The UN recognises that in this generation we must attempt to implement more sustainable production and consumption practices, in order to meet present needs without compromising the needs of future generations. The UN has prioritised this mission, encompassing it within their 17 sustainable development goals, with a target of completion by 2030 (UN, 2017).
The intention of the goal is to help achieve overall development plans, reduce future economic, environmental and social costs, strengthen economic competitiveness and reduce poverty (UN, 2017). To achieve this target the habits of various stakeholders must change in order to create a more viable future.
One reason for the need of a sustainability goal specifically targeting consumption and production is because of rapid population growth. Currently, the population is exceeding 7.6 billion, and by 2030 this figure is set to rise to 8.6 billion (UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs, 2017). At present we are consuming more than the planet can produce, and if the world population consumed like the average American, then we would require four earths to sustain our unhealthy habits of consumption (McDonald, C. 2015). The challenge, therefore, is how are suppliers able to increase production to meet demand and keep up with the rapid rate of the ever-increasing population. Manufacturers must look at their inefficient means of production, and attempt to increase the scale and productivity of their farming.
However, with the excessive use of farmland, it leads to a stripping of nutrients and ultimately a lack of fertile land necessary for producing agriculture. Producers must, therefore, look for new ways to increase their yield. The most common solution is with the heavy use of pesticides and chemicals, which will result in a more successful harvest as the produce is more resilient. However, these chemicals have harmful external effects, which damages the environment and habitats around the farmland.
Pesticides have the potential to affect animal and plant diversity within aquatic and terrestrial food webs. As well as contaminating human food and water supplies, causing pesticides to be the tenth leading cause of poisoning exposure in 2012 (Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, 2017). Nonetheless, the use of genetically modified crops has hugely shaped the produce we eat today. Without the cultivation of more resilient and more desirable crops, we wouldn’t have the potential to grow certain foods in modern conditions and get the best taste and quality for consumers.
Moreover, the effects of greenhouse gas emissions on climate change are exacerbating the challenges faced by the agriculture sector, hugely damaging farmers livelihoods, as there are even harder conditions in which to produce crops, resulting in higher costs. Climate change has both direct and indirect effects on agricultural productivity including; changing rainfall patterns, resulting in drought and flooding; affecting the soil water balance, leading to less arable land; and the geographical redistribution of pests and diseases (FAO, 2017). The way in which farmers combat this, is again with the use of pesticides, to make their crop more resistant to the harsh climates, combat insect infestations and control exotic species.
However commercial greenhouses, have allowed for control over environmental conditions, by fabricating climates in which crops can grow at its best. This leads to a more benign means of producing crops, by not emanating as severe externalities, when compared to traditional pesticide use. Though the means of building the infrastructure and its maintenance is very costly for producers.
Making something the cheapest is not always the most sustainable, as in recent years food has turned into a commodity to be traded, as companies hunt for the cheapest prices. Consequently, this leads to farmers getting very little for their work, and struggling to meet their costs. Resulting in protests and a huge decline of local agriculture, such that of the UK Dairy Industry, which saw a decline of 10% of total dairy farmers between 2014-2015, which mirrored the 30% slashing of milk prices over the same period (Daneshkhu, 2016). Highlighting the impact of how low price goods for consumers have a huge knock-on effect within the whole supply chain.
As producing locally is typically more expensive and seasonal, companies look for the cheaper alternative by sourcing abroad. Damaging the environment through food miles in the transportation of produce, with 250,000 tons of global warming gases attributed to the imports of food products (NRDC, 2007), leaving a large carbon footprint as a result of food transportation.
Furthermore, to generate the most cost-effective products, food companies have resorted to shrinking portion sizes and reducing the amount of costly ingredients in making the same goods. This leads to companies consequently committing food fraud, one of which being the horse meat scandal of 2013, as food conglomerates attempted to keep their costs low by substituting beef with horse meat, found in 17 different products sold in the UK (BBC, 2013). This causes huge health and safety risks for consumers, as they are unwittingly consuming products without full knowledge of its provenance. This leads to questions over whether firms are being sustainable, moral and ethical in manufacturing food products. As what may naively be seen as a consequence of customer demand for cheaper products, is actually due to the war between food suppliers to win over customers business, for the battle of market dominance. Which fundamentally only helps the gluttonous and apathetic food conglomerates.
Using a Materiality Matrix (Figure 1), comparing the importance of the issue to stakeholders, and its importance to food manufacturers and retailers will help in prioritising topics and identifying which aspects are sufficiently important to warrant attention for a company to address, by awarding each challenge an appropriate weighting. From this, we can identify that key challenges to address, and hence prioritise, are climate change and growing population, since their high impact on an organisation’s ability to create, preserve or erode economic, environmental and social value.
