In this pivotal era, humanity confronts an unprecedented nexus of crises that pose a threat to our ecosystems and norms of existence. Yet, while the magnitude of these challenges is undeniable, framing them as an “insurmountable ‘meta-crisis’” can sometimes inadvertently limit our perspective and stifle the creative actions within our reach. In this conversation, we journey into the intersections of sustainability, technology, and data, as we converse with the minds behind a new app aimed at transforming sustainable consumer behaviour.
Turning Markets into a Force for Good?
Faheem Nusrat: Welcome, Ankit and Antoine. Before we dive into the heart of our discussion, I’d like each of you to introduce yourselves. But first, I’ve taken a look at your online profiles, and it’s clear that you both have intriguing backgrounds. Ankit, your profile states that you are ‘Making Eco-Friendly Shopping Accessible to Everyone,’ while Antoine is described as a ‘Market structures nerd on a mission to turn markets into a force for good.’ Could you please share more about yourselves and how you came together for this venture?
Ankit Agrawal: I’ve spent over a decade as a software engineer, working on various technologies during my tenure at Amazon for over 8 years, including projects like Alexa and IoT (Internet of Things). I also had the opportunity to work at Shopify for a year (Online Ecommerce platform) and had been working remotely for a while, which gave me the freedom to travel and also to connect with nature. I like hiking and being in the forest. Whenever you travel, you see the world in a different way and it’s through this that I felt connected with the changes in climate and felt it was actually very close to me. I began dipping my toes into climate-related work by volunteering for different companies. I noticed the climate tech community was growing and met Antoine through a Slack group (online communications service used by a lot of tech companies). For the first three months, we only interacted virtually. Our initial meetings were limited to two video screens. Eventually, we met in person and collaborated for about three months, testing our work dynamics.
Then came a pivotal moment. I faced a layoff from Shopify, and I saw it as an opportunity to transition to climate tech, something I’d been yearning for. It felt like a blessing in disguise, as it gave me the push I needed to pursue my passion. Antoine and I had a conversation, and I was drawn to the idea we’re now building upon with the Ganddee app.
I’ll elaborate on Ganddee later, but what really resonated with me was the notion that many people want to make positive changes, but the stumbling block lies in the lack of education and information. This issue is pervasive across various fields, be it technology or philosophy. People often lack access to accurate information and education, and bridging this gap became a cornerstone of our shared vision. We’ll delve deeper into the specifics later, but that’s a snapshot of my journey and how Antoine and I crossed paths.
Antoine Rondelet: I’m French and currently based in the UK. My background is in computer science, and I’m a tech enthusiast at heart. I completed my studies in South Korea, with a brief internship experience in Amsterdam sandwiched in between. This journey allowed me to gain a diverse perspective. I specialised in cryptography during my studies, and my passion for information security has remained unwavering. After completing my education, I joined a fintech (Financial Technology) company in London, where I worked for five years. I ended up being head of research, so that was a very interesting time for me. Because the company was growing really quickly, they didn’t have any R&D (Research and Development) function, so I built the function from the ground up, building different teams around the world. That was really a hell of an experience and towards the end of that period I realised, I’m working a lot, the world is stuck, I’m in my room…Is that what it’s all about, working a lot and just kind of trying to hustle your way to the top? Isn’t there something more than this?
I was and still am a member of Chatham House, which focuses on geopolitics and international affairs. I’ve always been interested in these other topics which I was educating myself on, and reading a lot about. And one thing that’s always been close to my heart is the climate issue. I mean I also don’t like the meta-crisis term as you put it at the beginning of the call. But it’s always been a very interesting topic for me because I was like, how can we all consider the long-term ethical implications of our existing activities and why don’t we do something about it more generally? So I really dived into this, I talked to a lot of people in London, Paris, and other cities trying to really understand the average person’s stand on this issue, most people told me the same: ‘climate change sucks. But what can I do about it?’ That was the universal answer. I got pretty frustrated but also motivated and thought, okay, maybe there’s something to do here. We all would like to do something about climate change, but no one really knows where to start. We don’t really have time. We don’t even know where you look for information, then maybe there’s something to do. And so as a technologist that was like, how can we start to solve this issue? How can we empower the individual?
Whether we like it or not, we are consumers, but we are citizens first of course, but also none of us are consuming what we produce. I mean, we all have an iPhone and stuff and as far as I know, we don’t manufacture our iPhones, we buy them and many of us live in cities in flats. We don’t grow our food. So we consume on a daily basis and that’s really the unifying factor here. We all have different political views, that’s fine, but we are all within the same system of consumption, some more than others, and so it’s like hey how can we empower consumers to make choices for the good? … It matters.
