Q&A: The developers of Sexy Tofu on creating a platform measuring the carbon footprint of your diet

May 5, 2022, 10:18 p.m.

Jenny Wang M.S. ’22 and Jeff Kassab M.S. ’20 bonded over their shared interest in a consumer-centric approach to climate solutions during their time in the Stanford d.school’s Design-Impact program. The project, now known as Sexy Tofu, started out as a capstone project to help people eat more sustainably. 

Along with Tony Chen M.S. ’19, Wang and Kassab developed an interactive database that offers improvements to your diet’s carbon footprints. Sexy Tofu compares user data with emissions from cars and land use, putting into perspective how food choices, at scale, can have significant environmental implications. 

A screenshot of the website, which has diagrams indicating your carbon footprint if you consumed only four pounds of beef and four pounds of tofu weekly, compared to carbon emissions from driving a Toyota Prius (813.4 pounds of CO2, or 1701.36 miles driven), the number of trees that have to be cut down (26.5) and water usage from showering (11381.7 cups)
A screenshot of the website, which has diagrams indicating your carbon footprint if you consumed only four pounds of beef and four pounds of tofu weekly, compared to carbon emissions from driving a Toyota Prius, land use and water use. (Photo courtesy of Madison Fan)

The Sexy Tofu also suggests how one can reduce the carbon impact of their diet using similar ingredients and fun recipes. The recommendations are based on a global emissions median value. The team is actively working on including more precise data that takes into account a broader range of ingredients.

From left to right: Jeff Kassab M.S. ’20, Jenny Wang M.S. ’22 and Tony Chen M.S. ’19 presenting Sexy Tofu in front of the d.school. (Photo courtesy of Jenny Wang)

The Daily sat down with Wang and Kassab to discuss Sexy Tofu and the many iterations they went through since starting the project in 2020.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

The Stanford Daily [TSD]: How did you begin Sexy Tofu?

Jenny Wang [JW]: For our master’s degree, we would spend one year working extensively on a project. Jeff and I both wanted to do our part to combat climate change. We started off doing the capstone project on how we can help people to eat more sustainably. Along the journey, we met many people and one of them was Tony.

Jeff Kassab [JK]: I had already graduated at that point. But I still wanted to work on projects that I felt were going to be impactful. Since I was living with Jenny, we ended up doing a lot of brainstorming, trying to do some research around the biggest drivers of global warming. We ended up landing on food sustainability.

The Stanford Daily [TSD]: How would you both describe Sexy Tofu?

Jeff Kassab [JK]: I would say right now we’re seeing it as very much a tool to do two things. One of them is to educate people on the environmental impact of the food that they’re consuming and the other is to help them actually take action around it. The current beta version is trying to first help people understand what is the actual impact of your food, and then to help people actually make changes to their diets to be more sustainable. The taking action part is still in the works at this point.

Jenny Wang [JW]: We want to be funny, supportive and helpful. So this is something we considered when doing research because both of us are designers. So a very big part of product design development is understanding the users. So for us, this is talking to people who like to cook, who go grocery shopping and others. We understood that people do not want to be preached to do what’s better for the environment. What’s better for the environment typically means having more of a plant rich diet, such as avoiding eating a ton of red meat or things like that. 

We do understand that everybody has different health conditions, situations, budget and things like that. One thing we learned from research is not to be preachy, which is something that we very much want to embed in the branding of Sexy Tofu. 

TSD: Why is it important that Sexy Tofu provides a guilt-free nudge towards a low-carbon diet? 

JW: More often than not, if you try to guilt someone into doing something, they’re either going to do it in spite of themselves or not do it at all. If we inform people about the effect of things, then they can make their own informed decisions. 

In one of the first design mockups we did, we played around with an artificial intelligence voice message. What if we send some sassy message to our friends to change their behavior for the climate? For example, you should not leave your lights on. The message was a little passive aggressive, with a dry sense of humor to it. Our friends were like, “I’m just gonna do the opposite of what you’re telling me to do.” Obviously, that was kind of a joke, but it’s one example of how guilting someone doesn’t work. Food is an especially personal ask as well; everybody has their own culture. 

JK: From both our experiments and literature review, I think negative reinforcement rarely ends up resulting in lasting behavioral change. 

TSD: I suppose there are arguments for pushing for systematic change in climate solutions as opposed to consumer behavioral change, although both demand- and supply-side stimulus for climate transition are important. Why did the team decide to work on the individual-scale problem?

JK: Our thoughts are, it’s kind of a group effort. If everyone is informed about what they need to be doing, then hopefully individual actions can lead to systemic change in the longer run. 

We’re both sustainably conscious people, but we don’t understand exactly what we can do and exactly how what we’re doing affects the environment. So we feel like there are consumers who are like, “I care enough to do something if someone tells me what to do, but I’m not sure what to do otherwise.” If there’s a need for it, then why shouldn’t we be the ones helping those people and developing a solution around it?

TSD: What are some unexpected lessons you learned from working on Sexy Tofu?

JK: One thing that was hard is that behavioral changes are not easy to do. And so that was one of the first things we spent a lot of time on. We spoke to people who have studied behavioral science for a while, and they advised us. 

I think our next iteration will hopefully help us get to a point where we kind of move away from having people do too much on their side, while still keeping the education component on making actual change.

JW: We talked to some people who are working on diet and cooking apps; there’s a huge behavioral component to those apps. And usually, [dieting] is something that people keep for a period of time and then drop. So getting the retention rate of customers is all really, really tough. 

For us, what we want to figure out is the following: How do we make it extremely simple for people? I think we already made progress in making the platform fun and light-hearted by the branding and the community building aspect without losing credibility. But in terms of the action, how can we remove friction in the process? We talked to behavioral expert Brian Jeffrey Fogg Ph.D. ‘97, author of Tiny Habits. He said change can happen when there is motivation, ability and prompt. Hopefully, by removing more frictions, Sexy Tofu can help change behaviors.

TSD: What are the next steps for Sexy Tofu?

JW: We are iterating the business model side. Although consumers are ultimately the people who are going to be making the personal choice of food diet, there are a variety of different channels of how that can manifest. The menu in the restaurant could be an avenue where you can have mindful choices or when you grocery shop. So, in terms of the business aspect, we are continuously iterating and prototyping. We’re starting off with consumers. We think for individuals to make a diet change or habit change, we need to understand their perspective. Therefore, we will start researching individuals first.

JK: We’ve been chatting with some restaurants and with some supermarkets to try and see if we can help consumers make those better decisions. We’re still kind of playing around with a few different ideas. We’re also working for the quarter on updating the current beta version of Sexy Tofu that we have online, trying to make it potentially more actionable.

This article has been corrected to more accurately reflect the contents of the interview. The Daily regrets this error.

Bhumikorn Kongtaveelert '25 is the culture desk editor for the Arts & Life section and the Energy and Environment Beat Reporter for the News section. Contact The Daily’s Arts & Life section at arts ‘at’ stanforddaily.com.

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