3 Things We Can Learn from the Swedes

Last month, I attended the Swedish-American Chamber of Commerce of New York’s (SACC New York) annual sustainability summit. In its 10th year, this year’s theme was “Mad About Food.” The presenters in this fast-paced event were progressive thinkers from business, academia, and technology. Many were from Sweden, of course, and I learned some of the reasons why “Swedishness” and sustainability go hand and hand, and what Americans can learn.

1. Aim high

This year, Sweden signed a law that requires the country to reach net-zero emissions by the year 2045. They went beyond what they pledged under the Paris Climate Change Agreement in 2015, setting their target date 5 years earlier than originally planned.

Nina Ekelund of The Haga Institute shared some of the impacts of Sweden’s earlier commitments. After the Paris Agreement, the portion of companies measuring their climate impact increased from 1 out of 4 from 3 out of 4– without any regulations. Their approach – including a high carbon tax – has been good for business. Since 1990, there was a 25% reduction in emissions alongside a 69% increase in GDP.

At Space10, an Innovation Center in Sweden, Guillaume Charny-Brunet’s team was considering the development of shower technology that managed water flow and use. The switched gears when they thought about what would save the most water: reducing meat consumption. The water required for 1 beef burger is the equivalent of 1.5 months in the shower. So they started experimenting with alternative agriculture, and set up an aquaponics system that grew enough vegetables for a building. The vision is to go well beyond that.

2. Start with the Individual

Michael La Cour, Managing Director of IKEA Food Services explained IKEA Food’s mission: Honest food for people and the planet. What do they see as the most important KPI? They serve 650 million people a year. They have 194,000 coworkers throughout the world, and counting, which gives them great opportunity and great responsibility.

The winner of SACC New York-Deloitte Green award was Sweden-based Whywaste: “Reduce food waste through data driven workflows.” Whywaste currently focuses on supermarkets in Sweden, using data to keep better attention to expiration date and control purchasing decisions. Like my employer, LeanPath, they empower employees to keep food waste at a minimum through knowledge.

3. Embrace Change, Keep an Open Mind

“Swedes are change-minded to the absurd.” Johan Jörgensen, founder of Sweden FoodTech. They run after new tech, Johan says, which is one of the reasons why he sees Sweden as leading sustainability efforts in food.

One of the trending concepts is the idea of individualized nutrition. Professor Robert Brummer from Orebro University explained the gut-brain interaction. He presented the idea that we need to be more proactive about designing for a healthy life versus reactive to problems — he called it a shift from an illness paradigm to a wellness paradigm.

Following that was a presentation by Eatit, a Swedish company that acts as digital doctor, dietician and chef by using a blood test and artificial intelligence to provide individualized food recommendations for improving health.

It’s no secret that a healthy diet is the ultimate form of prevention for many diseases. The idea of what is “healthy” is becoming more and more personal. This runs directly in parallel with the food waste in two ways: 1) the fact that of all food waste reduction strategies, prevention has the biggest impact and 2) different people have different ways of defining what is “waste.”

People are always looking for help making the best decisions when it comes to health and waste. I learned about Tellspec, a spectroscopy-based food sensor that aims to solve food fraud, food adulteration, food safety, and food waste, by taking some of the subjectivity out and looking at the chemical structure of food, an intriguing idea.

This summit reminded me that we can’t predict where technology is going, and there may be capabilities far beyond what we can imagine. In my afternoon workshop, Nina Ekelund gave the example of smart phones. How many of us could have known the capacity of these portable computing devices? I believe more of us in the US-based sustainability community can take a page out of Sweden’s book and keep an open mind about the options we have to tackle food waste.

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