Lowhub, a post-mortem.

29/01/2013 § Leave a Comment

Functioning for 3 years as a low carbon distributor for London’s wholesale markets, Lowhub undertook to revolutionise distribution techniques and methodology with a electric and bio-diesel vehicles. Utilising EV’s, Lowhub’s per mile carbon output was 16% of that of a comparable diesel powered vehicle. Using the resources in our environs, Lowhub created a closed-loop feedback system, collecting (otherwise wasted) cooking oil from our customers, and using it to produce biodiesel, to power its bio-diesel vehicles. Lowhub encouraged collaborative behaviour from customers, reducing costs to the customer and increasing distribution efficiency, minimising wasted mileage and associated carbon output.

But! Lowhub operated through the beginning of the financial crisis, as margins on luxury items and (as UK economic figures can attest to) across sectors were squeezed to historic lows. Therefore, when Lowhub, as an alternative service provider, arrived in the industry, without an obvious ‘bottom line’ cost saving, barriers to entry were quite strong.

Behavioural change is difficult to overcome in all industries, but Lowhub was a game-changer, asking/requiring its customers to share client information previously considered sacred. After group meetings and enthusiasm from some members, customers did share this information. With shared information, Lowhub created highly efficient distribution routes which grew on the basis of contracted geographic areas. However Lowhub needed to find kindred spirits who had the inclination to deal with, and appreciation for, carbon ‘issues’ within the food industry. As an industry, the food sector has gained an incredible awareness of its carbon impact, but in early 2007, in the small geographic area that Lowhub was operating, the number of people willing to participate in collaboration was not large enough to sustain the momentum required.

Specialisation: Lowhub took the ‘vanilla’ function of the delivery of produce and became a specialist in the area, as well as introducing low carbon techniques. The drivers were trained by the suppliers to give advice and information regarding the products – this deepened the relationship between supplier and buyer though something as simple as delivery. This skill-set incurred costs of time and training, which although gave a handsome return to the customer, was not a cost that could be passed through to the client, which decreased Lowhub margins.

Industry recognition: The SRA (Sustainable Restaurant Association) was set up eighteen months after Lowhub, and has since taken the restaurant industry into new and exciting realms where carbon IS addressed at all levels, from provenance, supplier accreditation, kitchen design, restaurant energy consumption, to making the general public aware of progress within the industry. Lowhub consulted with the SRA and worked alongside many other representative bodies such as Foodshare, Sustain, WASTE etc. Each body contributed something unique and worthwhile, but Lowhub was unable to harness all of the potential because of its relatively small size in a vast industry with so many strands of energy consumption.

Externalities: The influence of government affects every newcomer to any industry. However, a lack of uniform direction in London’s low-carbon strategy left Lowhub without a clearly defined infrastructure in which to operate. Ken Livingstone’s policy direction pointed to the creation of a hydrogen fuel infrastructure across London, but this direction was abruptly changed by Mayor Johnson’s support for electric vehicles within London. Lack of policy uniformity left Lowhub without the knowledge that it had support from local government policy.

Differentiation: Lowhub operated in the very specialist market of produce delivery. The existing methods of transport were hugely wasteful in terms of energy, and inefficient in terms of distribution. Shared distribution, operating on behalf of multiple suppliers, was very rare before Lowhub. Despite the low-carbon motivation and the increased route efficiency that it brings, that differentiation was not sufficiently demanded from, or aspired to by the industry, to the extent that Lowhub required in order to create a sustainable business model. Maybe the model was before its time, or maybe the model just needs tweaking?Lowhub hits the road!

As a result Lowhub, despite various awards and many supporters, ceased delivery operations. Lowhub continues to provide consultancy advice and support through the Chi Group network.

Dilemmas, dilemmas

25/01/2013 § 2 Comments

The scale of the challenges of the New Model Orchard (NMO) project is dawning on me. Testing ourselves against the 5 Capitals Framework on every decision is already provoking serious debate. Latterly it has been down to the spacing of trees in the orchard.

Modern orchards are high intensity typically 3000 or more trees per hectare, more than double an old orchard. It allows more efficient machinery and agrichemical use and produces the yields which are (usually) financially sustainable today. However if we go for these very narrow rows we have to have special narrow orchard tractors, not much use for anything else on the farm. If the rows were wider we could use our existing pool of wider mid-range tractors and save on buying new manufactured capital.

Conversely agrichemical use, more efficient in narrow rows, represents the greatest carbon sink (see previous post on agrichemicals and the embedded carbon) in modern orchards so a point to narrow rows. Wider rows would perhaps allow inter-cropping increasing financial sustainability, however we would lose sward biodiversity which hosts beneficial insects reducing demand for agrichemical use. Another point to narrow rows.

Ultimately on this farm we have a strong field vegetable business, the more space taken up by orchards the less space for the veg. So it looks like sticking with convention this time – and the customers didn’t like the intercropping idea anyway. Although I still think free range chickens would love living in orchards, just don’t tell the customers.

