As more consumers express a desire to keep the environment in mind when eating out of home, foodservice operators like Sodexo are setting ambitious targets to reduce the carbon impact of menus.
UK consumers are aware of the urgent need to eat more sustainably, yet there remains a gap between people’s desire to change their eating habits and their actual behaviours.
This was a key insight to emerge from the UK results of Sodexo’s first annual Sustainable Food Barometer, published this month. The research surveyed more than a thousand UK consumers in an effort to better understand the change levers and barriers to adopting more sustainable diets. Despite almost three-quarters (73%) of respondents believing that adoption of a more sustainable way of eating is urgent, just 4% ranked environmental impact as the factor to which they pay most attention when shopping for groceries. By contrast, 36% look first at price, while 16% said that taste is their primary concern.
There were positive signs of engagement with certain actions that can support a more sustainable food system: 75% of respondents said they are reducing food waste in their household, while 54% said they consume seasonal products whenever possible. However, just 35% said they consume sustainably produced products whenever possible. This suggests there is work for foodservice businesses to do in helping embed the principles of sustainable diets into people’s eating habits – in particular supporting a shift away from animal proteins towards more vegetables, pulses and other plant-based foods while maintaining a focus on providing tasty, nutritious meals.
This shift in diets needs to happen to help put the food system on a more sustainable footing. The way we produce and consume food is one of the main causes of climate change, contributing to around one third of greenhouse gas emissions globally, with agriculture representing 23%. Agriculture is responsible for 80% of global deforestation and 70% of freshwater withdrawals, while globally up to 40% of all food produced is either lost or wasted.
Current food consumption habits are also a key contributor to diet-related ill health. Over 40% of the world’s population are unable to afford a healthy diet, with as many as 783 million people affected by hunger, while over 2.6 billion people are living with obesity or considered overweight. In the UK specifically, a recent report by the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change cited new estimates indicating that the cost to the UK of obesity and overweight spiralled to £98bn in 2021, up from the previous estimate of £58bn and equivalent to almost 4% of GDP.
A transition to more sustainable diets is a key element of a holistic approach to building a more resilient, lower-carbon food system. Healthy, sustainable diets include a wide variety of foods that are produced responsibly, according to conservation charity WWF. They are rich in plants, including fruit, vegetables, pulses, and wholegrains; contain moderate amounts of meat, dairy and eggs, and lower footprint seafood; and minimal amounts of foods high in fat, salt and sugar.
Experts have modelled what a sustainable, net-zero aligned diet looks like for the UK and have concluded that overall consumption of animal protein must fall. The independent Climate Change Committee recommends a 20% shift away from meat and dairy products by 2030, with a further 15% reduction of meat products by 2050.
Henry Dimbleby, in his national food strategy for England, concluded that a 30% drop in meat consumption by 2032 was necessary to put the food system on a more sustainable footing.
Adopting a sustainable diet does not require us to stop eating meat and dairy entirely but to rebalance our diets in a way that avoids excessive consumption of animal proteins and incorporates a wide variety of plants. Many of the consumers surveyed by Sodexo expressed a willingness to moderate their meat consumption in order to eat more sustainably – 45% said they have stopped or could stop eating meat altogether, while 58% said they could reduce or have reduced consumption of animal proteins in favour of plant proteins.
Still, it’s clear that meat remains a central part of many people’s diets. More than two thirds (68%) of those surveyed said they consume meat at least a few times a week with 82% saying the same for dairy. This compares with 79% who said they regularly consume fresh vegetables.
What’s also clear from the research is that UK consumers have an appetite for eating more sustainably when outside of the home and want businesses to support them in their ambitions. Almost two thirds (65%) of those questioned said they wish to eat more sustainable products than they do at home when they are at school or university, along with 54% when eating in restaurants, 50% in company cafeterias and 47% at sporting or cultural events.
Key role for caterers
The findings point to the critical role foodservice companies can play in helping to reduce the environmental footprint of UK consumers’ diets by providing tasty, nutritious and sustainable meal options.
Sodexo has a target to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions across its value chain by 2040. “As part of our transition to net-zero we recognise that sustainable eating is a key action lever for us to be able to reach our SBTi (Science-based Targets initiative) validated near and long term targets,” says Sean Haley, CEO of Sodexo UK & Ireland.
The business is pledging that by 2030, 70% of all the main meals it produces will be low-carbon, defined in partnership with WWF as one that generates 0.9kgCO2e or less.
The foodservice sector has a key role to play in helping people choose more sustainable meal options in out of home settings, according to Claire Atkins Morris, Sodexo UK & Ireland sustainability director. “Consumers want to go out and enjoy themselves and eat tasty, nutritious food, but they also want to know that the work has been done in the background so they can eat more guilt-free. We are seeing more people actively make sustainable choices but our job is to make sure the choices are there for them,” she says.
