Making sustainability local: new green solutions for small-scale producers

May 24, 2017

GDR’s Clementine Prendergast on the new opportunities for companies to combine sustainability and localism, and how new technology is allowing minnows to compete with giants on this ground 


There’s an increasing body of evidence suggesting our retail choices are based on emotive, rather than rational, reactions. This has coincided ­with increasing demands from affluent young consumers for authenticity and transparency in supply chains and manufacturing processes; sharing values with a brand can be a higher motivator to buy than any other. Sustainability is a key area where this affinity with a brand can be gained or lost; research by Nielsen suggests a reputation for environmental stewardship is one key factor which consumers say would make them happy to pay more.

One of the sectors where this has most commonly been applied is food; however, organic and sustainably sourced food has traditionally been at a potentially prohibitive price point.

This could be about to change.

Our research has been showing that advances in technology are bringing these costs down, with benefits likely to be passed on to the consumer – and innovation has come from both startups and established global brands alike.

One example of this is CityCrop, an automated indoor farming system which allows companies and individuals with limited space to grow their own fruits and leafy greens.

As a hydroponic growing system ­– where plants are fed through nutrients in water – the gardens require no outdoor space. These vertical growing containers are controlled via an app, allowing users to remotely manage variables such as climate and LED light levels. They can also monitor the plants and watch them progress in real-time via the app.

CityCrop provides certified organic seeds with each order, ensuring pesticide-free food. Leafy greens, herbs, fruits, and edible flowers can all be grown in these hydroponic gardens, which can be stacked to create more growing space. Users in need of advice can send a photo of their crops to the ‘Plant Doctor,’ who will advise them on best practice.

Northern Irish startup Brewbot is another innovation enabling sustainable production by using artificial intelligence to brew beer in-situ. The Brewbot is made of a series of stainless steel tanks and filters. Users buy the ingredients they need for their beer, set up the recipe in the app and connect their iPhone to the Brewbot via Bluetooth.

Brewbot in action

Brewbot’s proprietary AI has been created to help streamline the complicated brewing process, keep the brewer informed in real-time about the development of their beer and provide a consistently high quality product, whilst also learning what makes the perfect pale ale. The process can be monitored via the Brewbot app, available on iOS: an interface that simplifies the steps required in the brewing process and provides information on fermentation, temperature and length of brewing time, sending alerts if the process is disrupted or complete. Sensors detect temperature, load and flow to ensure accuracy and consistency.

The AI technology will enable businesses to create bespoke branded beer – reflecting the boom in craft breweries – for as little as 26p (42 cents) per 330ml bottle. The owners envisage restaurants brewing in-house, and brands using their own unique brews for promotional purposes.

Brewbot has the potential to give small restaurants and hotels greater autonomy over their production methods.

In a similar vein, over the last year we have seen an increase in supermarkets growing vegetables and herbs on the store shelves. German supermarket Metro collaborated with indoor farming company Infarm to grow greens at the point of sale. Similarly, Brazilian supermarket Zona Sul promoted the freshness of its produce by launching the ‘Fresh Garden,’ encouraging customers to select vegetables directly from the soil.  There was an 18% increase in vegetable sales since launching the campaign.

Zona Sul’s ‘Fresh Garden’

Aimed at city dwellers wanting to grow their own produce, Ikea’s Growroom is another development that helps local retailers to grow fresh product with minimal cost and space.

The Growroom was designed by Space10, Ikea’s Copenhagen-based innovation lab, and architects Sine Lindholm and Mads-Ulrik Husum. According to Space10, the 2.8 metre tall structure “reduces food miles, our pressure on the environment, and educates… children of where food actually comes from.” Designed for vertical plant growth, this structure offers a farming alternative in space-poor cities while also encouraging people to be mindful of their environments – what’s been called ‘pause architecture’.

Spherical and with five planting layers, Growroom can be built in 17 steps. It is not sold in Ikea stores; rather, Space10 has made the open source design available for free download from its website, so that interested parties can create it themselves.

These small-scale design examples are simply the green shoots of what we believe will be a much broader shift in innovations within the production process, where AI and other technologies are democratising sustainable production. Watch this space as we look deeper into this fascinating area.

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