Net zero nothingness

Foodservice companies have been shy in speaking publicly about their carbon reduction plans. That needs to change in 2021, says David Burrows.

Twelve months from now the COP26 UN climate change conference will take place in Glasgow. There is already a big focus among some businesses on pathways to net zero and what they look like, according to one caterer speaking at a recent responsible business recovery forum. A leading packaging company told me how conversations have shifted, with “more questions around net zero and climate”. But are catering companies ready to talk publicly about net zero? If not, they need to be.

My research suggests information on net zero across the foodservice sector is scant. How many large catering firms have made net zero pledges for example? Have any? A couple of foodservice companies (Greggs and Costa) are involved in the British Retail Consortium’s effort to produce a net zero roadmap for retail in time for COP26, while BrewDog has said it is already “carbon negative”. But there has been little other activity as far as I can see.

UKHospitality’s energy has been sapped by the pandemic. But were there any discussions around pathways to net zero in the nine months between the government passing its net zero by 2050 legislation and March? Is there a plan? The Food and Drink Federation and NFU have both shared their thinking on this (and called for more guidance from government to boot) but foodservice and hospitality is in danger of being left behind.

Perhaps conversations are happening behind closed doors? Actions speak louder than words. But caterers – and in particular their chief executives – should be aware that covid has changed the game. Investors, consumers and employees have raised the bar of expectation when it comes to the environmental, social and governance (ESG) performance of corporates.

This year’s Edelman trust barometer showed that ethical attributes are three times more important to building trust than competence (76% versus 24%). What’s more, 92% of workers want their CEO to speak out on issues such as diversity, climate change, income equality and the ethical use of tech. If they don’t, there is a risk that the staff will.

Earlier this year Amazon was in the news after it sent its HR and legal teams after employees that spoke out about the behemoth’s environmental policies. At last year’s annual shareholders meeting thousands of employees submitted a proposal to Jeff Bezos, the CEO, to develop a comprehensive climate change plan and reduce its carbon footprint.

You might say that foodservice workers, fearful of whether their next paycheck will arrive, are unlikely to ruffle feathers. That may be true. But the same can’t be said for investors. Big shareholders are making a big play to force big companies to act. BooHoo and Rio Tinto, companies that have spent weeks being bashed by media and investors alike, are the canaries in the coalmine.

You might also think that shareholder activism will be trained on the “bad” companies. Those with supply chains in which workers are mistreated and underpaid or that blow up cultural heritage sites, for example; as well as the oil companies of course. Think again. Because they are getting traction there, activists are increasingly turning their attention to other sectors, and with its high emissions the food industry is in their cross hairs.

People “see the link between climate change and what they eat... and that doesn't look good for pork or beef", Holger Frey from RobecoSAM, a Zurich-based investment firm focused on sustainability told me recently. "It will be really important for investors to understand how sustainable the entire meat value chain is." The spotlight brought by covid on the “S” of ESG means that companies’ exposure to impending regulations around everything from equal pay to obesity will be scrutinised.

This could actually be good news for progressive, transparent companies. Look at the bucks being poured into alternative proteins, for example. Only a few years ago, plant-based food was dull and bought by only the steadfast veggies. Today there are burgers that “bleed”, meat grown from chicken cells and big hopes for insects and algae.

Eugene Wang, CEO at Sophie’s BioNutrients, which is developing food grade protein from microalgae, insists the future of food production is “going to happen in a bioreactor”, given that the current methods are “too polluting and too messy”. Perhaps some of it will. Some will still come the traditional way, but (hopefully) with a much lower footprint. This is something the foodservice sector must get to grips with too.

There are signs it is happening. For all the criticism of Burger King’s methane-reduced burgers (by feeding the cows lemongrass), it is heartening that companies are thinking about their supply chain emissions and taking action. And in that recent Footprint forum there was talk of caterers using carbon footprints on menus to help their clients reduce carbon intensity. This is exciting stuff – menus being developed based not just on cost but on carbon.

The sector has a huge opportunity to talk about all this, with the run up to next November in Glasgow offering the perfect platform. You can bet grocers, food manufacturers and other corporates will be so caterers, coffee shop chains, fast food brands and pub groups can’t afford to be left behind. Let’s start talking about what net zero looks like for this sector before it’s too late.

1 Response

  1. Hello – It may feel like the sector is in danger of being left behind, but there is work going on.

    Following the article in Edie’s “Mission Possible” report in April, we have developed the Net Zero Restaurant Protocol and are currently piloting with a handful of restaurants. The protocol provides a clear standard and guide for what net zero means for hospitality and how to achieve it. It also introduces a mechanism for adding a voluntary carbon charge to the bill of between 1 and 25p per cover, depending on the menu item chosen.

    We are exploring various collaborative routes to bring this to a wider audience and accelerate adoption.

    A Net Zero economy is built from a kaleidoscope of net zero initiatives, policies, regulations and actions; this is one such initiative that has potential to not only address the climate impact in the sector, but also educate the public on the carbon cost of food and shift diets.

    We aim to launch in Q1 2021 and look forward to providing concrete evidence that far from being left behind, the sector is leading the charge.


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