I’m always on the lookout for a great new sustainable food start-up. I’ve jumped behind everything from the food justice blog Civil Eats to Forage Kitchen, a co-working space for artisan food makers. So, I was excited to try Plated, a ready-to-cook-meal food start-up that promises locally sourced food in a 100% recyclable, biodegradable box with pre-portioned ingredients to cut back on waste.
I’m sorry to say that Plated falls short of being a sustainable food option.
New York-based Plated joins a growing list of food start-ups that have attracted venture funding of late (according to the Wall Street Journal, Plated has raised $5 million of venture funding). The concept is nice and simple: “Plated assembles and delivers meal ‘boxes’ to its customers that contain all the ingredients and instructions they need to cook a tasty, healthy meal at home from locally sourced ingredients.”
The slick website touts recyclable and biodegradable packaging, locally sourced ingredients and delivery coverage to 80% of the continental United States. Sounds great, right? Not so fast.
I received my Plated box by FedEx Ground service. At first I was very distressed to see that the return label said NY, NY. However, I looked at the tracking label and found that my package actually started locally in Oakland, CA (which is just the next city over). Despite the fact that the food started next door, tracking showed that my local food went 15 miles south to San Leandro and then another 20 miles further south to Newark, CA, then back up to San Leandro and then finally back to me in Berkeley, CA. In other words, my locally sourced food from 3 miles away traveled 100 miles to get to me. I know 100 miles is not all that much for food to travel, but it was 100 unnecessary miles.
I reached out to Josh Hix, Plated co-founder, who was genuinely concerned about the issue. He told me: “FedEx is not the best, but we can’t control what FedEx does.” He then said that local couriers are “not available.” I pointed out that there are many local courier services and even guys-with-a-van who could do the job. They are are not as cost-effective, I said, and he begrudgingly agreed.
This brings me to Plated’s coverage of 80% of the continental United States. Why cover so much of the country when you cannot cost-effectively deliver local food locally? I suspect a desire to be the first entrant to a market and promises made to investors have something to do with it. However, sustainability will inevitably suffer for this goal. There is simply no way for a start-up with limited customers to cost effectively and sustainably delivery local food to 80% of the country.
I was also dismayed to receive my meal for four in a rather large (i.e. oversized) box. Inside the box was a large insulated foil bubble insulated envelope. Hix said that the large insulated foil bubble insulated envelope was 100% recyclable and directed me to the vendor, Insulated Product Corp’s (IPC), website for more information. IPC does sell a “recyclable” insulation product, GreenLiner. However, the envelope in the Plated box doesn’t appear to be that product, but rather IPC’s regular insulated envelope.
But, it gets worse. Inside the insulated envelope were two plastic bags filled with two plastic shrink-wrapped meat packages and several plastic bags filled with the pre-portioned ingredients designed to “cut back on waste.” Looking pretty wasteful to me. Not to mention that the “locally sourced, healthy ingredients” included a mini-bottle (with no mobius loop so who knows if its recyclable) of vinegar and four non-recyclable individual packs of Best Foods Mayonnaise (Ingredients: Soybean oil, whole eggs and egg yolks, water, vinegar, salt, sugar, lemon juice, natural flavors, calcium disodium edta).
The reality of the ‘100% recyclable, biodegradable box’ is that it is neither 100% recyclable nor 100% biodegradable (other than the food itself I’m not sure anything else was biodegradable) and it contains way, way too much packaging (and it also contains, albeit in relatively small amounts, some very unhealthy mass-produced ingredients).
Plated is doing a lot right. They are trying to be better than the industrial food complex and they deserve kudos for that. That said, it doesn’t give them the right to greenwash consumers. They need to be transparent and honest in their marketing. Messages such as “we strive to use as many recyclable and biodegradable products as possible” or “98% recyclable” are better than the lie they are currently telling. I would encourage Plated to openly publish clear and transparent information about ALL of their ingredients, packaging and shipping methods. I, for one, would like them to tone down their sustainability claims until they do.
Why pick on the little guy? Its not the first time I’ve been accused of this. I believe that food industry start-ups that benefit from sustainability initiatives have an awesome opportunity but also an awesome responsibility. The future is depending on them to create truly sustainable food systems not just more greenwash.
I write about greenwash because most “greener” products and services commit one or more of the seven “sins of Greenwashing” and I believe it is important to promote responsible green marketing if we want greener products and services to succeed. The real damage comes when consumers become skeptical and diminish the value of legitimate sustainability practices. For that reason, this kind of greenwash needs to be called out.
That said, I do believe Plated has the potential to do good. Now, let’s see if they will.