Foodservice picks up the pace in net-zero race

Footprint’s analysis of new carbon reporting data suggests a lack of engagement from the sector, but has a corner been turned? By David Burrows.

Food could be responsible for 34% of global greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs), making transformation of the food system a critical part of the net-zero ambition. However, only 26 of the world’s 350 largest food and agriculture companies are working to reduce GHGs in line with the Paris Agreement. Some 123 have not set targets for reducing GHGs, while 202 do not publicly report on scope 3 supply chain emissions, let alone set targets to reduce them. 

The World Benchmarking Alliance (WBA) spent a year pulling this information together in a new benchmark report ranking 350 companies on their environmental, nutritional and social impacts. Using 45 indicators, spanning everything from child labour and responsible lobbying to packaging use and availability of healthy foods, the alliance has produced one of the most detailed insights into how businesses are adapting to deliver sustainable food systems.

With COP26 underway, it is the data on commitments (or lack of them) relating to carbon that Footprint has further scrutinised, and with worrying results. We assessed data from the two indicators on emissions reporting and reduction across the 24 foodservice and restaurant companies, representing a combined revenue of close to £250bn. 

At the time of WBA’s benchmarking analysis, just two of the 24 – Starbucks and Sodexo – had a target (aligned with 1.5°C) to reduce scope 1 and 2 emissions and were reporting progress against the target. Another four – Bidcorp, McDonald’s, Thai Beverage and Yum! Brands – had scope 1 and 2 targets they were reporting on, but these were not aligned with 1.5°C.

Not one foodservice company had either a time-bound target (aligned with 1.5°C) to reduce scope 3 emissions and was reporting progress against it, or a net-zero by 2050 target for scope 3 emissions and comprehensive disclosure of them. 

Six companies – Bloomin’ Brands, Jollibee, Restaurant Brands International (RBI), Subway, US Food Holdings and Zensho Holdings – provided no evidence at all of reducing carbon emissions across the three scopes.

Sanne Helderman, the alliance’s lead researcher, says foodservice is “clearly lagging” compared to food processing businesses, but is struggling to explain this. “I find it hard to pinpoint why it is,” she explains on a call from the Netherlands. Despite some of these being huge consumer-facing brands, the quality of their reporting is poor. “It is just not out there”, she adds.

As far as the top rankings on GHGs go, food retailers and manufacturers fared little better – three food manufacturers (Unilever, Meiji and PepsiCo) met the scope 3 reporting requirements but no supermarkets did. Among the elite group of six companies scoring full marks on their scope 1, 2 and 3 reporting and reduction commitments three were drinks manufacturers – Anheuser-Busch InBev, Asahi Group and Kirin Holdings.

Helderman is keen to focus on these leaders. The laggards must be called out (campaigners and investors are increasingly doing so) but it is the pioneers that can act as powerful persuaders. “I think we need to focus mostly on the inspirational part, because I think that helps companies move [and] get competitive when it comes to sustainability.”

This is certainly happening as far as net-zero goes. So much so that these WBA scores, published in September, are fast becoming outdated. Recent weeks have produced a flurry of new commitments made by foodservice and hospitality brands as they joined the ‘race to net-zero’. 

Whitbread last week announced a net-zero by 2040 target for scopes 1 and 2, plus scope 3 reduction targets of 43% by 2030 and 57% by 2040. “I hope this type of commitment is a sign of things to come and encourages other flagship businesses to show the same level of ambition,” said UK government net-zero business COP champion Andrew Griffith.

Compass, McDonald’s and Sodexo made net-zero announcements in the run up to COP26. So too RBI, owner of Burger King, and one of those that scored zero points in WBA’s analysis. "We've done the hard work to determine where we stand, where we can make the most meaningful impact, and the actions we need to take to move the needle,” said chief executive officer José E. Cil.

Encouragingly, many pledges to achieve net-zero by 2050, or earlier, are now also being backed up with commitments to set science-based targets. Significantly, the Science-Based Targets initiative has just announced a new standard that will require its adopters to set both near- and long-term science-based targets across all scopes. For companies involved in the agriculture sector this means “deep decarbonisation” of 80% with the remaining 20% “neutralised through carbon removals”. 

Some companies’ plans still rely too heavily on offsetting the emissions. This will not only have environmental consequences but commercial ones too. “Hospitality businesses should plan for substantially higher carbon offsetting prices in the future and therefore double down on efforts to reduce absolute emissions to near zero as a priority,” the Zero Carbon Forum warned in its roadmap

So is PR being replaced by actual plans? Slowly but surely, yes. As a soon to be published report by Footprint will detail – these are incredibly important plans, involving incredibly difficult analyses, within a sector that is going through an incredibly difficult period. But there is hope, perhaps more so in the private sector than in the politicians gathering in Glasgow.

“The more I live the more I believe in the power of companies to do good versus governments,” Wahaca co-founder Thomasina Miers told the Footprint 40 podcast earlier this year. “As a company owner I think you have a great power to try and lead the charge if you can.”

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