Foodservice Footprint Chicken-Farm-1 COMMENT: Sourcing must not be sacrificed  Comment Out of Home News Analysis

COMMENT: Sourcing must not be sacrificed 

Sustainable sourcing policies are notoriously difficult to deliver but businesses can’t afford to deprioritise them, says Nick Hughes. 

From water to waste, fair trade to fair pay, it can be hard for food businesses with limited resources to devote the same amount of time and energy to all of their sustainability endeavours.

Some degree of prioritisation is inevitable, especially for those companies not blessed with large CSR teams and budgets. Yet it’s important that certain issues don’t get shoved to the back of the drawer marked ‘sustainability priorities’ or left in a bucket labelled ‘too difficult to do’.

As Footprint reported earlier this month, recent research revealing a woeful lack of food company progress in tackling deforestation suggests the topic is still not commanding the required level of attention from businesses. The latest Global Canopy report found almost a third of the 350 companies with the greatest influence on tropical deforestation risk through their supply chains don’t yet have a single deforestation commitment for any of the commodities (beef, leather, soya, timber, pulp and paper, and palm oil) to which they are exposed.

More evidence that sustainable sourcing is failing to receive sufficient attention is contained within a recent report from the Eating Better alliance. It suggested that, on a range of issues, commitments by UK grocery retailers to better sourcing are not yet translating into transparent progress. Research into the 10 leading supermarket chains found no evidence of policies on key issues: from maintaining soil health and reducing local pollution potential to supporting local biodiversity in farming landscapes or minimising impact on water scarcity. It found pockets of best practice from the likes of M&S, Waitrose and Sainsbury’s, but overall concluded that “transparency is poor” and progress across different impact areas is “uneven”.

The study didn’t look beyond the retail sector but it seems unlikely that foodservice operators as a collective – with their relatively smaller sustainability teams and budgets – would perform much better across a range of indicators that also included using less purpose-grown animal feed, reducing water use in supply chains and being transparent about on-farm greenhouse gas emissions.

Getting to grips with your sourcing is inherently more difficult than taking action within your own direct operations since it requires coordinated action along the value chain. And although governments are starting to look at legal mechanisms for ensuring sourcing doesn’t lead to upstream impacts, such as illegal deforestation, UK legislative efforts to-date are widely expected to be ineffective. Meanwhile, ministers are looking to strike trade deals that risk making the situation worse rather than better. The FT recently reported that the UK has offered to scrap import tariffs on palm oil products from Malaysia in exchange for membership of the new Comprehensive & Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade deal. 

Positive progress

On certain sourcing issues Eating Better found that progress has been positive. Most retailers, with the exception of Aldi and Iceland, were judged to be working towards ‘better’ or ‘best’ on responsible use of antibiotics in their supply chains. This is an area in which some foodservice businesses have won praise for their efforts. KFC was applauded “wholeheartedly” by Compassion in World Farming when it published its first chicken welfare report in 2020. It was subsequently ranked as the leading UK fast food chain in the welfare of chickens raised for their meat in the charity’s third annual pecking order report.

In other areas, foodservice businesses might even claim to be edging ahead of their retail peers. Eating Better found no commitments among the 10 retailers to reduce the amount of farmed animals or meat and dairy sold as part of efforts to lower emissions. By contrast three of the biggest players in the foodservice sector – Compass, Sodexo and Aramark – have publicly stated their intention to increase the proportion of plant-based meal options at the expense of meat. 

These type of demand-side changes are an important part of better sourcing when they reduce pressures on critical ecosystems – for example by reducing demand for the soya used in animal feed that is frequently cited as a driver of deforestation.

But it’s just as vital to ensure that what you are sourcing – meat or otherwise – is produced in the most sustainable way possible. Eating Better defines sourcing ‘better’ as working with farmers who rear fewer animals, within healthy ecosystems with more natural diets from sustainable sources, in well managed farms that deliver high standards of animal welfare.

It’s a multidimensional definition that shows how food systems challenges are interconnected and can’t be tackled in isolation. It also shows the deficiency in relying exclusively on certification schemes which, for all their benefits, often focus on single issues.

Grocery retailers tend to be the initial focus for such industry scorecards – there are fewer of them, the majority of food is purchased through them and they enjoy high levels of brand recognition – but foodservice operators subsequently find themselves under the spotlight, as has been the case with scorecards on soya and palm oil. They rarely get as much heat as the grocers and major food processors but we should expect this to change.

Indeed, in the race to deliver against sustainability targets such as net-zero, (carbon) tunnel vision must be avoided and sourcing must be afforded the attention it deserves.