Whether the food industry can play a constructive role in battling public health and environmental problems is a heavily debated question. On the one end, global companies like Coca-Cola are touting their own efforts towards sustainability and are claiming to be making significant inroads. Meanwhile, the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) argues that, despite their sustainability rhetoric, companies like the agriculture giant Monsanto only damage sustainability efforts because they are driven mainly by profits and encourage unsustainable practices like pesticide-use. Whereas, writing in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), Professor Marion Nestle of New York University and Dr. David Ludwig of Harvard University, argue that companies could act in the interest of public health and environment only if guided to do so by consumer demand and public policy and regulation.
Forum for the Future—a global independent non-profit that seeks system-wide solutions to global challenges—takes a different view.
“We absolutely need to fundamentally change the way our food system operates and policy is a major aspect of that. However, if we look at where the change [towards sustainability] has happened in the last five to ten years, in my eyes, it has been business all the way, while governments have been playing catch up to raise minimum standards,” said Dan Crossley, a Principal Sustainability Advisor who leads food systems work at the Forum. “If we look at the next few years, I expect that the main player in driving the rate of change will continue to be business,” continued Crossley.
It is this belief that drives the Forum to work towards sustainability with major industry players like PepsiCo, Target, Unilever, and supermarket chains Marks and Spencer and Tesco. With PepsiCo, for example, the Forum wanted to engage in a serious conversation about what the future might hold for the company itself under different possible scenarios and to explore what that meant for its long-term strategy. The PepsiCo Global Scenarios and Strategy 2030 project included interviews with more than 100 experts from within and outside the industry and a series of workshops to engage key people across the business. It illustrated to leaders that things like obesity and climate change are not merely public or individual problems, but, in fact, represented significant risk factors as far as profitability and viability of PepsiCo itself.
“For the senior people around the PepsiCo table this led to a big and powerful shift in business thinking,” said Crossley. “Now there is much more emphasis on and innovation in sustainable agriculture, and the company has set targets for its UK business for key farms to reduce water and carbon use by 50 percent within five years.”
The biggest change was in the fundamental way that the company saw itself.
“It was a total shift from “we are a brand-focused company” towards recognising that they are an agricultural business that relies on raw materials, without which they would not have any products,” he said.
Working with individual companies is just the tip of the iceberg of the Forum’s work. Their main emphasis has been on thinking systemically and fostering dialogue and collaboration between parties that rarely find themselves in the same room—like companies, government regulators, environmental and food activists, and consumers.
Last year, the Forum brought together the entire U.K. dairy industry—including big industry retailers like Asda (part of the Walmart group), the dairy industry trade bodies, ingredient suppliers, the national farming union, and the British government—to explore future drivers of change and key sustainability risks and opportunities within the sector. Project Dairy 2020 has confronted the industry’s huge challenges around environment, animal welfare, nutrition, and economic and social issues around the price of dairy and the very viability of the dairy industry. Over the course of 18 months, and using a variety of workshop formats and strategic planning tools, the Forum has helped the industry demonstrate what a financially and environmentally sustainable dairy sector might look like and has involved key stakeholders in developing a common roadmap to make that future a reality. Earlier this year, a major milestone was achieved when the first phase of the work was launched at Parliament and major industry players signed up to a set of its guiding sustainability principles, as well as a common vision for a sustainable dairy industry in 2020.
What about the critique that commercial search for profit and drive towards greater consumerism is fundamentally incompatible with environmental and social sustainability that requires the use and consumption of less not more?
“There is nothing wrong with making profit,” said Crossley. “We think it is possible to have a sustainable business model that delivers commercial success and social value but within environmental limits. There is however a big difference between businesses striving to become a bit ‘less bad’ and having the ambition to become genuinely sustainable,” he said.
A big part of the Forum’s work is the drive to fundamentally change business models. For example, one of the Forum’s Pioneer partners Kingfisher—a non-food retailer that sells things like lawnmowers and paint—has developed a vision of becoming a net-positive company in terms of social and environmental impact.
“That’s the level of aspiration that we want businesses to work to,” continued Crossley, “not just “let’s reduce carbon by 20 percent,” but for them to say: “we need to positively contribute to a sustainable future.”
But it’s not all about big brands and global reach. Instead, the Forum believes that smaller businesses can cause large positive ripples in the food industry. They also work with dynamic enterprises like the farmer’s networking platform Sustaination, organic baby food producer Ella’s Kitchen, and Fair Trade-focused Cafédirect.
Do you know of any organizations working to help businesses become more sustainable? Leave a reply below.
Ioulia Fenton leads food and agriculture research at INESAD.
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