Minimalism + Veganism = Sustainable Food Design

There are two quite controversial words in this title; two big words, full of meaning and history. Minimalism and Veganism are the two concepts that when applied to Food Design can lead towards sustainable solutions. We can also argue that Minimalism and Veganism combined to create the fastest road towards Sustainable Food Design, creating a formula that for this reason is really worth exploring. In order to discuss this solution, let’s first remember the extent of the problem we are facing, let’s portray a picture of food waste today.
Of the six billion pounds of produce that is wasted each year in the USA, many of these are fruits and veggies that are discarded because of their appearance. A single restaurant can produce from 25,000 to 75,000 pounds of food waste in one year. In American restaurants, 84.3% of unused food ends up being disposed of, while only 14.3% is recycled, and only 1.4% is donated (businessinsider.fr). The contribution of food wastage emissions to global warming is almost equivalent to transport emissions; it other words, if food waste were a country, it would be the third largest emitting country in the world (wri.org). 1.4 billion hectares of land – 28% percent of the world’s agricultural area – is used annually to produce food that is lost or wasted (fao.org). Agriculture and Animal farming are the main causes of deforestation; about 48 football fields worth of trees are lost every minute (worldwildlife.org). Up to 28,000 animal species can go extinct in the next quarter century due to deforestation. If we continue like this, by the year 2030, we might only have 10% of Rainforests left and it can all disappear in a hundred years (theworldcounts.com). 21% of our fresh water is used to make food that will be wasted (refed.com), while 844 million people in the world don’t have access to clean water (wateraidamerica.org).
Now let’s look at food packaging, indeed a key component of food production and of Food Design itself. Food packaging is approximately 50% (by weight) of total packaging sales (ift.org). Confusion over the meaning of date labels is estimated to account for 20% of consumer waste of safe, edible food (refed.com). 90% of all seabirds have plastic in their stomachs (plasticoceans.org); it is safe to assume that much of this plastic was once food packaging. A recent study looked for plastic contamination in the tap water of cities around the world. 83% of the samples were contaminated with plastic fibers (theguardian.com). In 2014, only 9.5% of plastic material was recycled in the USA. Another 15% was combusted for energy, while 75.5% was sent to landfills (epa.gov); It takes up to 500 years to decompose plastic items in landfills. In 2013, 59% of beer and soft drink bottles, and 66% of wine and liquor bottles were not recycled (gpi.org); glass in the landfill takes 1 to 2 millions year to decompose. And this is without considering what happens to cooking equipment, kitchenware, tableware, furniture for the eating environment, etc.
This was just a picture of the waste made from the food itself and its packaging, without considering what happens to cooking equipment, kitchenware, tableware, furniture for the eating environment, etc. When we talk about food waste, we’re not just talking about the organic edible material, but every product used in that food systems and that is at some point thrown away.
What is interesting to remember at this point is that this year’s earth overshoot day was August 2nd. Which means that since August 2nd we’ve been taking from this planet more than what it has to offer. And we’ve been doing this since 1971. We keep using enormous amounts of materials, resources, and energy to make food that is going to be wasted, packaging that is going to be thrown away and to recycle stuff that just could have been designed to have a smaller environmental impact. We’re constantly borrowing resources from this planet. What can we do to do better? Starting now?
Two approaches that would allow people to make more sustainable choices, creating an immediate trajectory towards positive change are veganism and minimalism. Let’s consider them one by one, and see why both consumers and innovators should apply them to their life and work.
Veganism is the choice of not eating, wearing, and in general buying animal products. As a diet it excludes meat, fish, dairy, and eggs. In other words, veganism rejects animal farming. The reasons why one should consider veganism, are the reasons one should reject animal farming. Animal farming is the number one cause of deforestation, because animals take land, as does growing food for these animals. Animal farming is also the number one cause of Co2 emissions, and it is, therefore, the number one cause of global warming. Moreover, animal farming uses a lot of water: it takes 2,400 gallons of water to produce 1 pound of beef while producing 1 pound of tofu only requires 244 gallons of water.
But Oreos cookies are vegan, Ritz Crackers are vegan, Nature Valley Crunchy Granola Bars are vegan, Krispy Kreme Fruit Pies are vegan, etc. These products are vegan, but not necessarily healthy and not necessarily environmentally friendly. The healthy and more sustainable branch of veganism is a plant based diet. A plant based diet excludes all processed food: no candies, no vegan ice cream, no pasta, no cookies, no Pringles, no canned food, no fruit juices or soda, etc. The reasons why one should consider a plant based diet, are the reasons one should reject processed food. Processed food uses a lot of energy and resources. Processed food is likely to have some chemical that our body doesn’t really need. And processed food comes in a packaging, which uses energy and resources and then becomes rubbish, rubbish that takes energy and resources to be recycled, or even worse ends up in the landfill.
For many people veganism, and even more, a plant based diet, seem extreme. It is not necessary for the whole planet to become 100% vegan immediately. Those who are interested in making this shift can start with one day a week, maybe two. Even part-time veganism by just half of the world population would have a very quick impact on the environment. Choosing a vegan plant based diet, and choosing to design for a vegan plant based diet, immediately reduces the environmental impact of your food. Michael Pollan clearly explained that living a more sustainable life is in our own hands because three times a day we can choose our food, and therefore the type of impact our lives have on the planet. As consumers, we can choose what to buy, and as food designers, we can choose what to design.
Minimalism as a life philosophy (as opposed to an art movement) has been popularised by Joshua Fields Millburn & Ryan Nicodemus who in 2011 published a book titled “Minimalism: Live a Meaningful Life”. In essence, minimalism is about simplifying our life, starting by the things we own. There are various reasons why one should consider minimalism. From an everyday perspective, minimalism is about owning fewer things, owning only what you really need. When it comes to buying things, it is indeed about buying less, but also buying better: buying the things that have a minimum impact on the environment and on other living beings. Minimalism can also be about tiny living, living in the minimum amount of space for us to be comfortable. From a broader perspective, minimalism is about zero-miles and zero-waste, trying to buy local, ethical and sustainable: trying to buy things that have a minimum Co2 footprint and a minimum impact on our world. And from a food perspective, then a plant based diet itself seems to be the minimalist approach to food: eat only what you really need. It is only when we really ask ourselves “what do I really need…” that we realize how much we have filled our homes, lives, and bellies, of stuff that we can easily live without. And if we can live without it, why having it? Why buying it? Why eating it? Products use energy and resources to be made, assembled, and transported, and products will use energy and resources to be disposed of.
Choosing not to buy something is the single, most immediate act one can do to live a more sustainable life. And as food designers, choosing not to design something, is again the quickest way to design for a better present, and a better future. Interestingly, this aligns with Dieter Rams tenth principle of good design: “good design is as little design as possible”. Mastering the art of designing as little as possible is indeed the biggest challenge for any innovator, but arguably it is the most important.
Veganism and minimalism can be considered as two approaches to Sustainable Food Design, the two fastest roads towards more sustainable choices. Veganism and minimalism are also two philosophies that are not widely embraced by most societies. Considering the state of the planet in this day and age, although controversial these two approaches deserve consideration especially in the ideation process of new propositions. Food designers, chefs, events planners, and any change maker and innovator should at least consider veganism and minimalism as philosophies that can quickly lead to a more sustainable future.