And that’s where the idea started to form. I was really inspired by Mahatma Gandhi, ‘The Change You Want to See in the World.’ How can we make a difference with our money? So it’s kind of like we don’t have to go and break everything, etc. I believe in activism, don’t get me wrong. I firmly believe in activism, but we also can do some form of silent activism through the purchases we make. That’s at least my belief, some people may disagree but again, within the existing system, that’s my belief. So the goal is to remove friction to sustainable consumption by raising the bar. If we make it easy for people to consume from more sustainable shops, no shop is perfect, but some are doing better than others.
Faheem: Thanks, that lays down a great foundation to explore from, I’d like to start by asking you about the concept of the “Ganddizen”, what does it mean?
Antoine: The term “Ganddizen” is a play on words, blending “Gandhi” and “Citizen.” It underscores our dual roles as responsible consumers and global citizens. You see, through the economic lens, we often get reduced to mere consumers, KPIs (Key performance indicators), and numbers. However, at our core, we are citizens of this planet, whether we reside in India, the US, Europe, or anywhere else. “Ganddizen” represents a space where we all come together as citizens, united by the shared values we hold dear. It’s a way of saying that we are more than just consumers in today’s economic systems, where it often feels like all we’re here to do is buy things. In a sense, we’re all “citizens first.”
Ankit: So, the app emerged from our realisation that permeates our conversations with people worldwide, and led us to ponder how we could empower each user, each individual, each citizen – rather than referring to them as mere consumers. It’s essential to note that the term “consumer” often carries a capitalist connotation. We wanted to shift the focus towards what each person can do, acknowledging them as active participants in positive change.
And here’s where the app comes into play. Ganddee, provides a solution, by offering data verification and transparency. We assess businesses to determine their actual sustainability practices. We don’t merely label a business as sustainable; we show users why we’ve listed it as such. Transparency is paramount. For instance, if a business is a charity shop, users can easily see whether it holds certifications. We want to provide users with the information they need to make informed, sustainable choices.
Faheem: In today’s world, we’re bombarded with numerous apps and choices, whether it’s the endless stream of social media or a multitude of applications. Where does Ganddee fit into someone’s life?
Ankit: The essence of Ganddee is to make sustainable choices as convenient as possible. In essence, Ganddee is your day-to-day sustainability companion, ensuring that sustainable choices are just as easy, if not easier, than their non-sustainable counterparts.
Antoine: Allow me to shed more light on this. Our tagline essentially sums it up: Ganddee is the “Google Maps of sustainable shops.” Our primary objective is to empower individuals by providing them with seamless access to sustainable shopping options. We recognize that convenience plays a pivotal role in people’s decision-making processes. If something is challenging or time-consuming, individuals tend to avoid it. Given that most people want to align their consumption choices with their values and contribute positively to the world, we aimed to make this process effortless.
Imagine you’re in an unfamiliar part of London or any other city, and you’re craving a cup of coffee. Instead of embarking on a time-consuming search for sustainable coffee shops, you can simply express your desire for coffee within the app. Ganddee will swiftly present you with a list of nearby coffee shops, including sustainability information. We remove the friction from sustainable shopping, ensuring it’s just as convenient, if not more so, than non-sustainable alternatives.
When you want to purchase something, be it food, coffee, or clothing, you don’t need to jump through hoops. You express your intent, and we return a list of sustainable options in your local area. Should you wish to delve deeper into a shop’s sustainability credentials, you can access detailed information with a single click.
Faheem: Ankit, you’ve been the CTO and instrumental in building Ganddee. Could you shed light on how you define sustainability in the context of businesses listed on the app? You’ve mentioned accessing public records and publicly available information to evaluate businesses. What criteria do you use, and what do you look for when considering a business as sustainable?
Ankit: Sustainability isn’t defined by a single fixed criterion for us because there are various ways in which a business can contribute positively to the environment and society. We take an agile approach, recognizing that different businesses may adopt different sustainable practices. Additionally, some smaller or newer businesses might be implementing sustainable practices but may not yet have obtained certifications.
Faheem: I see, it seems as though this approach allows Ganddee to promote lots of businesses which align with sustainable practices, even if they don’t hold specific certifications. I like it because it’s pragmatic and inclusive in approach, and nuanced too.
Ankit: Yes, we continuously evaluate various criteria because the landscape of sustainability is dynamic and ever-changing. Among the criteria we consider, some key factors include:
- Charity shops: Businesses that are dedicated to charitable causes often align with sustainability goals.
- Zero waste shops: These are businesses where customers can bring their own containers or bags to reduce packaging waste.