Figure 1 – Materiality Matrix
By 2050, the world population will grow by more than 2 billion, which will require upward of a 70% increase in food production (Stewart, 2016). Sustainable corporations realise that whilst food production needs to increase drastically, such negative environmental consequences simply cannot. Firms have therefore developed their own goals and plans in order to promote sustainable production and consumption through their relationships with both suppliers and end consumers.
Forward-thinking companies are leveraging their market power to deploy a wealth of different sustainable agriculture measures. Such initiatives are no longer created for a fast CSR stunt and then ignored; instead, they are developed to advance strategic business objectives, in order to help their business survive in the future market.
Pret a Manger, a chain of ready to eat food stores, have been donating unsold food to the homeless every night since their first shop opened more than 30 years ago. The Pret Trust has been able to donate over 3 million meals every year, by delivering old stock of food to shelters across the UK (Pret, 2017), helping to reduce the impact of end of life products.
Pret, tackles the problem of packaging waste, by making more of its packaging recyclable and overall reducing any unnecessary packaging. They have also recently unveiled discount initiative to encourage customers to bring a reusable coffee cup, and have since doubled the discount from 25p to 50p (Pret a Manger, 2017), in an attempt to reduce waste by incentivising more. This is an example of motivational intervention, by rewarding customers through goal setting, comparisons and engagement (Yun et al, 2013), to stimulate customers to be more considerate of the three pillars of sustainability; people, planet and profit. Starbucks was the first major high street coffee shop to offer such a discount to customers for bringing their own cups, who saw the number of customers using a Starbucks reusable tumbler increased by 235% between 2008 and 2012 (Smithers, 2013) when they initiated the scheme. However, when Starbucks increased the discount from 25p to 50p, similar to Pret’s vision, they scrapped the change within 3 months, as the discount significantly ate into their profits. Starbucks are now looking at a whole range of strategies to drive new behaviour to get customers recycling, such as collection points in high streets, testing a truly recyclable cup and have also introduced EarthSleeve in 2014, so that the coffee giant can use single wall cups, which reduces paper, energy and water in the production process (Starbucks, 2017), impacting the sustainability of their product manufacturing.
Furthermore, plastic bottles present a real challenge, as there are dire effects to the environment due to impetuous disposing, and the process of producing bottled water requires around 6 times as much water per bottle as there is in the container (Plastic Oceans Foundation, 2017). Pret has trialled an initiative within their Veggie Pret stores to encourage reusable water bottle use, by allowing easier access to water via taps, and allowing customers to use their own or purchase reusable glass bottles (Pret, 2017). Ultimately leading to a reduction in waste generated from using unsustainable plastic bottles, impacting the way customers use their products, primarily affecting their life cycle assessment.
Whereas other companies eliminating plastic bottle use altogether, Coca-Cola, the worlds largest soft drinks manufacturer, who produces 110 billion single-use plastic bottles a year (Greenpeace, 2017), maintains that all of their packaging is 100% recyclable (Coca-Cola, 2017). In theory, all of their packaging should be recycled and repurposed. However the challenge now is to get consumers to recycle instead of disposing of it elsewhere. A response from Coca-Cola is the launch of their biggest-ever advertising campaign, focused on recycling, and trialling an on-the-go recovery and reward scheme (Deposit Return Scheme) to see if incentives help more people to recycle (Coca-Cola, 2017). These strategies are attempting to appeal to the sustainable market, which grew to $922 billion in 2014 (Devine 2011), as new sustainable products have been constantly launching to meet customers demands. This has led to the rise in the LOHAS consumer; this demographic focuses their lifestyles on health and sustainability, in order to be more socially responsible, by actively protecting the environment and sharing their concern. This segment accounts for 19% of the average American consumer (NMI, 2008), and is able to affect more than $200 billion dollars in the economy (NMI, 2008). It is now the opportunity for companies to target initiatives toward this consumer segment, so that it can benefit their profits by driving new customers, whilst also alleviating the strain the business puts on the environment. However this strategy is a significant investment, since recycled plastic costs more than creating new plastic, coupled with the material risks, global food companies are already facing; including disruption of operation, higher operating costs, and constraints to growth; means it is increasingly difficult for firms to choose a more sustainable approach, as it may seem to go against a profit-driven initiative. However this is a very short-term bigotry view, it is undoubtedly more beneficial for companies to take a more holistic perspective, by adopting a sustainable outlook to provide for present needs, without compromising the needs of the future.
Though these initiatives help in the war against packaging, a lot of which can actually be recycled and repurposed; and help in alleviating the pressure of unsustainable practices of material processing, the use, and end of life of their products. Food waste must be taken to landfill, causing an even further strain on environmental impacts. It is, therefore, more beneficial for companies to focus their efforts to directly influence the issue of unsustainable sourcing of resources, and consumers dependence on over-consumption and their bad habits of careless food wastage.
