The research on humans’ impact on the environment is distressing, and you might find yourself regularly bombarded by bleak headlines about the fate of our planet. But the last thing you should do is fall into a dark mental hole and resign yourself to a hot, polluted future. “I know so many people who feel hopeless, and they ask me, ‘What should I do?’” said Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old environmental activist and icon. “And I say: ‘Act. Do something.’ Because that is the best medicine against sadness and depression.”
Even the smallest effort to be better to the planet can make an impact—and, in particular, focusing on eating for the sake of the environment can be a significant way to make change. “There is a ream of scientific data to support this notion,” says Jeremy Kaye, cofounder of Spare Food Co., noting that eight of the top 20 solutions to reversing the effects of climate change are food related. “From individual citizens to large-scale corporations, you can have a tangible, measurable impact,” he says. “That’s a very powerful place for all of us.” Rather than feel guilty about how you may be failing the planet, Kaye encourages everyone to focus on what they can do.
Going meatless for just one day a week, for example, can help reduce greenhouse gases and the demand for environmental resources, including land, water, and energy. According to Meatless Monday, skipping one serving of beef every week for a year saves the equivalent emissions of driving 348 miles in a car. Another way to think about it? Just one quarter-pound beef patty requires 425 gallons of water to produce; forgoing that burger for something less water reliant (like plants) can help preserve finite natural resources.
The first solution in reversing climate change is to do something, and fortunately, countless companies are designing thoughtful ways for consumers to eat more consciously while maintaining the joy of food. WeWork spoke to a handful of members from WeWork Food Labs—WeWork’s workspace and global platform dedicated to startups impacting the future of sustainable food—to better understand how to eat for the planet, and also gain some perspective on how they personally reconcile the notion of making an impact in what can sometimes feel like an era of powerlessness.
Rethink food waste—and celebrate every step forward
Juleen Wong is the head of business development at Food for All, an app that helps restaurants increase last-hour sales and reduce food costs and waste by selling surplus items at half price to nearby users. “You don’t have to be a hero [to make a difference],” Wong says. “We want to make it easy and fun to do good—for users and for restaurants.” App users win by scoring quality restaurant food for half the price while also earning a sense of altruism by knowing they’re saving food from being wasted.
For restaurateurs, selling surplus food at a discount is an attractive option because it prevents waste and also brings in cash. Wong says restaurants often face a challenge when it comes to waste: Food safety regulations prevent many from donating spare meals, and many donation-based agencies require criteria—like a certain weight of surplus—that many distributors don’t meet.
Since its 2018 launch in Boston, Food for All has sold more than 120,000 pounds of food that would have otherwise ended up in landfills. The app recently launched in New York City, which will keep even more meals from being wasted. Wong says she used to feel guilty a lot of the time, knowing that she should have found a compost bin rather than throwing it in the trash, especially since she works for a company that’s all about waste. But, she says, she’s found that acknowledging her progress, no matter how trite-seeming, can go a long way. “Just noticing the little wins has been really beneficial for me,” Wong says. When her coworker congratulates her for composting her lunch, the good feelings flow and inspire more progress.
Wong says she’s found this mentality works for plenty of people, which inspired her to create a “little big wins” Slack channel for her company. “It’s become one of the biggest sources of morale for the team,” she says.
Janet Viader, operations and sales at Toast Ale, a certified B-corp that uses surplus bread from partner bakeries to brew beer, says she stays motivated knowing that doing something is much better than doing nothing. “We’re in a race against climate change, but at least we’re still in the race!” she says, echoing a past mentor. It’s this “don’t give up” attitude that steers her to be positive, because “it can otherwise be overwhelming for me. For me to do the opposite and not care, I wouldn’t feel good about myself.”
