Daily Footprint, #13 – Bread: Five Social and Environmental Factors to Consider.

In the last post I covered a some reasons for choosing organic bread. Now, I want to go through a few other factors to consider when making a decision (and writing a review) on bread. Ultimately, you should rate things according to what matters to you most. So, if Person A cares more about issues 1, 3 and 5 and Person B cares about issues 2, 3, and 4, they may rate the business a little differently depending on the businesses performance in those 5 areas. Person C, consulting Yelp or TripAdvisor to find a good bakery (in the San Francisco Bay Area in the examples below), can read both reviews and make a decision based on what’s more important to them.

So I’ll look at five issues I considered when writing green star reviews of two local bakeries. Follow the links below if you want to see the reviews on Yelp.

Two Bay Area bakeries: Acme and Firebrand

Acme Bread, founded in 1983 in Berkeley, California, was central to the rise (bread-pun alert!) of the artisan bread movement in the US, providing alternatives to the insipid highly-processed breads that had dominated for decades. Firebrand Artisan Breads is a newer bakery, based in nearby Oakland, where bread is baked in a wood-fired oven.

Acme Store and Firebrand bag
Interior of ACME Bread in Berkeley, California (left) and bread bag from Firebrand Artisan Breads in Oakland, California, showing ingredient listings.

5 ethical factors to consider when choosing bread.

1.  Ingredients in your bread. 

  • Simple. Aside from additions like nuts, olives, fruit, and seeds, excellent bread can be (and usually is) made from just four ingredients: flour, water, salt and yeast.
  • Organic. For various reasons (some covered in the last post) I prefer the flour to be organically-farmed or otherwise sustainably grown. Acme and Firebrand both list ingredients on their paper bags / websites and state which ones are organic. Acme committed to using 100% organic flour in 1999 and also sources organic olive oil, raisins and seeds.
  • No Palm Oil. For me, the number one ingredient to avoid in bread is palm oil – it has unfortunately become quite common in bread because it’s cheap. There are some companies that source sustainable palm oil – for example, Luke’s organic potato chips are made with palm oil sourced from small family farms in Ecuador with no habitat destruction. But in general I’m wary and don’t consider membership in the RSPO (Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil) alone to be sufficient assurance on palm oil being sustainably sourced.
  • Local? I think it’s a benefit if the flour is grown locally (and the bread also made locally). A 2017 paper (discussed in the last post) that looks at the environmental impact of a loaf of bread found that transport can be a significant contributor but that growth of the wheat (nitrogen fertilizer) is by far the biggest factor. So if the only two choices were organic flour grown 1000 miles away versus conventional flour grown 100 miles away, I’d choose the organic.

2.  Bread packaging

  • If you buy from a local bakery then the packaging should be a simple paper bag.
  • Acme also provides an incentive (small discount) for bringing your own bag.
  • Firebrand prints ingredients on their paper bags using water-based inks.
  • If you buy sliced bread in a plastic sleeve, check what the plastic is made from. LDPE (#4 plastic) is now recyclable in some places – your local store may accept them for recycling (Whole Foods does). Otherwise the wrapper may be made from cast polypropylene (CPP) film – a new glossier and more transparent plastic developed as an alternative to PVC film (to entice you to buy bread over the competitor). I’m wary of CPP; I don’t love LDPE either but at least it has a safety track record and is somewhat recyclable. Of course, recycling is not a panacea for plastic waste, particularly for borderline-recyclable plastics like LDPE.

3.  Energy used in making bread

  • Acme uses mostly solar power for their Berkeley bakery and now fuels its trucks and diesel generators with renewable diesel from Golden Gate Petroleum.
  • For baking bread at home, see the footnote at the end of this post.

4.  Bakeries tackling food waste

  • Firebrand donates bread to food banks and women’s shelters.
  • Acme makes an effort to donate all leftover bread to charitable organizations, schools, and non-profits, with the remainder going into organic livestock feed.
  • Toast Ale is an interesting startup in the UK that aims to use surplus and leftover bread to brew beer. All profits go to Feedback, a charity that campaigns to end food waste.

 5.  Bakery social impact: employees

  • It’s not always possible to find information on how well employees are treated in small businesses. In the post on phone network providers I mentioned that Glassdoor is a useful resource for gauging employee satisfaction for larger businesses.
  • In the case of Acme (which has more than 100 employees) I found benefits listed in online job posts. Acme provides 100% of the coverage cost for medical and dental benefits for full-time employees (50% for their first dependent), matches retirement contributions, and also employs a profit-sharing scheme.
  • In the case of Firebrand (which is much smaller) the owner wrote to me after my initial review to point out a few things that I didn’t know. They work with local non-profits to employ people with barriers to entering the workplace. I’ve seen several businesses within the food industry that provide a fresh start for people who need one (e.g., formerly incarcerated or homeless) and clearly it’s a practice worthy of support.
Baguette in 3D
3D, 360 degree, VR rendering of a baguette.  (Not really)  

Of course, the criteria above can be applied to other businesses too: big or small. There will also be other factors to consider: in the case of Firebrand, which operates as a café, I also took into account the brand of coffee that they served. So, as mentioned above, the weight that each of these factors carries will vary from person to person. Personally, my top three would be to support organic agriculture, reduce food waste, and avoid unnecessary packaging. And palm oil as an ingredient would be a major concern.

Feedback from Green Stars reviews

As mentioned above, the owner of Firebrand got back to me after I wrote my initial review to provide more details on their employees, donation of surplus bread, and contributions to No Kid Hungry. This process of writing a review and then obtaining feedback from the owner can be useful because it shows the business that customers care about these issues, and also provides a means for the owner to share information that may not be otherwise available. Sites like Yelp and TripAdvisor actually have great potential for hosting dialog on social and environmental issues.

Impact of baking your own bread

A friend who regularly bakes his own bread asked about the impact of the oven use versus a more efficient bakery. Going back to the post on carbon footprint of appliances, let’s assume that his oven is 2400 watts and that it’s on for a full 30 minutes during baking (the oven will turn on and off during baking time to match the target temperature). So that’s 2400 watts for half an hour = 1200 watt-hours (or 1.2 kWh). PG&E electricity in California generates around 0.23 kg of CO2 per KWh so that works out to be: 0.23 * 1.2 = 0.28 kg CO2. Compare that to the figure arrived at in the 2017 paper mentioned above – one loaf had a footprint of 0.6 kg CO2 with about one tenth of that (0.06 kg) coming from the baking stage. Baking at home uses a bit more energy than industrial baking but avoids the need for packaging and transportation of the bread, so it saves energy and materials there. When baking, a good option is to do it at night and turn off your home heating so that the dissipated heat warms your living space. The short answer is not to worry too much about the carbon footprint – it’s pretty small compared to other choices that you can make (driving, eating meat, etc.). If you want to bake at home then you should definitely go for it  🙂

One thought on “Daily Footprint, #13 – Bread: Five Social and Environmental Factors to Consider.

  1. I never read such an interesting piece of information on bread.

    So much informative. I wish people in our part of the world takes things like you mentioned.

    It’s one of the reason we are called developing nation. But I don’t think we are developing

    Liked by 1 person

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