Today, agricultural systems account for 20% of global greenhouse gas emissions, 75% of global deforestation and 70% of all water consumed globally (Stewart, 2016). General Mills, a large food conglomerate, recently released a set of sustainable sourcing commitments that begins with a robust risk assessment process undertaken in partnership with a third party. This approach led the company to prioritise ten commodities, to which they are now committed to sustainably source (including palm oil, fibre packaging, wheat, oats, sugar beets, vanilla, cocoa, dairy, corn and sugarcane) by 2020 (Birt, 2017), impacting the resources stage of their food production. Being one of seven global food and beverage companies, committed to champion the development of water stewardship plans by 2025, for the most at-risk and material intensive watersheds, in its global value chain (Cheeseman, 2017) General Mills is committed to combating the results of climate change, population growth and water pollution; depleting freshwater supplies around the world.
UK households currently throw away 7 million tonnes of food and drink every year, costing £12.5 billion (WRAP, 2015). Driven by an increase of fridge capacity by 15% (Appliance Standards Awareness Project, 2011) and plate size by 36% (Wansink and Van Ittersum, 2012), resulting in more food left uneaten. Therefore it is imperative to be able to communicate with consumers to change their excessive and damaging behaviour. However, it is also extremely challenging to revert back the evolution of purchasing habits and consumer mindset. Since the evolution and growth of fast and convenience food, it has led to a surplus of supply in an attempt to meet customers demand instantly. This theory is highlighted within McDonald’s business model, as they are notorious for their dependence on batch production of food, to meet the expected demand of customers, in the fastest and cheapest way possible (Dixon, 2010). However, they have since taken a new approach, replacing their old business model, by encouraging freshly prepared food, in an attempt to reduce waste and improve quality for their customers, helped with the advancements in technology, allowing for faster processing of orders. Similar technology and its resulting data can be used more widely, in its ability to generate more accurate forecasting, for retailers and food companies, by tracking shop inventory and stock levels, to build a more realistic picture of their customers purchasing habits.
Moreover, one-third of all food purchased is thrown away (UNRIC, 2015), the main reasons for this waste being; cooking too much, not understanding dates, and incorrect storage. The Co-Operative unveiled new labels on their ‘easy for recycle’ packaging, with information to help avoid such food waste; including storage instructions, portion indicators and tips to get the most out of their food (Co-Operative Food, 2017). These may appear simple enough, but could have a huge impact on the amount of food thrown away, since it forms an instructional intervention, by allowing consumers to acknowledge their unsustainable habits through; education, advising and self-monitoring; in order for consumers to move onto the next performance stage of the Behaviour Change Model (Yun et al, 2013).
In 2013 Co-Op relaxed the rules of food quality, to allow smaller or misshapen fruit and vegetables for sale (Co-Operative Food, 2017), this allows consumers to show a conscious competence towards sustainability (Yun et al, 2013), by giving them a choice of purchasing less appealing, but great tasting produce, that would ultimately end up as waste. Along with this, Co-Op has a ‘Still Fresh’ policy in their stores, reducing the price of products nearing expiration date. And if that product still goes past its durability date in store, it is taken to a local depot where it’s sent for anaerobic digestion to produce energy and compost, which is a sustainable means for energy sourcing. Surplus food from depots over-ordering is distributed to FairShare, the UK’s largest food redistribution charity, who collect food destined for waste and send it to charities and community groups, that turn it into nutritious meals for vulnerable people (Co-Operative Food, 2017).
Additionally, Co-Op conducts a full review of the shelf-life of each of their products they sell, to ensure they have the maximum life possible while maintaining the safety and quality for their customers (Co-Operative Food, 2017). To better current packaging techniques, advances in scientifically driven research and development, have led to the creation of smart labels, which use sensors to detect the levels of contaminants, and antioxidants which indicate spoilage (Williams, 2017), allowing for a visual and transparent source of information for customers, to fundamentally reduce food wastage.
Furthermore, Co-Op has developed their own pesticides policy, working with suppliers across the globe. Attempting to use less harmful preventative pest control such as land rotation, and using more benign chemicals where achievable (Co-Operative Food, 2017). They are also committed to source 100% fair trade cocoa, and source all meat within Britain (Co-Op, 2016). Ultimately improving the sustainability of the resourcing within their product manufacturing process. This, therefore, leaves Co-Op as being a thoroughly forward-thinking and sustainable brand, in comparison with their competitors, as they are committed to change all stages of their life cycle assessment, in order to be more ethically and environmentally friendly. This is because the Co-Operative is managed by a democracy of their members, rather than being investor led and profit driven. Since at its core Co-Op try to do the best for the community, through sharing their control over their economic, social and environmental impacts, allowing them to create more viable solutions for their concerns of the triple bottom line (Elkington, 1997). In conclusion, this ideology should be adopted further by other companies, in order for all stakeholders views to be equally voiced, so that the company ultimately operates in the most sustainable and ethical way.