New Model Orchard

21/01/2013 § Leave a Comment

Can modern commercial food production be truly sustainable?

Consumers are bombarded with ethical and environmental claims about the food they eat and the practices of those businesses bringing it to their table. The term ‘Sustainability’ is the claim of the moment and widely abused.

At the family farm on the north eastern tip of Essex we are embarking on a project to challenge whether apples can be grown commercially in truly sustainable fashion. The ‘NEW MODEL ORCHARD’ project will use the 5 capital’s framework to assess the sustainable use of environmental, social, human, manufactured and financial capital.

The ambitious project features a 1hectare planting of Opal apples and is being supported by partners Forum for the Future, the Chi Group, New Holland, Bayer, East Malling Research, Barclays, Oxford Biochar, More People, Mosscliff Renewables, Van Nifterik, EWT and many others. The orchard will be planted in February / March this year and an introductory event held in the Spring to bring partners and interested parties together to begin to develop ideas. The apples are ultimately destined to end up on the shelves of leading UK retailer, Marks & Spencer.

Key hurdles to overcome will be the large carbon sink presented by the use of agrichemicals, use of fossil fuels by vehicles and how to engage the local community. Not to mention achieving financial sustainability as the economic climate ensures retailers are unlikely to increase prices returned to farmers despite the significant capital investment required.

We will post regular updates and progress reports as the project unfolds.

What if all of us drove electric cars?

31/12/2012 § Leave a Comment

According to the Digest of UK Energy Statistics (DUKES) 2010 published by the UK Government we use nearly 7M tonnes of diesel and 15.5M tonnes of petrol or gasoline in our cars and taxis. So how much electricity would we need to generate if we replaced all our national fleet of fossil fuel powered vehicles with electric ones?

7M tonnes of diesel and 15.5M tonnes of petrol contains 277 TWh of energy. According to the same report, the UK electricity industry delivered 326.1 TWh of energy to its users – simplistically we’d need to increase our capacity by 85%.

However an electric car is far more efficient than one powered by an internal combustion engine (88% vs 35%) so it does far more useful work for the same amount of input energy. 277 TWh put into a fleet of ‘normal’ cars will do 97 TWh of useful work, whereas an electric fleet will do the equivalent useful work with only 110 TWh of input energy.


The UK needs 25k additional windmills to power EVs

Allowing for transmission and distribution losses across the grid, around 9%, we find we need to generate 122 TWh of electricity  – equivalent to roughly 25,000 wind turbines or 34 nuclear power plants.

Reducing Energy Use and GHG Emissions of a Commercial Apple Orchard

27/12/2012 § Leave a Comment

Engaged 383ppm in 2007 to complete a carbon footprint of their apple growing and storage processes, this was before there was a Carbon Trust standard so we worked closely with Carbon Trust to agree an approach and verify our findings and in 2008 we returned to implement some carbon reduction measures and to help communicate the work to a wider audience. Before we start a bit about Blackmoor:

  • Grower of Premium English Apples since the 1920’s
  • 100 ha Top Fruit orchards
  • Marks & Spencer, Sainsbury’s and Tesco
  • Pack house & Fruit Nursery


Our work found agrichemicals (insecticides, fungicides, herbicides and fertililsers) to be the largest sources of carbon emissions. This is important because for a number of reasons (poor data from manufacturers, uncertain science) the emissions due to agrichemicals are probably the least understood or easily quantified.

Agrichemicals are the largest source of Carbon

Agrochemicals are the largest source of Carbon

Some varieties are a lot easier to grow than others and it shows in the carbon footprint. Cox is a more delicate fruit requiring more support during the growing season and needs more application of agrochemicals hence the greater emissions when compared to Gala.

Cox requires more support to grow successfully

Cox requires more support to grow successfully

Fruit grown on a traditional tree has a 40% greater footprint than one grown on a Trellis system. This simply down to yield per unit hectare – planting density 800 per ha in a Traditional orchard and 2,600 per ha on a Trellis orchard. Due to the flat geometry of the a trellis tree (fruit very nearly grows on the main trunk of the tree) whereas on a traditional tree you get significant branching before fruit is produced – this benefits the trellis tree as spraying is a lot more efficient and targeted. This means you apply the same amount of agrichemicals on ha of Trellis trees as you would on a ha of Traditional trees.

Trellis systems have significantly lower carbon emissions

Trellis systems have significantly lower carbon emissions

On the ‘Trellis’ Tree the fruit grows nearly directly on the main trunk so no energy is wasted growing extra woody material, additionally it’s a flatter 2-D structure making it easier and more efficient to spray agrochemicals and absorb sunlight.

