Last throw of the dice for voluntary deals?

The Courtauld Commitment is targeting big cuts in waste across the food industry, but if it fails then legislators may step in. By David Burrows.

A lot rests on Courtauld 2025. The new food industry super-agreement aims to save £20 billion through resource efficiency, cut food and drink waste as well as greenhouse gases by 20%, and reduce water use.

WRAP, which is leading the voluntary initiative, has form in hitting targets: the Courtauld Commitment among grocers and food manufacturers brought some decent reductions on emissions, packaging and food waste in its three phases over the past decade. Meanwhile, things appear to be on track in the Hospitality and Food Service Agreement (HaFSA) too.

There are certainly merits in merging these two major initiatives. The sharing of best practice – as discussed in February’s Footprint – is both welcome and timely. Grocers are ahead of their foodservice cousins in tackling food waste, so much can be learned from their experience.

Foodservice is coming late to the table, at least on waste management step one – diversion from landfill. About 80% of waste ends up in residual bins, according to WRAP. The sector moves slowly at times, but let’s not forget supermarkets had a head start: Courtauld was launched in 2005, whereas HaFSA only arrived three and a half years ago.

The question is: will another new food waste agreement upset the applecart?

Progress towards HaFSA targets has been steady rather than startling. WRAP’s Richard Swannell told Footprint recently that action to prevent waste is proving easier than recycling and re-using what’s left. Still, it’s early days.

Perhaps. The common criticism of these industry-led schemes is that the reach is not far enough. This has certainly been the case with HaFSA. At the launch in 2012 there were 70 signatories; now there are nearly 230. Good news – yet this represents only a quarter of the sector by turnover.

Signatories beyond the usual suspects and those confident of meeting the prescribed targets – or happy to miss them under the cover of “sector level” data rather than business level – have been limited.

A look at Courtauld 2025 sign-ups shows eight firms from hospitality and foodservice: apetito, Bidvest, Compass, Greene King Retail, KFC, OCS, Pizza Hut, and Sodexo UK & Ireland. In grocery, all the major retailers and discounters are in.

Supermarkets are always keen to sign up to a more passive approach to environmental regulation. They fear legislation and bad press. Foodservice got a taste of this too – late last year Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall put KFC in the spotlight for over-egging its work on redistribution of surplus food.

The company had its fingers burned, but action has been swift. A statement to announce its support for Courtauld 2025 notes that 60 outlets are donating food and by the time the year’s out all 890 will be.

Fearnley-Whittingstall already has Costa and Starbucks in his sights, but he can’t haul every food business across the coals. Some will react when their peers’ reputation goes up in flames, but most are content to keep ducking in the shadows.

And this is the problem with a voluntary approach: it captures only the willing or, indeed, the already moving. Many of the rest, as we are discovering during our research on a project with TUCO, want to be led.

And for those who think Courtauld 2025 provides another 10 years of breathing space, be warned.

For one, the government has already ditched the Public Health Responsibility Deal, in which many big brands signed up to the easiest targets and smaller companies didn’t bother at all.

And though the Conservatives may remain apathetic to waste policy, the issue is capturing the imagination of many MPs. Spurred by changes to the laws on food waste in France, more than 100 of them signed up to support similar legislation in England. However, the food waste (reduction) bill – which included mandatory reduction targets, enforced redistribution of surplus food and, most concerning for some, disclosure of waste in their supply chains – has stalled.

The brief proposals only mention supermarkets, manufacturers and distributors, so the implications for foodservice were unclear. But even signing up to Courtauld 2025 may not keep the legislators at bay for much longer.

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