Illuminating the potential of regional food systems
Founded in Edmonton in 2011, Localize is an innovative shelf label program that works with retailers, producers, and consumers to develop comprehensive profiles for local food products sold in grocery stores. Localize prioritizes transparency when delving behind a product’s label - going beyond an ingredients list to knowing where the ingredients come from; going beyond product origin location to knowing the story of the owners. Their database of product information numbers 17,000 products and is constantly growing. This snapshot, informed by Localize’s founder and CEO Meghan Dear, will outline what Localize is, where it has been, and where it is headed in the attempt to profile a novel approach to enriching regional food systems.
Localize’s head office is located in Edmonton, Alberta, and it has three small offices located in Toronto, Vancouver, and Denver. It is a certified B-corporation, meaning that social and environmental responsibility are at the core of operations. Localize’s 12 employees come from various backgrounds and possess a diversity of skill sets, and are supported by an Employee Share Ownership Plan (ESOP). Strategic decisions are made by a Board of Directors.
Yet the establishment of Localize as it is today was no small undertaking; Meghan Dear’s background in food and agriculture meant that she was able to see a gap in the retail marketing of local food that an initiative such as Localize could address. In 2011, Dear began to bring food information product labels with a scannable QR code to grocery stores. This initial legwork resulted in a pilot of Localize’s shelf labels, in collaboration with Alberta Agriculture. Some time after the pilot, Localize became more fully established when the Calgary Co-op grocery store signed a contract with Localize.
Within the organization’s structure are three teams: business (grocer relationships), data (local food product information, engaging with producers), and products (software development, involvement with strategic partners). Having these three teams allows Localize to address and pull together the often-fragmented nature of food information provision and access. Data is at the centre of operations, and with the compilation of comprehensive product profiles, attributes that are often obscured, such as specific location of production or detailed information about the producer, can be illuminated. Altogether, this promotes increased scaling up of regional food systems.
Expansion and innovation: enriching local food transparency and accountability
As its name suggests, Localize’s foundations are local and regional food systems. With this, expansion of the types of services and data provided continues to be an integral part of operations. Having started out with labels for food products in just a few Alberta grocery stores, the labelling program now operates across Western Canada and Ontario. Expansion and growth continue as Localize begins to go international and expand beyond its shelf-labelling program, with a “sourcing portal” now in advanced test phases with corporate partners in the US. This portal is an online database providing information about various social and environmental dimensions of food products, based on the understanding that consumer preferences for more local and transparent products on store shelves also influences corporate buying decisions.
This expansion to an online portal is leading to Localize becoming an increasingly multi-sided platform, meaning that it aggregates data about food products into a catalogue that can in turn be used in multiple ways by multiple users. As Dear puts it, “we’re engaging food producers, third party data partners, and then grocers into the system”. Some of these key partner organizations include Ocean Wise, Fair Trade, and Marine Stewardship Certifications. The appetite for this information is growing as consumer preferences broaden and change, moving beyond the three traditional drivers of price, taste, and convenience. Localize is there to help consumers navigate the complicated world of where their food comes from.
What next? Challenges and opportunities facing Localize and regional food systems
Although the collection of food data is not a new concept, Localize is unique in its comprehensive compilation of complete product profiles and its collaboration across the social profit sector. Dear notes that “the most innovative thing about Localize is just that we relentlessly try to solve problems and make them real, instead of this more esoteric idea of innovating”. This innovation extends to Localize’s position as a key driver for stronger networks emerging around transparency in food production and retail. According to Dear, the focus for many producers and consumers is moving beyond a taste for local, as it was when Localize started up, instead going towards increasing overall transparency and accountability for local and other food attributes. This increasing emphasis on transparency and accountability, driven by producers, consumers, and suppliers, is just one of the changes that Localize is adapting to. Keeping up with the rapid pace of change along with maintaining the momentum that the company had when initially starting are two of the challenges facing Localize, along with continued access to capital.
These challenges aside, there are opportunities for growth and development for both Localize and the food systems in which it is embedded. Dear notes that although the rapid pace of change in terms of tastes of preferences is challenging, this has been accompanied with a deepening of smaller scale, local and regional food activities. With increasing government willingness to develop local economies combined with the increasing power of growing the networks that Localize is part of, a more sustainable food system is possible. Going forward Dear has “a lot of optimism” for continued resilience of regional food systems in Alberta.
Overall, it’s clear that Localize occupies a unique position within our food systems. Bridging knowledge gaps between producer, consumer, and retailer, the organization aims to increase transparency and availability of product information. With its comprehensive shelf labelling program and new corporate sourcing database, Localize makes knowledge more accessible, bringing to light the diversity, richness, and resiliency of regional food systems.