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Sustainability has become the watchword for businesses across the world, with the environmental impact of everything we do – including what we eat and drink – under scrutiny. Artisan food is often touted as top quality, sustainably produced and, dare we say it, a bit more ‘virtuous’ than other sectors.
But is that definitely the case for the whole process, from producer to retailer? Many independent retailers are impressively close to their suppliers, building strong, long-term relationships, but do they carry the same environmental credentials? For some experts, there is more to be done, from talking about the issues more to addressing them practically as well as through woolly words.
We need to talk about sustainability
For Paul Hargreaves, founder and chief executive of speciality and fine food wholesaler Cotswold Fayre, we’re still not talking about sustainability enough. “It’s got slightly better, but in the vast majority of conversations with customers it all comes down to price, not sustainability. It has slightly improved over the last few years, but not enough.”
While Cotswold Fayre runs an accelerator group for its suppliers to help them become B Corps, he said retailers have been slow off the mark to head down that route. They are starting to have conversations with some customers about forming a similar group, but he describes it as a ‘drop in the ocean’, predicting that the cost-of-living crisis won’t help the situation as small businesses remain focused on price rather than sustainability – something he deems a mistake in business terms as well as environmentally.
“I still think people at the premium end of the market should be focusing on the sustainable side rather than pricing. They need to focus on doing what they’re doing, do it better, do it more sustainably, and they will still have those people who have extra cash to spend spending money with them. I think customers are going to get more demanding and are ahead of retailers in all this.
“There’s very good data to show that consumers are factoring in sustainability in their buying decisions twice as much as businesses think they are. Consumers are scientifically proven to be more sustainable than the people that are selling to them think they are, so there’s a mismatch there.” In his view, retailers have a lot of catching up to do. “If I was speaking to retailers, my main message would be, ‘you’re behind the curve. You need to start doing more stuff and talking about it more and your consumers will appreciate that and buy more from you as a result.”
Collect the data
For Jason Gibb, co-founder of Bread and Jam, which supports food and drink brands to help ensure they have a future and dedicated a whole summit to what sustainability lessons brands can learn, providing customers with the full story when it comes to where their food comes from would help them to make the right choices. “Getting all food products and menus carbon footprinted is key to empowering consumers to make the right choices,” he said.
Gibb cites My Emissions, a fledgling company that aims to make climate data accessible to all companies, providing carbon calculations and labels to a range of businesses, including smaller food businesses, as a “game changer” in opening up such steps to smaller brands.
“We saw existing consultancies were charging thousands of pounds for product assessments, and knew if there was going to be any regulation, labelling, and general awareness there needed to be an affordable option for carbon calculations for companies,” Matthew Isaacs, co-founder of My Emissions, told Speciality Food.
In his view, the most important thing businesses in the sector can do is to get involved in measuring and understanding their impact. “Once you understand your impact, it’s usually clear how you can reduce this. We often find clients improving their packaging, re-thinking supply chains, and potentially reformulating recipes or changing suppliers to reduce their carbon footprint. This can sometimes also save them money.”
A similar idea comes from the Sustainable Food Trust, which is working on a Sustainability Assessment Framework to help make labelling easier and clearer. “The idea would be that all products will have a sustainability score on them,” said Patrick Holden, founding director at the Trust.
“So you could go into a retail outlet and say, ‘oh, what’s the sustainability score of this cheese or this meat? It would be a bit like white goods – if you buy a fridge it’s got an A rating on energy or something like that. We think a lot of people would buy more if they knew what it was. There’s various schemes out there at the moment, but unless you’ve got a PhD in the subject you probably don’t know the difference.”
Sell the story
Putting the data out there is all well and good, but it’s not just about presenting it passively, says Holden. “Sell the story. Imagine your customers want to buy food with a great story behind it – sustainable, as local as possible, and ideally produced by somebody who’s got a name, or at least a story. You then sell the story.”
This ‘story’ is lost when food becomes a mere commodity, says Holden. “Cheapness hides the hidden costs, which is climate change, damage to the environment etc. So I think people in the small retail sector have to carve out a completely different niche, catering for the growing number of consumers who really care about these issues and want to buy better food.”
Isaacs agrees that education is important – saying that once businesses have calculated their products’ carbon footprint, they need to communicate it. “There’s an opportunity for brands today to be a thought leader, carve a speciality within sustainability, and generally make a difference.”
Be prepared for price rises
While prices are rising in every part of life, many still want food prices to stay the same, which leads to a state of “considerable confusion”, says Holden.
“There’s enormous pressure on the specialist retailer sector to sell cheap food, because that’s still the orthodoxy. So if you’re going to get out of that, and say, ‘no, we’ve got to pay the true cost of food, we’ve got to buy food from farming systems which are sustainable, which address climate change, which are nutrient dense, which are part of the solution’, in all likelihood there’s going to be a big cost differential.”
The confusion doesn’t stop at price, says Holden, but extends to what people think they should be eating to help be part of the solution. While livestock farming often finds itself in the sights of critics, Holden is keen to point out that sustainably managed livestock are essential to help farmers who have previously been part of the problem to move in a more sustainable direction, and also suggests that those keen to help the environment misunderstand what meats and products are the most damaging.
“If you add all that up, it’s very difficult for a small retailer who is trying to make their way through this confusion and these conflicting views.”
Hannah Anderson is managing director of ethical online food retailer 44 Foods, which has a mission to make the food industry fairer through measures including cutting food waste and making its deliveries as environmentally friendly as possible.
“Having spent decades behind the scenes in the food industry at major retailers, we had seen first-hand that producers and farmers often get the raw end of the deal,” she said. “We knew that there had to be a fairer way to do things which is why 44 Foods was established – to ensure that farmers and producers are paid fairly.”
Anderson seems to agree with Holden in that price rises are an inevitable part of ensuring that the environmental impact of what we eat – whether it’s from a supermarket or an artisan retailer – is kept as manageable as possible. And for that, she also agrees that it’s about retailers helping to re-educate those buying the products they sell.
“As consumers, we’ve all become used to fast, cheap, convenient food culture but the prices that we’ve become used to paying at the supermarket aren’t reflective of what it actually costs for farmers to produce what’s in our trolley,” she said.
“As retailers, it’s down to us to re-educate consumers by showing the people behind the food that we eat and the hard work, dedication and money that goes into producing even the most basic of household essentials. We work as a collective, partnering with farmers and producers up and down the UK in a fair, honest and transparent way. Part of this is allowing producers to set their own prices meaning that everything we sell is priced at a level that accurately reflects the actual cost of production.”
Price rises, product changes and re-education are all phrases few retailers will welcome with open arms. But for Anderson, transparency is at the heart of making progress in this area.
“Transparency is key. Whether that’s transparency with your suppliers or with your customers. Take the rise in beef and lamb prices last year for example, which was a result of a rise in production and feed costs. We communicated this with our customers from the offset, speaking with some of our lamb and beef producers to explain the reasoning behind our rise in prices. We are also completely transparent that there is a delivery charge.
“It’s vital to give consumers a better understanding of how the food industry actually works by breaking down things like pricing structures and production costs. It’s not a dark art and it’s time that we were more open with how the industry operates.”