Traditional Trees

Traditional Trees

Trellis System

Trellis System








Early Bird: Low Carbon does not imply High Tech

Fruit is cooler at daybreak than later on in the afternoon – less time and energy to pull down. Currently harvesting starts at 08:30, early bird would start at 06:00Field measurements show apples are around 9 °C at 06:00 and can reach 31°C in the afternoon. On a “typical” day pull-down times could be lowered by 21%, on a hot day by over 40%. Orchard managers should plan to use Early Bird using short term weather forecasts. Apples should go into storage as dry as possible the surface moisture is no greater at 6:00am than at 10:00am, in fact is probably less.

Early Bird Cooling Curve

Early Bird Cooling Curve

Best Practice: Often Low Carbon

Fruit is collected by pickers and put into fruit bins (circa 350kg) in the past empty bins were placed individually between orchard rows and collected again by tractors when they were full, you’d end up with tractors driving up and down rows all day, burning a lot of diesel and reducing the productivity of the picking team as they waited for a bin to replaced. The picking train an innovation introduced by Blackmoor before we started work in 2007 reduced diesel usage by driving a train of three bins very slowly between a row of tress as they fruit is picked, when the bin the three bins are full they are driven out again, all in a single pass of the tractor.. The electric vehicle in this picture is not usually part of the picking train it’s normally a diesel tractor. This EV was trialed as part of 383ppm’s work in 2008.

Electric Picking Train

Electric Picking Train

Marks and Spencer decided to take advantage of the work done and are using a unique label for apples from Blackmoor Estate. The label reminds the consumer about the great taste, that the apples are British and uses an uncontroversial element of the carbon footprint (Trellis) to make a low carbon claim and allude to the ongoing commitment of Blackmoor to reducing carbon.

Marks & Spencer Low Carbon Label

Marks & Spencer Low Carbon Label

Conclusion: A Meaningful Low Carbon Label

  • Transparent & Practical Analysis
  • Often Best Practice is Low Carbon
  • Well communicated commitment to innovation and continuous improvement
  • Focus on commercial benefits (cost and competitive advantage)
  • Taste & Nutrition are still the consumers top priorities

Low Carbon Label: Is there room and does anyone care?

27/12/2012 § Leave a Comment

Consumers are overloaded with a plethora of different labels. In the UK alone there are over 80 different labels and food assurance scheme including Organic, Red Tractor or RSPCA Freedom Foods. Companies want to help consumers make the right decision and differentiate their products but a recent survey by Which? [a consumer research magazine] found that only 20% of consumers understand the majority of labels. But does that mean for a carbon label?


Give me a kilo of whatever takes the least ethical reasoning

Give me a kilo of whatever takes the least ethical reasoning

Despite all of this consumers do care if a brand is ‘Green’ or not. Ignoring for now what Green actually means across these countries from this research it is clear that Green is important to about 80% of consumers to a greater or lesser extent.

“When You Think About What Brands to Buy, How Important is it that a Company is Green?” (% of respondents)

“When You Think About What Brands to Buy, How Important is it that a Company is Green?” (% of respondents)


But Quality & Taste and I suspect price is still the most important factor effecting a consumers decision to buy. So we can’t sacrifice either of these to reduce emissions.

key characteristics

We hear a lot about what people like their brands to do, you know I’d like it to be green or ethical but does that translate into real hard changes in buyer behaviour. The simple answer is yes it does. The top two categories ‘Free Range’ and ‘Fair Trade’ are about reducing the suffering of animals (Free Range Eggs sales have increased dramatically in the UK over the last decade) or sharing the rewards with others (FairTrade). Organic is perceived to be better for the environment or the individual. Looking at this, the question is is their space for a Low Carbon label?– and I’d say yes it is but over time I’d expect it to become part of an overarching scheme such as organic.

“UK Consumers Who Have Increased Spending on Green Food Products, by Eco-Label” (% of respondents)

“UK Consumers Who Have Increased Spending on Green Food Products, by Eco-Label” (% of respondents)

Labels are either digital or they convey the values of the product being sold. To a consumer a digital label is easy to understand since it tells you whether a product is vegetarian, kosha or halal and either you have to have it or you don’t.

Ethical or green labels have a more complex message to communicate and whether it effects your purchasing decision is up to you. FairTrade is the most successful ethical label in the UK – it pays a fair price to growers in the developing world and not to exploit them. The Soil Association’s Organic Standard is the best known organic brand.

The UK’s Carbon Trust are introducing their own carbon label, it is well intended – providing a common measurement framework (PAS 2050) but it faces some challenges for example the process of completing a footprint is expensive and beyond the reach of most growers and secondly consumers don’t know if 100g of CO2e is high or low.

Common Ethical Food Labels

Common Ethical Food Labels

So we know two things, one consumer demand exists but a label (and the marketing behind it has to clearly communicate what it stands for) and two it has to be rooted in something meaningful to the consumer and not just a set of numbers.

We have yet to see compelling evidence that a consumer will pay extra for a purely carbon label. Free Range yes, Organic yes, Rainforest Alliance yes but I don’t think low carbon. So how does carbon reduction make sense for a grower – it only make sense if leads to lower production costs because you are increasing yield or are able to take advantage of renewable energy.



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