Sustainability has been a buzzword across a range of industries in recent years. As the climate crisis continues to develop and many people feel increased pressure to contribute to the fight against it, more and more brands and businesses have adopted sustainable practices in order to appeal to their customers’ changing priorities.
One of the biggest ways that consumers can influence positive and sustainable change is through their spending habits by choosing to support businesses that are sustainable. With a growing number of the population choosing a plant-based diet at least some of the time, and many consumers opting for ingredients that are organic, local or better for the planet, food businesses are having to make changes to their sourcing strategy in order to retain their customers.
If you own or work in a food business, sustainable food sourcing is something that you’ll likely have to consider and implement in order to stay relevant and meet the expectations of your customers. In this article, we explore what makes a business sustainable, the links between sustainability and veganism, and how to implement sustainable sourcing practices.
In a business context, sustainability means the strategy or practices that have been put in place to reduce or remove the environmental impact that a company or its offering has. If a business is sustainable, it might use environmentally friendly materials, suppliers or partners, donate profits to sustainable charities, or ensure that it's making a conscious effort to minimise the negative impact it has on the planet and its people.
In the food industry, ethical and sustainable sourcing of ingredients is often the main focus for businesses. When demand is high it can be tempting to cut corners or choose the most accessible option, but the long-term effects of this could cost the planet, whilst the short-term impact could cost customers.
In the food industry, sustainable sourcing is an approach to selecting suppliers that involves considering the social, ethical and environmental implications of choosing a particular source. When you opt for a sustainable sourcing strategy, you choose to get your ingredients from organisations that use sustainable growing strategies, follow ethical business practices and have a minimal environmental impact throughout the production, packaging and shipping process.
Veganism and vegetarianism have grown in popularity massively over the past decade, with the former being virtually unheard of in most circles until more recently. A YouGov study tracking the number of people identifying as vegan estimates that the number of vegans in the UK is between 2% and 3% of the total population, which has been growing significantly over the past decade.
Being vegetarian has also become much more common, with even traditional meat eaters making a concerted effort to have more meat-free meals. Around 6% of the UK population identify as a vegetarian, and 43% of adults in the UK said that they plan to stop eating meat in 2023.
These statistics show a shift in consumer attitudes to being more conscious about the amount of meat they eat. Initiatives like 'Veganuary', which encourage people to opt for a meat-free or animal product-free diet for even a short period of time, appear to have boosted this further. These initiatives continue to grow in popularity, with over 700,000 signing up across the world.
Laura Faliveno, trademark team manager at The Vegan Society, said there are many reasons for this growth, but at the heart of it is education.
She said: "Social media and the internet have made accessing and sharing information so quick and easy that more and more people have become aware of the issues surrounding the meat and dairy industry. They are understanding more about the ethical issues regarding the use of animals, and the impact it has on the environment as well as our health.”
Changing consumer eating habits indicates that people across the UK are becoming more invested in where and how their food is grown, collected and manufactured. This shift in behaviour will impact the food industry - but it doesn't need to be all that radical.
Sustainable sourcing has been a hot topic in food manufacturing for years, but there is increasing pressure for business owners in the industry to adopt practices that are kind to the environment, workers and consumers.
For some companies, this has led to the adoption of CSR policies but for others, it's much more than that. Businesses which want to go a step further than simply attaching a CSR policy to their website understand the continuing need for organisations - in all sectors - to be more transparent with their consumers.
The rise of social media as a tool for people to communicate with brands, share their grievances, and recommend companies that go that extra step has left food manufacturers - like any other business - with nowhere to hide. This means that businesses in the food industry need to take a close and thorough look at their standard operating procedures (SOPs) to take control of their brand image and ensure their ethics are being clearly communicated to their customer base.
However, SOPS must be viewed as responsive, fluid agreements that are constantly and consistently reviewed based on consumer feedback, industry reviews and changing standards.
Many more people are choosing to shop with a company because their ethics align with their own, rather than price being the top priority. This means there is an increasing demand for businesses that take responsibility for their actions and understand the impact they can have on the environment as well as the individuals they employ or feed.
With many more consumers becoming more cautious about what they eat and the impact this can have on their health, there's also pressure on the food industry to be transparent about the data they have about what goes into their products and where they are sourced. This, combined with a rising social consciousness, means that food manufacturers must prioritise their sustainability objectives and how they communicate this information to consumers.
The size of your food business and the nature of your offering will impact how easy it is to implement a sustainable sourcing strategy. The below guide is a quick overview of the steps that you should follow to create a sustainable sourcing strategy and make your food business more environmentally friendly.
The first stage in improving your business’ sustainable food sourcing is to outline your ingredient supply chain. Highlight where you are sourcing your food and identify whether these sources are sustainable or have sustainable practices.
In this next stage, you should evaluate your supply chain and highlight opportunities where its sustainability could be improved. This involves identifying suppliers that could be swapped for better and greener alternatives, but also highlighting potential risks in your supply chain and deciding whether you can make changes to ensure that you won’t be badly impacted if there is an issue somewhere in your supply chain. This relates to a more general form of sustainability but is still important when it comes to making improvements.
Once you’ve outlined and evaluated your current supply chain, the next step is to prioritise the changes that you are going to make to improve your ethical and sustainable sourcing. You can decide on these priorities by weighing up the changes that are going to be easiest to make vs the changes that will have the biggest impact, and work from there.
With your new list of priorities, the next stage of helping to make your business more sustainable is to implement a plan for the changes that you’re going to make. Identify what needs to be done and how long it’s going to take, and also consider how you’re going to measure the success of these changes so that you know whether they’re making a positive impact. Measuring the impact is also important because it means you can report on your progress to your customers and highlight your sustainable efforts.
Leading on from that point about measuring impact, you should aim to continuously review and improve your sustainable food sourcing measures until you have done as much as possible to make your food business sustainable. Set regular review points where you can reflect on your progress and consider publishing or sharing the data you collect for transparency and accountability.
Sustainable business practices are ethical, responsible and environmentally friendly processes and standards that businesses follow. An example of this is donating a portion of profits to a charity, or choosing entirely green energy suppliers to power all of your business operations.
Awareness of sustainability and the negative environmental impact of many businesses first began to gain momentum in the 1960s, but it’s in the past decade or so that sustainable initiatives have become a lot more normalised and pressure to adopt sustainable practices is being applied by more and more consumers. This is attributed to the increased rate of climate change and the severe impact that this is having on countries all over the world, prompting more consumers to take action through their spending habits.
Many businesses have begun incorporating sustainability into their business model for two main reasons. The first is that many feel that it is the right thing to do in order to slow the progression of climate change and fairly make use of natural resources. The second is that more and more consumers are starting to prefer spending money with businesses that have sustainable credentials, so it’s becoming a necessity for some organisations that want to retain their audience.
Understanding the importance and benefits of sustainable sourcing is important for anyone who works in a food business, especially if they are directly involved in upholding sustainable practices. Whether you’re an employee or the owner of a business, sustainability seems to be the future for food businesses, and implementing a sustainable sourcing strategy can be very beneficial for both your company and the planet.
For more information about how Virtual College can help instil best practices or develop a meaningful L&D strategy for your food organisation, take a look at our collection of online food hygiene training courses.