Hospitality’s net-zero navigator

Mark Chapman has brought some of the sector’s biggest names to the table to set a roadmap for achieving net zero. David Burrows meets the Zero Carbon Forum leader.

Mark Chapman’s life currently revolves around answering two questions: how many tonnes of greenhouse gases the hospitality sector is responsible for and what the plan is for bringing them down to zero by 2050 (or sooner)?

He is the man leading the Zero Carbon Forum, an ambitious project that has set out to develop a roadmap for the sector’s journey to ‘net-zero emissions’, published in time for the COP26 climate talks in Glasgow in November, when emissions from food (and politicians’ reluctance to address them) are likely to be centre stage.

Some (myself included) feel hospitality and foodservice is arriving late to the party. But slowly and surely the sector’s brands are making public commitments to slash their emissions and reach that all important net-zero milestone.

Indeed, the day we meet on Zoom, Nando’s, one of the forum’s 24 members, has announced a net-zero by 2030 commitment. More controversially, the business will be carbon neutral come November. This involves offsetting its carbon footprint through various schemes – an approach that can attract criticism for greenwashing. Chapman is keen to defend the chicken chain.

“You and I have been doing this long enough to remember the original carbon neutrality,” he says, “and quite rightly this was debunked because what was happening is that people were writing a cheque and not changing what they did. That’s not okay. And that’s not what Nando’s has done.”

In the hour we spend chatting, Chapman speaks with candour and credibility – he has, after all, been in the hospitality carbon reduction game for a long time, founding a company called Carbon Statement (which provides energy saving solutions for the sector) in 2010, which he still runs alongside the ZCF.

“I always saw what we did on cold, hard business logic – if we cut carbon we can cut the costs, and the payback was better than opening a new restaurant,” he explains.

But then, about 18 months ago, he sensed a “sea change” in attitudes. “CEOs and CFOs were saying the commercials stand up but [reducing their companies’ impact] was also the right thing to do.”

Carbon cutting chiefs

Critically, the forum, which has the backing of UK Hospitality and the British Beer and Pub Association, is aimed at the top level of the sector’s largest businesses. The launch, pushed back for obvious reasons from May to November last year, involved a roundtable with chief executives – quite a statement given what these executives had on their plate in dealing with the pandemic. Covid has reinforced the desire to act, says Chapman, with the forum’s top-level roundtables providing an “infectious confidence” that net-zero is achievable.

Whether it was easy to get the two dozen members on board is hard to say. Consumers, investors and politicians are all putting pressure on companies to do something but let’s not forget that these leaders are committing to a target without knowing how they are going to get there. “You just don’t do that,” Chapman says. “ It’s very career limiting as a CEO. But this is exactly what we need them to do.”

First on Chapman’s to-do list is therefore the industry roadmap (the likes of the British Retail Consortium and the Food and Drink Federation are working on their own plans but collaboration across the various parts of the food sector is ongoing). This will set out the path to net-zero but won’t have all the solutions (some of the most highly-praised net-zero plans to date are open about the uncertainties once you get beyond 2030 and the other 50% of emissions need to be stripped away).

There is a lot to do – we don’t even really know the scale of emissions from the sector. “I searched for them […] and they’re not there,” Chapman says. So work is currently underway across various sub-groups – for example hotels, QSRs, breweries, pubs and restaurants – to identify where emissions come from, their magnitude and what can be done to reduce them. “One of the purposes of our roadmap work is to define a clear methodology for measuring scope 1, 2 and 3 emissions – and I want that to be well defined,” Chapman says.

Measurements must for example be in line with greenhouse gas protocols and science-based targets. Consistency is key. “If we are all measuring our footprints in the same way […] we can get more meaningful benchmarks.” This could also offer more consistency should the idea of carbon labels take off. Some, like Brewdog and Leon, have already started publicising this kind of information but imagine if a database was created that the whole sector could access and update.

The British Retail Consortium is looking at “climate information” as part of its roadmap to net-zero too, so there’s a chance to collaborate, sharing information. How this information is presented and whether it will make a difference is a hot debate – and forum members have been discussing labels and offsetting higher carbon products.

Carbon communications

Chapman explains: “If you give consumers the mechanism to offset [the emissions…] it might be only 10p for a salad but it might be 50p for a burger. Now, what are you doing there? Are you raising awareness or are you maintaining that behaviour you want to change? That's difficult, but that's something as society we've got to have a conversation about.”

Mark McGinn, a specialist in behaviour change at Edelman, has been brought onto the board of advisors to help shape such discussions. Chapman isn’t afraid to name-drop – Mike Barry (of Marks and Spencer Plan A fame) and Mike Berners-Lee (consultant, Lancaster University professor and author of the book How bad are bananas: the carbon footprint of everything) are also dropped into the conversation, not to show off but to show that this forum means business. “We want what we're doing to be the best collaboration of any industry anywhere."

