Food sustainability: confronting the conundrum in uncertain times

Ollie Brand
Food service

What are the barriers and opportunities to greater sustainability in food production and service?

Our global food supply chain system has evolved over many years, and any reshaping what we have today isn’t going to be simple and easy to do. Rather, rethinking our complex food supply chains is likely to take time, something than runs counter to global expectations and initiatives that aim to drive change.

For example, the targets within the Government’s National Food Strategy are set for mandatory reporting from food businesses by 2027. That’s less than four years away and yet we have a long way to go if we are to come close to meeting this deadline. We face similar challenges with The Paris Agreement. Whilst created seven years ago to strengthen the global response to the threat of climate change - and is still at the core of many business sustainability strategies today - we are far from seeing the pace and traction needed to create impactful change on the ground.

Both these examples will also require change for the hospitality industry, Yet, despite the looming deadlines for greater sustainability, it is clear that all sense of urgency has been greatly impacted by the multiple headwinds that have hit the sector in recent years.

At Zupa we’ve noticed that rising costs and people shortages have markedly affected the appetite for sustainability across the board. In fact, when we independently surveyed hundreds of UK restaurants last year, more than a third of respondents (34%) said that the focus on sustainability and climate change had been side-lined in their business. A further 24% of restaurants also said they weren’t prioritising food wastage right now due to outdated processes that were draining resource from their already stretched teams.

Food sustainability trailblazer and Foodsteps founder and CEO, Anya Doherty, also highlighted similar observations in her conversation with us in our recent podcast. She told us: "ambition around becoming more sustainable hasn’t really changed for most food businesses, but the situation they find themselves in, has. And it’s understandable. Why spend money on sustainability when you’re laying people off? These are very difficult decisions for companies to make."

Consumers have an important role to play in any meaningful progress for greater sustainability in hospitality. According to Kantar, 29% of British consumers, who are responsible for £37bn of grocery sales annually, now consider themselves to be environmentally conscious. However, with the challenges the hospitality sector is currently facing, is it enough of an incentive for businesses to drive change at the speed that is needed? Anya is less sure: “sustainability is definitely a big draw for consumers, but I don’t think it is enough of a reason right now for companies to put the necessary budget behind it. Some will put budget behind marketing a product more sustainably, but not at the level needed".

So, how do we get around this impasse? According to Anya: "policy is still the missing piece of the jigsaw. Sustainability is still a ‘nice to have’ and, until it becomes a ‘need to have’, mass uptake will be challenging.”

Change and legislation are coming but is it enough? The Government has committed to reducing the UK’s carbon production to 78% below 1990 levels by 2035 and to be Net Zero by 2050. Whilst this might feel like a way off, if you consider the time it has already taken to get to the stage we are at now, we simply don’t have that same degree of time to get the message out there. In the meantime, mandatory reporting will be here before we know it, whether we are ready or not.

So, what can hospitality businesses do right now to help get on the front foot of their carbon impact?

Here are five small steps that can help you set your intentions in motion:

1. Assess your menus and review your ingredients to give you a simple baseline for what is going in and out of your business.

2. Use technology to measure the impact of your supply chains and manage compliance.

3. Be aware of the energy efficiency of all appliances and turn off kitchen equipment that is not needed or in use.

4. Create your own internal targets to reduce food wastage and to get your team onboard.

5. Diversify your menus (as we have touched upon in our previous blog, '8 ways of making dishes go further') and free up your chefs and kitchen staff so they have time to create more sustainable menus and recipes, as well as changing the quantities or types of ingredients used in your dishes.

These steps may require an assessment of your technology and systems, and even your kitchen culture, but with a will and investment in staff training you can make small positive change quickly. This approach may even improve staff engagement. In Zupa’s latest survey of UK restaurants, staff training was cited as the top reason for low staff morale in the sector (39%).

There is no denying that there are moves to help improve sustainability in the food supply chain, albeit very slowly. But will we run out of time? Hospitality businesses need to be ready for the impact from changes that are happening, even if it means taking smaller steps during these turbulent times. Businesses may not currently have the capacity or budgets to invest heavily in their sustainability plans, or to appoint a sustainability officer to manage the whole change management, but there are things they can do to support that process now. Both to help on their journey to becoming more sustainable and even in many cases, reducing costs at the same time.

If you are wondering where to start, or would like to hear more about food sustainability, listen to our Recipes for Success Podcast with Anya Doherty of Foodsteps from wherever you get your podcasts, or on one of the links below.

Link to Recipes for Success | EP02 with Anya Doherty of Foodsteps: