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Food sustainability rating system hits the shelf rather than the package

We asked Alexander Gillett, founder of HowGood, why a rating system was needed to inform customers “how good” a food product is, and why foods should be rated in terms of sustainability.

Jenna Blumenfeld, Freelancer

April 2, 2015

3 Min Read
Food sustainability rating system hits the shelf rather than the package

With all of the third-party certification labels showing up on food packaging, it should be easy for consumers to find consciously made products. But sustainability is complex. And shoppers are busy. One report published in the journal Judgment and Decision Making found that shoppers can make food decisions in less than a second. This does not leave much time to tell if a product is consciously produced all along the supply chain. That’s what inspired Alexander Gillett to found HowGood, a rating system effort that partners with retailers to quickly inform customers “how good” a food product is at point-of-decision.

Why rate foods at all? Don’t third-party certification labels already address the consumer desire for conscious food products?

Alexander Gillett: Studies suggest that shoppers are significantly more likely to buy sustainable or ethical food. But we weren’t seeing that reflected on the shelves. So we asked, is there a piece of information that consumers are missing? What is the experience of food buying lacking?

In 2009 there were 350 third-party certification labels that brands could employ to tell consumers they are doing a good job in targeted areas ranging from water management to fair sourcing to lab testing. Instead of making consumers learn what all of these labels mean, with HowGood consumers can learn one system that applies to all these characteristics. We try to use all of the information available to holistically score a product’s sustainability and ethicality.

What criteria do you use to rate brands?

Alexander Gillett: We use more than 60 indicators that cover a company’s behavior and practices over time to rate products.

For example, we understand that while the same ingredient like cocoa can be labeled Fair Trade, they can have very different impacts on the environment depending on where the ingredient is sourced—is it from one farmer or is it a plantation that’s growing cocoa? The same goes for conventional produce. A tomato grown in California is going to have fewer pesticides than a tomato grown in Florida because of different pesticide laws.

So far we’ve rated more than 124,000 products, and just 6 percent of those receive a “Great,” 15 percent get a “Very Good” and 20 percent carry a “Good” rating.

How can retailers use HowGood’s rating system to educate and inform shoppers?

Alexander Gillett: The physical tags are our biggest attraction. When we partner with a store, we rate every single product including produce. Every food that receives a “Good,” “Very Good” or “Great” has a big tag right next to the price tag. We also have supportive materials such as shelf talkers available.

The technology age contradicts itself. People want more information but they don’t have time to go the extra step. So how can we work within this space? Give them a method to trust our depth of information and use standards of communicating that are fast and efficient. That’s why indicators next to the price tag are more effective than our HowGood App, which takes time to explore.

Is HowGood increasing store sales?

Alexander Gillett: Absolutely. We’ve partnered with about 100 stores; in the upcoming year we hope to expand to 400 to 500 retailers. On average, retailers see a ROI in less than two weeks for the yearly cost of the program because sales increases of products rated “Great” can be as high as 32 percent.

There are a lot of good food companies out there and they deserve recognition—but it’s hard to reward brands for sustainability. For example, if a dairy farmer responsibly manages methane gas emissions, that’s a really hard thing to advertise—no one wants to think about methane when buying milk. Our rating lets consumers know this is a sustainable brand without talking about methane gas directly.

Overall, the number one word people associated with sustainability is “quality.” By showing off the sustainable products sold in stores, grocers also get a sales lift. It’s win-win.

About the Author(s)

Jenna Blumenfeld


Jenna Blumenfeld lives in Boulder, Colorado, where she reports on the natural products industry, sustainable agriculture, and all things plant based. 

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