Chapman piles on the pressure, adding: “Within six to twelve months we’ll be telling you how may hundreds of thousands of tonnes of carbon dioxide we’ve saved.” Energy use in the UK hospitality sector accounts for 8 million tonnes of carbon emissions. The annual energy bill is £1.3bn, with energy representing between 4% and 6% of operating profits in catering businesses, according to the Carbon Trust. There is lots of low-hanging fruit still to pick.

“A kitchen extractor left on overnight will cost you three grand and will emit 10 tonnes of co2,” Chapman says as he reverts to a cost-cutting pitch that he must have run through countless times in the past decade in his role as an energy saving consultant. He continues: “We are talking about operational behaviours – where you need to do that every day.”

This is where covid presents another opportunity. Hospitality is currently struggling with staff shortages as businesses open; but when new staff arrive the training programmes can incorporate energy-saving. The chef who turns everything on first thing, the staff who crank up the heating and those back of house who aren’t sure about separating waste into different streams. “We’ve got an opportunity to embed these behaviours that are hard to do consistently,” Chapman says, as he focuses on demonstrating to CEOs and CFOs that building back better can be about “being more efficient, cutting carbon and cutting the costs”.

Confidence, collaboration, credibility

Renewable energy is another focus, with members buying “credible” renewable energy and plans to use their collective buying power to create new renewable capacity. The beauty of this work is that it can be done now. Net-zero by 2050 commitments are all well and good but people are “a bit fatigued” by targets with distant timeframes – “they know the CEOs making them aren’t going to be there”.

Standing chief executives looking to sign up to the forum – more contract catering involvement would be good, apparently – are in for a shock if they’re looking for a safe space to do little more than generate some positive PR. “If you’re in a crisis and you want people to act now, would you talk about 2030 or 2050? You wouldn’t, you would talk about what you are going to do tomorrow,” Chapman insists.

Working within the forum (members: Adnams, Azzurri Group, BaxterStorey, Boparan Restaurant Group, Brewdog, Burger King, Cote restaurants, Fuller’s, Greene King, InterContinental Hotel Group, KFC, Marston’s, Mitchells & Butlers, Nando’s, Pizza Hut, Pizza Express, the Restaurant Group, Revolution, Shepherd Neame, St Austell Brewery, Stonegate, TGI Friday’s, Wagamama and Young’s) certainly offers advantages. It means efficiency: there is no need for every company to be working on the footprint of a pint of beer or what cuts it as a credible offset programme, for example.

Chapman is keen to clarify his position on offsets, which he says can be “credible”. He talks about “nature-based solutions” and “gentle farming”, with members collaborating on sector-wide programmes but also their own ones too. This could also involve carbon insetting, where carbon is sequestered or stored within the supply chain. It has a “huge role”, says Chapman.

It’s encouraging to hear that those scope 3 emissions, which can be open to interpretation (or indeed ignored in some net-zero plans), are front-of-mind. They can represent “up to 90%” of a hospitality business’s total emissions and reducing them will require innovation, investment and changes to both menus and consumer buying patterns. Suppliers will require security – a beef producer committing to decarbonise their systems by 50% needs a three year rather than three month contract, says Chapman, who wants farmers to “tell us the stories about what you need and what we’re doing in procurement that’s stopping you”.

Business benchmarks

Here he hints again at that “infectious confidence”, which has been evident to varying degrees in other initiatives (think of the Plastics Pact, for example) but given a boost by the pandemic. There have been supermarkets encouraging people to buy beer in the pubs, for example, and even burger chains promoting the competition. This “collegiate approach” will be crucial as businesses tackle more contentious issues, like behaviour change towards more sustainable diets. “There are changes that we all need to make, as well as decarbonising what we can do. In doing it together, it gives them confidence.”

This collaborative space also provides some welcome competition. All members will soon have a company action plan that provides them with a list of things they can do to decarbonise their business (based on industry best practice). There will also be benchmarking. “We’ll be providing industry stats such as average carbon per outlet and by scopes as soon as we can following the data collation,” Chapman confirms in an email.

The focus at the moment is on ensuring all members collate and measure data on carbon emissions and scopes in the same way, using the same conversion factors to ensure those benchmarks are fair comparisons. Members will get what Chapman calls “immediate” information: where are we? What can we do? How do we compare? This will “systemise best practice across the sector and decarbonise at pace. That’s our job,” he adds. “What I'm passionate about [and] what our members are [passionate about] is what are we doing now?”

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