Responsible Business Recovery Forum: Sustainability reporting and the Covid gap (public report)

Responsible Business Recovery Forum - October 15, 2020

Speakers:

  • Hugh Jones, business engagement specialist, WRAP
  • Julie Owst, head of sustainability and change, Bidfood UK
  • Peter Goodwin, founder and managing partner, co-cre8
  • Claire Yeates, strategy director, Waterscan
  • Carolyn Ball, head of business development, Restaurant Associates UK
  • Dean Pearce, business development manager, SWR

Summary

Covid-19 has had an impact on sustainability reporting, with companies struggling with data and staffing, for example. But could this turn out to be a “defining year”, one that can be used to accelerate the sustainability agenda as consumers, clients, investors and politicians demand greater transparency? Greater consistency of reporting and the standardisation of metrics remain key with firms clearly nervous about publicising information. Voluntary approaches are under scrutiny, in areas such as food waste, water and packaging. Whether they work is debatable; but so too is the government’s appetite for mandatory reporting.

Get your sustainability skates on

KFC has offered a peak into the barns used to rear its chickens. Iceland has published details of its plastic use, while Starbucks and McDonald’s have begun disclosing their full packaging footprints. Tesco and BaxterStorey have also willingly revealed their food waste data. Public disclosure of progress on sustainability was gathering pace before March, but has covid-19 accelerated the trend?

“Some businesses have done the right things quicker than they might have ever imagined possible and even those like ours that have a lot of process and a lot of red tape – and for good reason – have really put a march on.”

Caterers talked of clients applying “pressure”, especially in relation to the net zero journeys they were embarking on (it’s COP26 in Glasgow next year don’t forget). In some areas they are also preparing for mandatory reporting, most notably on food waste. Indeed, the debate over voluntary versus mandatory reporting bubbled up throughout this forum.

“My view is that those who will be transparent will do it for a business opportunity and that will drive the market. But I think an element of legislation would be great in driving that consistency and then I think we’ll get a greater pace of change.”

To report or not report…

Food waste is a topical case in point. Wrap’s bowl is half full, with businesses continuing to engage in its food waste reduction roadmap, a voluntary agreement in which firms commit to “target, measure and act” on their food waste. More big players from the hospitality and foodservice sector have recently signed up (Burger King, Pret and McDonald’s to name three) but signatories thus far represent just 23% of the sector by turnover. More concerning is the fact that just one – BaxterStorey – is publishing its data.

Why is transparency such a problem? Some said they struggled to report within the current guidelines (tonnage figures were seen as “unhelpful”). Indeed, there was a reluctance to share data publicly that might not tell the full story.

“We are reluctant to share data unless we can verify it and that it can be trusted so we deliberately haven’t publicly reported food waste because to be frank our data has been nonsense as we are trying to estimate tonnage. We won’t publicly report on something that’s just not credible.”

Speakers admitted that reporting on food waste is often harder to understand than, say, energy. However, the rewards are worth the effort. For instance, the “true cost” of food waste is “10 times the cost of disposal”. And for every £1 invested in food waste prevention measures, the return was £7.

“Initially quite a lot of heavy lifting [is required] to get the parameters and collaboration in place to get to cost savings. Once the ball gets rolling it makes sense on all fronts.”

Consider BaxterStorey. More than 850 of its business units are reporting weekly and the 42% reduction in food waste since 2014 has saved clients over £2m in disposal costs. This has also allowed the business to offer higher quality ingredients to clients, according to some speakers.

“Reporting helps quantify scale of the opportunity, the hot sports, and [how to] refine interventions. It helps businesses and government with compliance.”

Juicy debate

Businesses are of course facing mandatory food waste reporting. In the lead up to this forum, The Grocer reported that talks have just taken place between government officials and industry representatives to start the ball rolling.

Some forum members felt mandatory reporting could level the playing field and provide harmonisation. Those in the waste management sector are also gearing up for clients demanding more data, on both food waste and packaging.

“There needs to be a lot more collaboration or legislation to make sure people are reporting apples and apples not apples and pears.” 

“Going forward we are likely to see and will continue to see customers wanting more data, more accurate data, more bin weight data on vehicles. There will be a shift in terms of separate collection of materials that will help to improve data as well.”