Scope 3 focus
Across all of its activities in the UK and Ireland, 99% of Sodexo’s emissions fall into scope 3 of which supply chain emissions account for around a third. In its latest net-zero progress report published in January, the business reported a 37% reduction in absolute GHG emissions across scopes 1, 2 and 3, compared to its baseline year of 2017, including a 36% reduction in scope 3 emissions.
A redesign of menus to incorporate more plant-based meals (those that contain no animal products) and plant-forward options (meals that contain mainly plants and minimal amounts of animal products) has been key to reducing those supply chain emissions with a third of dishes on centrally designed menus now plant-based.
Managing trade offs
Atkins Morris is keen to note however that Sodexo is not purely looking at sustainability through a carbon lens. The focus for menu development has been on meals that include “less but better meat”, reflecting the fact that intensively reared animals can often have a lower carbon footprint than those reared extensively or to higher welfare standards. “It’s got to be done holistically to sit alongside all the commitments we have made in areas like responsible sourcing, higher welfare, local and seasonal,” says Atkins Morris.
Unintended consequences of menu redesign also have to be considered and minimised. Charles Abraham, food director for Sodexo UK & Ireland, uses the critical issue of food waste to illustrate the point. “There’s a carbon impact in producing food that isn’t eaten so we have to ensure we have a focus on minimising food waste and that comes back to having high quality, tasty, well-priced dishes that the consumer wants to eat,” he says. “If we produce a low-carbon dish and the consumer doesn’t like it, it is likely to be wasted so the need to reduce food waste is a fundamental piece we have to address as well.”
Abraham says the consumer is the number one stakeholder in Sodexo’s journey towards ensuring that 70% of main meals are low-carbon, “because the consumer is the one that ultimately makes that choice.”
Other stakeholders also have a key role to play, including suppliers. Sodexo launched a new net-zero supply chain engagement strategy in October 2023 in which it set out its intention to cease working with suppliers that have failed to demonstrate tangible progress towards achieving net-zero by 2030. As of January 2024, the evaluation criteria of all tenders will include a minimum of 10% social value weighting.
“We work with a lot of SMEs and VCSEs, and even some big companies, who are just at the beginning of their journey to understand their carbon footprint,” says Abraham. “We have a role to play in taking everybody with us.”
Sodexo’s own employees have a critical role to play too, not least the chefs involved in menu development. “They have to learn to design a menu that meets a cost, nutritional and calorific value as well as a carbon value alongside other sustainability criteria” says Abraham. “It’s an ever more complex development process when you’ve got to hit multiple criteria and still ensure it looks and tastes great so we need to take culinary teams on that journey.”
Abraham suggests the risk of trade-offs and unintended consequences from menu redesign becomes greater over time. “We can make minor adjustments straight away that have a big impact and then as time goes on those trade-offs become more difficult to manage. This is why it’s so important to take the consumer on the journey with us. One of our biggest selling products across the business is a cooked breakfast. How do we get to the point where we’ve engaged with the consumer so that they’re going to accept something that’s maybe different to what it was five years previous? That’s the challenge.”
As part of its partnership with Sodexo, WWF recently published a new report showing how the foodservice sector can play a key role in driving the transition to healthy, sustainable diets by enabling customers to choose options centred on plant-based ingredients.
The report identified nine levers that catering businesses can employ to support this shift, divided into customer engagement, staff engagement and value chain engagement levers.
Customer engagement levers include recipe naming, positioning and presentation of different menu choices and environmental impact labelling.
Staff engagement levers consist of culinary and front of house team training, and management and off site team training, while value chain engagement levers involve alignment of commitments between foodservice providers and clients and designing contracts that support a sustainability agenda.
Critically, WWF says these levers are underpinned by five “foundational enablers” upon which change should be built. These involve embedding sustainability and nutrition commitments and targets into organisational strategy; creating clear guidance for sustainable meals and menus; creating understandable core datasets; developing menus and recipe portfolios; and setting targets for recipe uptake, procurement and food waste.
“The foodservice sector serves billions of meals worldwide – a significant proportion of the food we eat – so it has a key role to play in driving the shift towards healthy and sustainable diets which is essential in order to tackle climate change and nature loss,” says Lisa Huggins, foodservice sustainable diets manager at WWF.
“Through a wide range of actions identified in our latest report, from working directly with suppliers to improve sustainability across the food value chain to promoting customer uptake of plant rich sustainable meals, foodservice organisations can lead the way to mainstream sustainable eating and help to accelerate diet shift across the globe,” Huggins adds.
The concept of low-carbon menus is a topic that Sodexo’s Haley expects to see discussed increasingly over the coming year. “We welcome this as we anticipate the knock-on effect will be an overdue increased appreciation of the impact of food systems – including food production, consumption and waste,” he says.
And Haley pledges that in 2024 “our focus will extend beyond carbon reduction to encompass a collective commitment to reshape the way we eat and contribute to a healthier, more sustainable future”.
Discover more about sustainable diets and low-carbon meals at Sodexo here.