The Friday Digest: More eco-scores for menus but NGOs not lovin’ McDonald’s packaging report 

“While the debate over the future of the plant-based meat industry rages on, one area that is showing signs of hope in the fight to reframe what’s on our plate is foodservice.” So ran a piece on the Green Queen website recently, which detailed how caterers in particular are committing to more plant-forward dishes as they look at reduce their scope 3 emissions. 

Examples include Linkedin, the US-based business social media company, which has worked with Sodexo subsidiary Good Eating Company and behaviour specialist Greener By Default to halve the carbon emissions of its San Francisco office. Dishes are now 2:1 in favour of plant-based, while terms like ‘vegan’ have been replaced with flavour descriptors and oat milk is the default coffee bar choice.

Chains get a mention in the piece too, including Ikea which is continuing “to explore where and how we can remove or replace dairy in our range” in a bid to further reduce its climate impact. The retailer, which served 520 million customers at its in-store restaurants in 2022 said its plant-based meatballs continue to take share. New communications approaches to make vegan options more appealing are being rolled out in more markets: the pilots in Germany didn’t immediately increase sales but there was a “measureable improvement” in customer awareness of the offer, according to the company’s newly published 2022 sustainability report.

UK foodservice companies have had similar experiences with eco-labels, as a new Footprint Intelligence report – ‘A transparent future for foodservice: how environmental data is greening supply chains and empowering the public’ in association with Foodprint – highlights. Launched yesterday (March 9th), the report looks at how caterers are using environmental footprinting data to reformulate their menus and dishes and offer consumer-facing scores on menus. Just Eat this week became the latest company to join in the party: a 12-week trial involving five restaurants will see ‘traffic light’ carbon labels added to main meals.

As well as providing information to consumers, environmental scores are increasingly being used as part of executive pay outcomes. Some 86% of companies have now adopted ESG measures in their executive remuneration policies and climate is the area of ESG with the strongest investor consensus. But according to research by PwC UK and the London Business School, carbon targets linked to pay are being easily achieved despite inadequate progress on global warming. Common gaps relate to the weighting applied to the measure, the degree of transparency in the targets, and the clarity with which the targets are linked to decarbonisation goals. On the positive side, many of these issues are “easily fixed”, the authors noted. 

Speaking of transparency, we turn to a new report by Kearney, a consultancy, and commissioned by McDonald’s that shows … wait for it … reusable packaging is worse for the environment, the economy, food safety and consumers. Indeed, the target of the ‘No Silver Bullet’ research and campaign is the EU’s new packaging targets on reuse and proposed bans on disposable packaging when people are dining-in. “The problem is, history itself is littered with examples of the unintended consequences of well-meaning policies and laws. I believe the current packaging and packaging waste proposal by the EU is one such regulation,” said the fast food chain’s global chief impact officer Jon Banner in a paid-for puff piece for Politico, part of what appears to be a soft launch for the report. 

NGOs have already bemoaned the lack of hard facts. “Without any transparency on the wild assumptions and the modelling behind the conclusions, it’s very hard to comment on their validity,” said Jean-Pierre Schweitzer, deputy policy manager for circular economy at EEB. “We invite McDonalds and Kearney to share their analysis to live up to their wish for a ‘fact-based dialogue amongst stakeholders’.” So do we (having approached the consultants with such a request).

At an event in the European Parliament to discuss the findings (organised by the European Paper Packaging Alliance which also has form in publishing reports lacking in substance in a bid to sell more single-use) MEP Massimiliano Salini said “the best sustainability solutions come from industry, not governments”. Drinks brands and retailers in Scotland may well concur as chaos continues to surround the country’s deposit return scheme. The government appears to be standing firm on its planned August rollout but this is of course set against the backdrop of a leadership contest among candidates who feel it has to be delayed or ditched. 

Media reports continue to lean heavily on the ire emanating from businesses and the cost of all this to consumers (with little further detail on either, or indeed the ‘producer pays’ ethos behind the regulation). Little mention has been made of why the scheme is important and the impacts of further delays. Scotland’s DRS was originally planned for April 1st 2021 so even if it does start on August 16th some 2.1 billion drinks containers will have been incinerated, landfilled or littered rather than recycled in the 867 days of delay, according to data from Reloop cited by APRS, Scotland’s countryside charity. A UK-wide scheme would certainly make sense but Westminster is keen to wait until at least 2025 before setting up a scheme (and its keen to exclude glass from the materials included). 

Which brings us finally to news, exclusively revealed by The Observer last weekend, that the government is “way behind” in spelling out exactly how it will reach its legally-binding net-zero targets. Cabinet ministers have been warned by senior officials that they face court action for their failures. A High Court ruling found the current net-zero strategy is unlawful and the deadline to come up with a new one is just weeks away now. Defra is reportedly the worst offender when it comes to the glacial pace of developing green policies. “Defra is unique across key Whitehall departments in not having a net-zero strategy, which must cover critical aspects of farming, land use, nature and our critical food system,” said Lord Deben, chair of the climate change committee. “That is a huge gap as we head into a critical period for the achievement of the UK’s statutory climate goals.”

Indeed, research published this week in the journal Nature Climate Change shows that global food consumption alone could add nearly 1C to warming by 2100 with 75% of this driven by foods that are high sources of methane like meat, dairy and rice. However, the authors note that “over 55% of anticipated warming can be avoided from simultaneous improvements to production practices, the universal adoption of a healthy diet and consumer- and retail-level food waste reductions”. 

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