FM's sustainable food supply chain conference: A good climate for bright ideas

Related tags Greenhouse gas emissions Sustainability

The food industry is making progress on climate change, but has tough issues to face. Rod Addy listened to the experts debate the issues in London

Perhaps the greatest threat to the world's climate comes not from gases generated by factories and lorries, but the hot air expelled by those debating the issues.

While many fiddle as the Earth slowly burns, reduction deadlines loom and demand to deliver tangible results increases. Against this backdrop, Food Manufacture's 'Sustainable supply chain' conference in London, sponsored by Bluehorse Associates, Eversheds and KM&T, was held in November.

As industry, government and trade bodies covered progress, partnership was the watchword, although some stressed the pitfalls as well as the benefits of collaboration. Attention also fell on identifying those responsible for driving the green agenda. Overall, it was apparent that thinking around sustainability was having to mature in the face of harsh commercial realities.

One of the speakers' first tasks was to define their terms. The focus was mainly on sustainable use of resources, such as food itself, waste (including greenhouse gas emissions), land, energy, water and packaging.

Speculation surrounded the immediate priority issues. Louise Nicholls, Marks & Spencer head of responsible sourcing, said: "Carbon became an issue because people could relate it to costs. Water is the next carbon. I visited one flower farm last year that was down to only six more days of water. After that will be biodiversity. People are also talking about soil [quality] as the key to sustainability."

Many cited biodiversity, with the idea of boosting food production, without harming natural animal and plant habitats (see feature, p31). "What's next?" asked Tom MacMillan, executive director of the Food Ethics Council. "Possibly biodiversity and [sustainable production of] palm oil."

Enhancing the environment and biodiversity was one of three priorities in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs' (DEFRA's) 2011-2015 business plan, published on November 8. The others were supporting farming and sustainable food production and developing a green economy resilient to climate change, said Dr Jo Bray, programme manager at DEFRA's food policy unit.

Water use

Water was a key concern, with work on calculating water use in production (the 'water footprint') underway by players such as Nestlé. "Water is not yet internalised into business in the same way carbon is," said conference chairman Andrew Kuyk, director of sustainability and competitiveness at the Food and Drink Federation.

Some suggested water footprints would soon overshadow carbon footprints. Kuyk said they were more complex, involving not just volumes, but geography, with water more scarce, and therefore more valued, in some places than in others.

However, Bob Gordon, head of environment at the British Retail Consortium, said: "Water is still low down the agenda in terms of action." But MacMillan responded: "Water is where climate change hits for most people in industry. It should be as high in importance as carbon."

Identifying the issues is just the start. The next challenge is determining responsibilities. As the green market becomes more mainstream, it's increasingly difficult to determine the sort of role shoppers play, said MacMillan. A wider set of factors is determining the purchase of green products than an eco-friendly agenda, he explained.

However, consumer pressure is still crucial, he said. In particular, businesses faced pressure to maintain transparency and trust and not get caught out by media exposés. "Most just want to trust you to do it for them. Anything that stretches trust risks losing a licence to operate. Collapse in trust affects the perpetrators and there's a lot of collateral damage."

And with some subjects hard for shoppers to grasp, retailers and manufacturers were taking decisions out of their hands and engaging more in choice editing, MacMillan added.

Dr Nigel Davies, manufacturing and technical director at malt processor Muntons, said detailed audits, based on the global PAS 2050 standard for measuring greenhouse gas emissions, were an important first step, as without reliable bespoke data it was hard to be more sustainable. "Muntons has a robust environmental audit policy, with 52 internal audits a year at its Stowmarket site."

Muntons had invested millions of pounds in initiatives such as "the most energy efficient kilning system in the world", claimed Davies. Investment was based on what was better environmentally rather than the cheapest option, he said, though cutting energy use, for example, saved cash.

