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Sustainability by design – a case study from a food startup

Black Friday has been extensively criticized with respect for sustainability, which hurts both consumers and companies. Consumers abandon their sustainability...

The Black Friday's marathon of indulgent shopping and stocking up is behind us. Black Friday has been extensively criticized with respect for sustainability, which hurts both consumers and companies. Consumers abandon their sustainability habits for the thrill of sizeable discounts, which leads to overspending and overstocking. This inflated demand hurts companies, too: whatever sustainability “sins” a D2C company may harbor (inefficient operations, non-recyclable packaging), their impact is multiplied by the sales surge.

Being a food tech, we necessarily think about sustainability and waste in the sphere of food production. We also finger point, starting with ourselves.

What's the size of the problem? Huge. Food supply system is inefficient to begin with , Black Friday or not. According to Eurostat , in 2020, each of us accounted for 127 kg of food wasted on average. Of those 127 kg, we threw out 70 kg in our households , while 57 kg were wasted already in the food supply chain . Translated into energy, this food waste accounts for 38% of energy consumed in the global food system. In 2021, the EU imported nearly 138 million tons of agricultural products, costing €150 billion. The numbers behind food waste are even more staggering: The recent UN report “No Time to Waste” estimates that 153.5 million tons of food are wasted per year.

How is each of us individually accountable for driving these large-scale issues? How do we embrace responsible food production and consumption trends? In the spirit of taking responsibility, we would like to share about our own sustainability practices at Doctor Kimchi:

  1. Responsible sourcing : We source input materials from local companies that are themselves sustainable businesses, both in terms of resource-efficient operations and company values.
  2. Lean production : We run a lean production setup, producing in a rented industrial kitchen during off-peak hours. This approach allows us to remain asset-light, maximize the utilization or the rented assets, and save on OPEX (for example, by saving on the electricity bill by producing in the off-peak hours and using already existing cold storage).
  3. Ecological packaging : From the earliest product designs, we excluded plastics and opted for recycled packaging materials.
  4. Sustainable product : Our raison d'être. So, let's unpack this topic a bit more:
  • Recipe and technology. As any fermented product, kimchi is itself a measure against waste – by fermenting food, we extend its lifetime. Fermenting as a cultural tradition that emerged to preserve the harvest and ensure food security. So, just by virtue of remaining stable and consumable over several months, kimchi has a sustainability edge over any rapidly-perishable foods.
  • Ingredients. The recent years in the food tech industry have been influenced by organizations like ProVeg , aiming to remove animal products from the food chain in pursuit of greater planetary health. As a result, we see many manufacturers of meat, milk and fish alternatives motivate their work by sustainability arguments. Our kimchi is vegan, but for another reason. We removed the non-vegan ingredients (shrimp) and any heavily processed ingredients (fish sauce, soy sauce, chili paste) because we believe they are not healthy (many contain emulsifiers and added sugars), not safe (for kimchi-lovers struggling with shellfish allergies) and not essential to achieve a great, deep taste. We remove any shortcuts to good flavor, rely on our fermentation technique, and let the natural bacterial cultures do their work.
  • Nutritional value . Kimchi contains ingredients that come too briefly in the typical Western diet – insoluble fiber and probiotic bacterial cultures in high variety. The science behind the human gut microbiome is complex and many questions are still open, but one thesis emerges clearly: Microbiome health correlates with higher bacterial diversity. Here, too, we see an aspect of sustainability, as foods like kimchi can address the loss of microbiome diversity in our gut as a result of one-sided diet and antibiotic treatment.

For sure, there are still some “sustainability sins” in our company. Like any other company or individual, we can always do more. And in fact, we intend to. The beauty of running a startup with lean processes is that we can build our operations with sustainability in mind. We can also revise and redesign our processes, supplier and materials structure toward greater sustainability in short time. This is all part of our growth. But our product is our bedrock – we firmly believe in its goodness and can scale our company around it, knowing that we are building something fundamentally healthy, smart and sustainable.


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