A WEEK ago I asked the question “Why aren’t we better with our waste in 2015” and in it I alluded to the fact that there are some fundamental things that can be done by companies to improve overall sustainable performance. So why aren’t more businesses making much more rapid progress?
Spoiler alert... it’s because they are fundamental.
We’ve made some huge steps forward in sustainability in recent years, and in part that’s because we had some fairly basic things to achieve; as with recycling we had in general been doing a pretty poor job for a long time.
I am not for a second taking anything at all away from all the fantastic improvements that have been made in the last decade or two. In fact I am very proud to have been part of the generation that has got us to this point and to have been a business leader through this time.
But as someone who has led a company in the green sector and worked with many businesses with a desire to become more sustainable, I think there are some important issues that businesses and consumers need to accept and begin to address in order for us to continue to make progress at an acceptable and necessary pace.
It’s not that the journey so far has been easy; all change can be difficult but it’s going to get harder. A lot of the progress that had been made so far has been addressing the more obvious activities, practices and behaviors that represented unsustainably. Identifying the changes, finding ways to implement them and in particular getting buy in for them is going to get harder.
It’s going to require more commitment and more cohesive behavior across businesses, their suppliers and often customers.
Cohesive sustainable behavior is more of a challenge than many give it credit for. It is more than everyone agreeing that the company should behave sustainably. It is ensuring that departmental goals and incentives are correctly aligned to encourage sustainable change. This is much harder than it sounds; I have experience of many companies that take their green commitments very seriously, even winning awards for their efforts, that are held back by conflicting departmental objectives.
The foodservice industry is full of examples where the most sustainable path conflicts with business objectives, the competitive landscape, commercial agreements, brand guidelines, sales targets etc. That doesn’t make it bad; it makes it representative of business in general.
There are restaurant groups that are trying their utmost to tackle food waste in the kitchen but offer mammoth plates of food the size of a man hole covers at bargain prices. These are rarely finished and food is wasted; albeit food that the customer had paid for rather than the restaurant. This is a disconnect between the operations, marketing department and competition. I imagine that there is fear that without this wasteful offering customers will go elsewhere.
There are fast food chains working extremely hard to increase the amount of customer waste that is recycled from front of house but it’s hard to get customers to segregate effectively. One solution is to reduce the need for segregation with use of more uniform recyclable materials in packaging, but this limits the freedom of the marketing people and packaging designers to produce what they believe will sell best and so it met with derision.
In fact packaging and marketability are two consistent issues in the food industry. Take the humble sandwich package; often it is cardboard with a clear plastic window to see the delicious filling. Whist cardboard is readily recyclable, once it has plastic attached it is very difficult to segregate and actually recycle. But remove the window and you’ll sell fewer sarnies and that after all is what the business exists to do.
Even the above examples are some of the more easily identifiable; there are a myriad of others that involve complex supply chains, terms of customer contracts, market inertia to change and other interlinking factors. In a tough market what do you do if your best seller is your least sustainable product?
There are no easy answers to hard questions. But at present a lot of companies are avoiding the questions or simply don’t know where to start, and that has to change. A number of the expert panel sessions at Waste-Works at the end of this month have been designed to explore how the food industry can lead the way in the next phase of sustainable improvement. I am hopeful that we will come away with some thoughts on how to start tackling some of these questions.
Giles Whiteley is Managing Director of Orbisa and is assisting the curation of Waste-Works Live that runs from 22nd to 25th March alongside IFE 2015 at ExCeL.
To find out more and to register for free, visit: www.waste-works.com