Many businesses have clearly been struggling with data during the pandemic (it’s worth noting that the government told businesses that they didn’t have to report their gender pay gaps this year). One speaker talked of a “cliff edge” as the country went into lockdown.

“Everything stopped; suppliers stopped producing data; key employees were furloughed; those who were working had issues with productivity and home schooling; and in the utilities sector there were no meter readings being taken to inform businesses and companies as to how much water was being consumed on site.”

Concerns were raised in relation false reporting. There has also been a realisation that data and intelligence on sustainability often sits with a small number of people.

“Some of the saddest things we have seen is … the champions pushing the sustainability agenda were furloughed or lost [their] jobs and the individual that holds all that knowledge is gone.”

“I am trying to be as transparent as possible in our sustainability report and covid has been a bit of a challenge on that. We’ve made various commitments to reduce unsustainable palm oil in a number of our products [but] we have lost key staff that would have been focused on driving progress in that area and also the pressure on suppliers has meant we have moved slightly in wrong direction. I don’t know if that is genuine pressure on suppliers or our lack of resource to police it but it has been a problem.”

Carbon counters

At the same time opportunities have emerged from the past few months. There has been time to rethink approaches, for example.

“All these businesses and premises we were going into had been working on water reduction and consumption... doing fantastic things … and yet when the world stopped we found low levels of underlying consumption that we’d never been able to capture before because it was masked by activity within the site. We got baseline data then started to look at how to improve reporting when we come out other side of this. There was an opportunity to revisit baselines and benchmarks and redefine those; and look at the internal processes that companies were adopting to deliver their sustainability reporting and revisit their end goals.”

“Bearing in mind that a large part of our business was shut for a chunk of time we’ve had an opportunity to take that time to look at how we rebuild and focus our operations to include greater circularity. That’s been a much easier conversation to have with a very senior level of buy in because customers who we are also talking to have had a real reality check around the fact that our greatest environmental challenges are also our greatest business challenges – and that’s been brought home very hard and very fast.”

Covid has also showed how quickly companies – even large ones – can adapt. This is something other forums in this series have picked up on.

“In the water industry everything is slow – it’s like walking uphill through treacle to get anything done. [But] everybody has been demonstrating through lockdown how good we were at adapting.”

“In the changes that we’ve seen and pace of change we’ve seen … customers are more informed. It’s not only business that has changed, but culture and society has changed; customers are far more informed and more challenging as a result and they are going to be more demanding moving forward.”

There are certainly some exciting areas of work emerging as foodservice companies are tasked with helping their clients reduce their environmental impacts. Carbon data on menus, for example, could be a “real ally for meaningful change”.

“We’ve been looking at how we go about helping customers make better decisions around their own environmental impact via the food choices they have. So what does it look like to increase the level of information shared on the menu, [like] carbon data? If you look at the sales mix you can understand which of the best sellers is most carbon intense and then start to work backwards to help reduce the carbon footprint individually and collectively.”

Some of the data being used in these pioneering initiatives might not be perfect (interrogating supply chains is a “huge, huge project”, noted one speaker). However, work is underway to simplify and harmonise the process. It isn’t perfect but “it’s much better than having nothing at all”.

“We have just joined the Wrap working group on embodied greenhouse gas emissions in the supply chain. They are working on harmonising the asks of suppliers so [they] are not inundated with different KPIs and measures; and also a shared database that can be trusted for shared supply chains. Otherwise we’d all be spending thousands with carbon consultancies and not progressing [very] quickly.”

With the COP26 talks due to be held in Glasgow next year, it is little surprise that attention has turned to net zero climate goals. Corporates will be lining up to publicise their ambitions, targets and plans over the coming months. The food industry, with its considerable environmental footprint, will be key to delivering some of these ambitions.

Could this turn out to be a “defining year”, one that can be used to accelerate the sustainability agenda as consumers, clients, investors and politicians demand greater transparency on everything from carbon emissions and water use to diversity and food waste?

“We’ve tried really hard to keep the pace of change [going]. Those that have survived and are here have already adapted … we can take forward [that pace] in the sustainability arena.” 

And if not, there is always mandatory reporting.

“I don’t think we had reporting right prior to the pandemic. Unless there’s legislation to force people to do it will it ever go far enough as a voluntary agreement.”

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