- Certifications: We consider different certifications, such as vegan-friendly or other relevant sustainability certifications. These certifications often involve rigorous verification processes that evaluate a business’s sustainability practices.
- Contributions to environmental causes: Some businesses actively contribute to environmental initiatives, like planting trees or participating in efforts to combat climate change.
- Circular economy: Vintage stores or second-hand shops that promote the circular economy by extending the lifespan of products rather than perpetuating fast fashion.
Our evaluation process is multifaceted and adaptive, as new certifications and sustainable practices emerge. We also collaborate with businesses to verify their sustainability claims, ensuring that they are actively engaged in meaningful actions rather than merely using the term “sustainable” for greenwashing purposes.
Faheem: Greenwashing is an issue that has garnered significant attention, especially in the tech and corporate sectors. Can you provide your perspective on greenwashing and how you spot it? Additionally, what actions should businesses take to avoid falling into the trap of greenwashing?
Ankit: Greenwashing is a critical concern in the sustainability landscape. Loosely defined it is the practice of businesses conveying exaggerated claims of environmental responsibility to mislead consumers, presenting a green image without taking substantial actions to back it up. We look at publicly available information and it gets interesting when you go below the surface.
Antoine: We know that no one is perfect or omniscient. No one can understand the four ramifications within the supply chains, even shops themselves. Sometimes they don’t know, or maybe to one or two degrees in their supply chains they know their direct suppliers, then maybe suppliers of the suppliers but beyond that, they don’t really know. So there are a lot of things missing and we’re okay with this, and we look at this. And so, finally, going back to your question, ‘what do we define as greenwashing’ again? It’s a bit of a hard one. But one thing is when we see overly general claims – things like ‘Eco’, like what does it mean to be ‘Eco’ ? You tell me, what is it to be ‘Eco friendly’? If your shop claims to be Planet Friendly, are you friends with the planet? Is your friend the planet like your buddy? So our perspective is, if you claim to be good or great, where is the data? It may not be perfect. It may not be like a full proof that you are in fact, or that you plan to be, but at least it’s going beyond simply putting a leaf on your website. So, clear signs of greenwashing are where they are overly broad claims that are not substantiated by any form of data. In this case we’ll pass, and we wait for more precise claims that are backed by some data at least.
Sustainability is not limited to just materials; it encompasses how products are used and the entire lifecycle of those products. For example, substituting plastic bags with paper bags might seem like a sustainable choice at first glance, but it depends on their usage. If paper bags are single-use and require cutting down numerous trees and energy-intensive manufacturing processes, they may not be more sustainable than durable plastic bags used over an extended period.
Sustainability definitions can vary widely because the impact of products and practices can differ based on various factors. Hence, we don’t attempt to rigidly define sustainability, instead, we focus on empowering and promoting shops that take concrete actions to improve their sustainability.
To address greenwashing, we scrutinise publicly available information about these shops. While we understand that no one has perfect visibility into all aspects of supply chains, including the shops themselves, we make assessments based on the available data. We avoid delving into a strict definition of greenwashing, since it can be subjective and misleading. However, we do look out for overly broad and unsubstantiated claims, such as vague statements like “planet-friendly” without supporting evidence.
Our approach is to encourage shops, to provide specific, evidence-based claims about their sustainability efforts. This ensures that they go beyond superficial marketing and genuinely contribute to a more sustainable future.
Game Theory and Sustainability
Faheem: Something that has been on my mind is related to the concepts we’re discussing, particularly in the context of game theory, which I understand as a complex framework for situations where no single party is solely responsible for the outcome. This concept of interdependence seems to play a significant role in the economic system, where definitions of what is right or ethical can be challenging due to the interconnected nature of the system.
Antoine: Indeed, we live in a world where multiple entities, including governments, businesses, and individuals, all seek to maximise their outcomes. This involves a balance between cooperation and competition, and understanding these dynamics is crucial. When people demand that companies or governments make drastic changes, they often overlook the economic system’s complexities. For instance, large corporations may prioritise profit and cost-efficiency, even if their practices are unsustainable, because significant changes could jeopardise their market position and financial stability. This illustrates the delicate balance between competing in the economic system and making sustainability-driven changes. Game Theory helps us recognize these incentives and motivations within the system. Governments aim to secure votes, companies vie for consumers’ support, and individuals cast their votes by spending money. By empowering consumers to make informed choices, we can influence the flow of money within the system, and encourage companies to adopt more sustainable practices. It’s really important to understand the various organisations. And when you give agency to the users, to consumers, then you have a chance to make sure that the cash flows in the systems are more healthy because then consumers can empower companies that are better. And that’s really good for the whole system.