Viader’s belief that every little effort helps drives the mission of Toast Ale, which uses 30 percent less barley grain in its brewing process compared with traditional beers. Replacing the grain with fresh bread that would otherwise go into the landfill—as it stands, 30 percent of all bread made in the U.S. ends up wasted—redirects waste into a delicious consumer product while reducing the need for as many resources. “Our guiding light is that we’re making a direct impact—although in a small way,” says Viader. “Our mission is going in the right direction for taking some action. We’re not going to solve all of the world’s problems by brewing surplus bread into beer, but we are keeping it from going into landfills, and people are becoming more aware of the effects of greenhouse gases because of it.”
Explore new-to-you ingredients that are gentler on the planet
Sydney Chasin, founder and CEO of the Lil’ Pops, says learning about the impact you have as a consumer can lessen overwhelming feelings associated with negative headlines. “The most important thing is to make sure you’re educated as a consumer, because every little thing matters,” she says. “The mindfulness goes hand in hand with making a difference.”
In fact, a desire to learn more is what led Chasin to start her brand, which she relaunched in the U.S. in August of 2019. The sorghum-grain-based snacks provide a delicious treat to consumers, who will be making an impact while snacking, whether they’re aware or not. Sorghum can be grown in very hot, water-scarce parts of the world, and to grow it, farmers don’t need to use irrigation.
“I saw our sorghum fields,” Chasin says. “The grounds are completely cracked and there are amazing sorghum plants coming out of the ground.” With waxy leaves that retain moisture and a fibrous root system that mines for ground water, this miracle plant is drought resilient, which is incredibly important for food security—especially in the U.S. With her popcorn-like (but corn-free) snacks, Chasin hopes to show the world that tasty, conscious eating is possible and within reach. “The grand ambition is that we create a range of sorghum products that takes the ancient grain of the past to make a sustainable future,” she says.
Practice mindfulness around your own consumption
Jared Cannon, founder and CEO of Simply Good Jars, a B-corp that provides locally sourced, healthy chef-crafted meals in reusable jars placed for sale in smart vending refrigerators, is on the same page. “We can all make an incremental impact once we realize our individual contributions toward our massive waste issue,” he says.
Cannon offers an experiment to try out: “Switch your kitchen garbage can (13 gallons) in your home for one week with an office-desk-sized trash can (three to five gallons) and set a goal for how many times you plan to fill it per week,” he advises. “This is a physical way to limit the footprint you as a consumer can have, but more impactful is how quickly you realize how wasteful most of us are and how much of it relates to food packaging.”
Remind yourself often that small changes lead to big impact
Matt Sherman, the chief marketing officer of Handsome Brook Farm, which distributes humanely raised, organic eggs at scale, says he likes to remind himself that small changes matter. ”For example, by feeding our hens only organic feed, we are essentially requiring a substantial amount of organic cultivation,” he says. “It takes about 135 square miles of farmland (about the size of a city like Atlanta or Philadelphia) to produce the amount of organic feed we use in a year. On a hen-by-hen, farm-by-farm basis, that may not be a lot of feed, but added up it makes a big difference. Our chickens are only about 18 inches tall and a shade over four pounds. But with a million of their friends, they are making a big impact every day.”
Similarly, Kaye of Spare Food Co. says: “Unlike feeling helpless in trying to stop the decimation of the coral reefs, or guilty about not being able to afford to replace your old gas guzzler with the purchase of a new electric vehicle, there are decisions each of us make every day that can make a huge difference. And once we see how easy it is to turn those wilting greens at the back of the crisper drawer into a delicious pesto, or be more intentional about weekly menu planning and grocery shopping and eating more plant-forward meals, one sees just how impactful the small changes can be when enough of us choose to make them.”
Here’s the most important takeaway: Small steps equal big impact. Riding your bike to work, eating organic when you can, or turning something you would have thrown away into a new meal are valuable contributions toward making change.
Kate Bratskeir is a writer for WeWork’s Ideas by WeWork, focusing on sustainability and workplace psychology. Previously, she was a senior editor at Mic and HuffPost. Her work has appeared in New York magazine, Health, Travel & Leisure, Women’s Health, and more.