Coca-Cola Enterprises (CCE) aims to eventually recycle 100% of its packaging. "We recognise investment needs to be made," said Joe Franses, CCE head of corporate responsibility and sustainability. "The key issue for us is PET [polyethylene terephthalate] recycling. We want to get to 25% by 2012, but there are huge supply chain issues."

Sam Fulton, public affairs head at Nestlé UK, said the food giant was targeting water use. "We have reduced water by 33% since 2000, while production volumes increased by 63%. We invest in water treatment plants where none exist 292 to date. We support water sanitation projects." The firm has conducted pilot studies on the water footprint of Nescafé instant coffee and Bitesize Shredded Wheat. It has halved UK water use since 2006 and launched a £500,000 waste water treatment plant at its confectionery factory in Girvan, Scotland, said Fulton.

Smaller firms could do their bit, said Alex Smith, director of Alara Wholefoods, which claims to be the first zero waste to landfill food business. It has cut waste by 0.25t a year, saving £7,500, and has cut out council waste collections, saving a further £15,000 annually.

Retailers, too, are playing their part. Nicholls referenced the 80 new commitments Marks & Spencer made in May on renewing its Plan A to become the world's most sustainable major retailer. These included pledges to combat climate change, deforestation and waste; switching to 100% Marine Stewardship Council certified sustainably caught fish; and developing indigenous production skills in other countries.

However, regardless of other efforts, government had to take a coordinating and directing role, said Gordon. "In many ways moving first [on issues] can be an advantage. It should be built into the system by government as an advantage. We are talking to government about that." MacMillan added: "The government is best placed to address the market for sustainability. It should tackle barriers to sustainable business."

The role of government

The government would rise to the challenge, said Bray. DEFRA's business plan sets out assorted deadlines for delivery of projects in the next year, explained Bray. These include assessing the scope for actions to offset the impact of development on UK biodiversity by April 2011.

DEFRA aims to publish a Natural Environment White Paper outlining measures to protect wildlife, promote green spaces and wildlife corridors, value natural capital and analyse the UK's natural assets at the same time. It plans to publish an England Biodiversity Strategy in April 2011 and designate UK Marine Conservation Zones by December 2012.

In support of a green economy, DEFRA is to publish a waste review, including goals for 2014-2020 in May 2011. It aims to issue data covering progress on sustainability commitments, including sustainable public sector food procurement, in April. It will also release data sets then on everything from UK expenditure on biodiversity to farming's environmental impact.

"DEFRA has begun work with the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and the Department of Energy on an energy roadmap for next spring," added Bray.

As business and industry grapples with responsibilities, they must navigate around the pitfalls. Pursuing one sustainable path, such as cutting road miles, might conflict with another, said Nicholls. "If you deliver to depots every other day you'll get products with two different date labels. You'll end up with more waste, because everyone will buy the product with more shelf-life." Many firms, especially big ones, also feared moving first in case competitors learned from their mistakes and overtook them, said MacMillan.

Brands were a great tool to communicate sustainability messages to consumers. But Sara Pax, md of Bluehorse Associates, warned that higher priority issues were being sacrificed for the sake of campaigns that were simpler to convey. "I get frustrated by how the commodity message is being changed into a shiny, happy message for the consumer."

Cracking down on measurement was good, but measurement tools were needed that covered the entire supply chain, such as Bluehorse Associates' Carbonostics service for assessing greenhouse gas emissions. But there was a point at which action was needed, said Nicholls. "You need to move from the numbers to setting targets."

One delegate argued retail measures to standardise products, such as screening out 'ugly fruit' ran against the imperative to cut waste. "In the drive to lightweight packaging, you might introduce materials that are less recyclable," added Kuyk.

The only way such obstacles could be overcome was by government, industry, trade bodies and others working in partnership, each playing their part. "Relationships between retailers and suppliers are developing rapidly," said Gordon, citing the Wal-Mart Sustainability initiative as a good example. "In short, it's a shared journey," he added.

Related topics Supply Chain

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