Why do we obsess about sustainability? What does it really mean? Is it a trend or a fad? Will it go away? When will it go away? Do I really have to do something about this?
Start thinking about sustatinability and it can all get very confusing, very quickly. In fact, if you then start believing everything you read then you might even begin to think you’re wasting your time – some of the harbingers of doom suggest we’ve missed the chance to save the planet before we have really started.
Let me assure you, you’re not. Confusing it may all well be, but it’s part and parcel of your business today, tomorrow and well beyond that. Yes, the planet is struggling to cope with our reliance on fossil fuels. Yes, our population growth means that resources are coming under pressure. But does that mean we give up? No.
Of course, there are serious challenges ahead – not least for the food industry. John Beddington, the Government’s chief scientist, likened the situation to a “‘perfect storm’ of global events” when he said: “There is an intrinsic link between the challenge we face to ensure food security through the 21st century and other global issues, most notably climate change, population growth and the need to sustainably manage the world’s rapidly growing demand for energy and water. It is predicted that by 2030 the world will need to produce 50 per cent more food and energy, together with 30 per cent more available fresh water, whilst mitigating and adapting to climate change. This threatens to create a ‘perfect storm’ of global events.”
The reality of these complex iterations and compensations of the earth’s dynamics are too complex to unravel. Studies like the WWF’s Living Planet Report (which calculated that the world’s resources are being consumed at 1.5 times the rate nature can replace them) are useful – they highlight the issues and severity of them. However, businesses want to know what’s going on at the micro level.
Increasingly, we are becoming aware of the micro effects of these macro events however. Carbon reduction initiatives, proposed carbon trading schemes, flooding disasters and shortages of water, imbalances in agricultural and populated areas, reduction in choices of fish and inflationary prices of food are all impinging on our lives – both at work and at home.
Our recent food history begins with the agricultural policies of the Second World War which stimulated production of surplus quantitites of food, for a shop. Food processors developed, proving themselves efficient in securing an influential share of the economy to address the improvements in standards of living.
Unconsciously their ‘value for money’ offer also included the introduction of palate suppressors and appetite accelerators – refined fat, sugar and salt, to name but three. This has to the vigorous expansion of the health service and abosorbed large gulps of our hard-earned taxes.
But there is a shift happening. Global corporates are recognising their role in guiding us through the ‘perfect storm’. One of the pace-setters has been Unilever. Attempts by its CEO, Paul Polman, to realign more modest expectations of shareholders’ returns are being announced as a first step to reducing cumulative accelerations of growth. In Davos last year he sparked one of the most intense debates when he said that short-term City speculators were damaging the long-term needs of business to change the way they operate.
In an interview last February he explained his reasoning. “I think the events of the last two years have brought home that there are different ways that we need to run our business…what we’ve said in the company is we’ve set ourselves a very bold and energising objective to double our business whilst reducing our environmental impact. And I think that we can do that. It is just unjustifiable to keep borrowing or frankly stealing [natural resources] from our future generations, and I think consumers will only give companies permission to grow if they do it in a responsible way, and that’s obviously what we’re trying to do at Unilever.”
Given its weight – 160 million times a day, someone, somewhere uses one of its products – Unilever can make a difference. But it cant’ do it alone – and has admitted as much. Indeed, although in positions of great power and influence, individuals like Polman are small in number and often limited by the boundaries of their key stakeholders. Initiatives are also diluted by those who are happy to see others’ behaviour change but are less reluctant themselves. But more of us that believe there are tangible and useful benefits to be gained through doing business sustainably are emerging. Having established a purchasing company in 1998, I find myself and my company – Partners in Purchasing – representing product choice of a large budget on behalf of large, presitigious, influential meal times. The companies I work with serve over 50 million meals a year – and they are headed by global international executives driving the environmentaly and CSR agendas as vociferiously as possible. This means we’ve had a good base from which to start understanding and developing sound sustainable buying solutions.
A welcome opportunity came when I won a scholarship form the Nuffield Agricultural Trust to travel the world to research ‘bringing the farming community closer to the consumer’. Following three years of research and a year of writing it up, the results of my paper summarise the total size of the opportunity in the UK for farmers to sell their food directly to the consumer.
While Polman’s wish is double his business size while reducing its impact, mine will be for farmers to produce food that is nutritious, natural, healthy, tasty – and at a price which obviates the necessity to intervene with food either economically or with additives. Within these more efficiently food supply chains, I envisage significantly smaller amounts of food will be needed: less will need to be produced because less is wasted, while less will need to be consumed because it is more nutritious.
Clearly, there are many stakeholders to influence; the consumer first, the customer, the farmer, the supply chain and, of course, the existing commercial infrastructure. Significant succeses have already been achieved with out entire client base now understanding the growing consumer demand for naturally produced, community produced food alongside solutions which we have developed over the past five years such as introducing farmer-produced ingredients delivered to our clients’ palates where they have enjoyed the provenance and personality of the connection with the land.
Evidence of the wider desire to find solutions are shared by others, as witnessed in publications like Foodservice Footprint that bring the information to the table to educate and debate these initiatives a broad audience at the meeting point between foodservice and agriculture.
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