Degrowth: Consumption versus Buying
Faheem: In terms of market forces and sustainability, one of the most sustainable approaches is to produce and consume less. I just wanted a word on the Degrowth movement and whether you’re aware of that.
Antoine: Yeah, I’m so glad you’re bringing this to the table because I think this is why I’m always talking about ‘consumption’ and not ‘buying’ because in fact consumption is much better, much broader than buying things.
I’ve had a discussion with a member of Doughtnut Economics, which is a new economic kind of movement and we discussed Degrowth. It turns out that Degrowth is really about moving away from GDP as the main KPI for the economic system. I don’t really like the term Degrowth because I think the discussion is much more subtle than it actually looks on the surface of just ‘consuming or producing less’, and takes us away from the core debate which is: What KPI should we as a society use? Happiness, impact on the environment (positive vs. negative), community wellbeing and many other indicators other than GDP could be chosen.
I think there’s a lot of misconception in this space, for instance, you can buy a lot of “sustainable items” but in fact the velocity at which you purchase these things, and the way in which you use these goods and discard them etc, makes these actually not sustainable. Then there is another way of looking at consumption in the form or services. I mean you can actually search for rental shops. You can consume the rental of a drill and then give it back to the shop. You can also go to a library, where you can consume the service provided. So in fact, in this case consumption doesn’t necessarily translate into resource extraction. So I think there’s some education that needs to be done here, and again this is really what we’re promoting. Of course there are shops that are selling items to you, and these are the shops we really look into in terms of sustainability credentials. We try to look at as many data points as we possibly can. But there’s so many second-hand shops in the form of thrift stores, charities, and just the standard ones like libraries and lots of different things, so consumption doesn’t necessarily translate into resource extraction. I think this is really what we should be transitioning towards which is sharing more. And this is really what the sharing economy is. We can extract resources to manufacture one item that is used collectively. This is really aligned with our mission, and I don’t see any conflict with this.
Faheem: What are your hopes for the app, and are there any other ideas, or feedback from the community that you’d like to share based on the conversations you’ve had?
Antoine: I guess really, my hope with Ganddee overall is just to show that there’s another way of consuming as I just said, it’s not just about buying new things. I think one thing that’s very close to my heart personally is to question that success is most generally defined by money alone, and show that, hey, we can start a successful company that makes profits, that’s having a positive impact. And to me, that’s a very powerful statement to make. You don’t have to work for these big oil companies. You don’t have to work in these very polished industries to make money. You can actually work for a different kind of impact all the while making the world a better place, and still have a pretty good pay, a pretty good lifestyle, etc. I think that could be a very powerful way of awakening many minds to this type of perspective. We don’t want to lecture you; we want to make your work as easy as it possibly can get, by giving you agency and easy access to information. So, in the next six months – we have big ambitions – we want to be in every major city around the world.
Ankit: So yeah, our mission is all about empowerment. We understand that many people, like those I’ve found in Berlin, feel helpless when it comes to making sustainable choices. We want to change that by providing education and information through our app, enabling individuals to take meaningful steps towards sustainability.
Antoine: I think it’s really important for individuals to understand that they matter, therefore you matter, that’s really important. We live in the consumer economy, whether we like it or not. That’s a different debate but that’s the way it is. So we are the economy, right? I mean this is why we see ads everywhere we go. Why is that the case? Because companies are desperate to get our attention to get our money, to get us to buy their products. So, companies know very well, that we individuals matter. But we individuals always seem to doubt our ability to make the change. And I think there’s a symmetry that really needs to be changed. We are, therefore we matter. And it’s really important not to discard individual actions. Even in the climate space, sometimes I hear people saying that what matters is oil companies stopping to do what they do. Why conflict both? we need both. In fact, we need more individuals that defend their values through the ways they consume, or simply by just being engaged. And we also need companies to change. And in fact, when you look at the system, you realise one is an enabler for the other. So we shouldn’t be conflicting things. We need everything. And as individuals, we really shouldn’t be discarding our power, because companies know it.
Faheem: I feel we have another discussion on the points you have just raised! I hope we get to do that in the future. It’s been an absolute pleasure speaking with you both today, and I’m genuinely excited to witness the positive impact Ganddee is set to make. Thank you both for this insightful conversation.
I encourage those of you interested to stay updated on Ganddee’s journey and support their initiative. You can follow their progress on Instagram and TikTok, and explore the app at Ganddee.com. Let’s all be a part of the change for a more sustainable future. Thank you, Ankit and Antoine.
Antoine: Thanks for having us. It was great talking to you.
Ankit: Thank you, Faheem. Take care. Goodbye.