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The environmental impact of the cheese industry cannot be ignored. From dairy farms right through to the cheese counter, the industry is responsible for knock-on effects on carbon emissions, single-use plastics and food waste.
While artisan cheesemakers and the cheesemongers that sell their products are already a significant step ahead of industrial agriculture and the multiples, there is always more that can be done to be more sustainable.
The importance of sustainability
For Stephen Fleming, owner of George and Joseph, the importance of striving for sustainability are twofold. “Firstly, the cheese and dairy industry can have a negative environmental impact, so we support sustainable cheese production and sustainability also supports the well-being of the animals and communities involved in cheesemaking.
“Secondly, more of our customers are looking for sustainably produced products so it is partly driven by consumer demand.”
This is also something that Chris Hallam, owner of Chorlton Cheesemongers feels strongly about. “It almost feels a bit flippant to say there is little point in having a business that consumes more than it gives out, as with anything really”, he tells Speciality Food.
“Customers are far more considerate about what they buy and eat, so at Chorlton Cheesemongers we want to be honest with them and help them to make the best choices for their tables and for the environment.
“Our relationship with food has to change, we consume way too much and we have production practices which are damaging the environment, I believe in diversity in food production, so it is important to supply cheese that comes from producers who are small and focused on making their products in the most sustainable way possible. The natural follow-on is that we, as a shop, have to be part of that process.”
Implementing sustainable practices
Of course, aspiring eco-friendly cheesemongers will need to examine the suppliers and materials they use.
As Stephen explains, “We look to source products from sustainable producers who use good practices in their cheesemaking, agriculture and animal welfare.
“Therefore, we support local cheesemakers wherever possible to reduce the carbon footprint associated with transportation and provide information to our customers about the sustainability practices used by the cheesemakers we work with, encouraging them to make environmentally-friendly choices.
“We have tight controls in place to minimise food wastage and are also looking into switching to renewable energy sources, such as solar power, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Of course, we also regularly evaluate our sustainability practices and make changes as necessary to improve their effectiveness.”
Cheesemongers wanting to make their business more sustainable should also their materials and equipment. According to Chris, “There are some very obvious steps such as paper bags, encouraging customers to use their own carriers, veg-based pots and, again, encouraging customers to being in their own pots which we can fill. We have changed our cleaning products and steered away from nasty chemicals wherever possible.
“Luckily, we are in Manchester with slightly higher humidity and a lower temperature so cooling of the shop is minimal, certainly for the past few months. In summer we use gravity coolers, which have no moving fans and so have much-reduced energy consumption. Condensers still take warm air out of the shop but a mid-term aim is to introduce a heat collector which would heat our water.”
The challenges to sustainability
For Stephen, a major problem is cost. “Implementing sustainable practices can be expensive and may increase the cost of products. Customers are very cost-conscious at the moment and higher prices of sustainably produced cheeses can be off-putting.
“There aren’t that many sustainably produced cheeses at the moment, which makes it difficult to offer a diverse selection. Also, in terms of non-cheese items, we use a lot of clingfilm on the counter to protect the cut cheeses on display. There’s not much in the way of environmentally friendly or recyclable alternatives to this at the moment.”
Chris agrees, “We are not perfect and very aware of places where we need to find alternative products (e.g., clingfilm) but we are constantly assessing what we do and making changes where we can.”
Reaping the benefits
The advantages of promoting sustainability are clear in Stephen’s eyes. “Supporting sustainability helps to maintain the long-term viability of cheese production and ensures a stable supply of high-quality cheese for future generations. It can also attract customers who are concerned about environmental and ethical issues and are willing to pay a premium for sustainable products”, he tells Speciality Food.
Of course, fine food retailers champion quality and provenance above all else, and as Chris explains, “You can taste the difference in the cheese that is produced when quality and care is put front and centre. From the soil, crops, feed and livestock care through to the love put into the production by makers who know that they are doing their absolute best at every step of the way.
“These producers are people who care deeply about the products they make and the environment and community it’s made in, they want that to continue and, as a cheesemonger, you are the opportunity for their incredible food and message to go further. You are how their dedicated environmental commitments reach the consumer, you demonstrate that change is happening and that effect can be tasted on the plate in front of them”, he concludes.