wants upcycled food products to be sold in every grocery store in the country; but instead of taking 40 years, UFA wants to do it by 2030.

That’s by when the US government — as well as UN Sustainable Development Goal 12.3 — aims for us to halve food waste. If we do, we’ll be leveraging the world’s best solution to climate change, and hopefully avoid the worst possible consequences of global warming. In eight-and-a-half years, we need to figure out what to do with 1.25 billion tons of food, annually — half of the 2.5 billion tons (roughly 40 percent) of our food that is wasted every year!

The booming growth of the upcycled food industry has given hope to this lofty goal — using market forces to incentivize food producers, manufacturers, and sellers to upcycle their otherwise wasted food into new products. Here’s the incentive: “Yes, consumers want to buy your upcycled food.”

A recent study published in Food and Nutrition Sciences found that 80 percent of consumers would buy upcycled foods; but right now, only 10 percent of consumers know what they are. So, if we want to find upcycled food products in every grocery store, we need to educate millions upon millions of consumers. How?

Upcycled Certified is the long-anticipated product and ingredient certification program that helps consumers and retailers understand which products are upcycled (the above-mentioned study found that 97 percent of consumers think positively about retailers who carry upcycled products). “Long anticipated” might be a bit of an exaggeration — similar certification systems have taken years to create. UFA employed a huge volunteer network and got it done in 18 months.

Misadventure Vodka, Lost and Found Distillery's spirit made from excess baked goods, is another early recipient of the Upcycled Certification. | Image credit: Misadventure Vodka/Facebook

Soon, the first Upcycled Certified products will be found on grocery store shelves, bearing the Upcycled Certified mark — a logo that was developed pro bono, with volunteer academics providing multiple rounds of consumer research. Ultimately, the logo estimated to increase “intent to buy” a given product for 51 percent of consumers — higher than the Regenerative Organic logo developed by Patagonia and Dr. Bronner’s. Nothing against regenerative organic, really; it’s just that the upcycled movement seems to have struck a unique chord with consumers. Apparently, 95 percent of consumers want to do their part to prevent food waste, according to a study by Mattson.

Further up the supply chain, ingredient wholesalers will soon start to feature Upcycled Certified ingredients as a searchable criterion in their catalogs — enabling businesses to easily use more sustainable ingredients during product development.

“Using an upcycled ingredient is one of the easiest and most effective ways to make a product more sustainable,” said Julia Collins, CEO of Planet FWD, which helps food companies reduce the environmental impact of their products.

It’s true. And with the upcycled industry accelerating so quickly right now, I expect this will be a movement that will ultimately change entire food supply chains. Media coverage of upcycled food increased 128 percent this year; and UFA Members are reporting 160 percent sales growth this year (according to UFA Membership data). And by the end of 2021, we aim to see several hundred Upcycled Certified products and ingredients on the market.

Thanks to generous support from philanthropic supporters, UFA will be launching a video series aimed educating consumers about upcycled food products; and we’re working with retailers to create upcycled promotions and “end caps” in store. It’s all in an effort to try to double the growth rate of the upcycled food industry to at least 10 percent annually for the next 10 years. That means there is a huge opportunity for investors, too. A growing number of upcycled food companies have had successful investment funding rounds this year.

Maybe you’re like me and thinking, “This will all happen because of a measly logo?” Well, it’s more than just a logo. By creating a uniform system for determining which products and ingredients meet the rigorous Upcycled Certification Standard, UFA is also developing a system of tracking the impact of a given upcycled product, company, or the entire industry in aggregate. Soon, upcycled products will be able to tout claims such as, “For every unit you buy, you save [X pounds of food waste and CO2 emissions].”

But Upcycled Certified is more than a tracking system — it’s the banner for one of those rare instances where the interests of business and the environment overlap. It’s a big step towards a circular economy, and a food system that acts like nature itself; a place where there is no waste, and all inputs are automatically elevated to their highest and best use. And where everyday shoppers can participate in the best solution to global warming via the products they buy.