Released 5th June 2013

Today is World Environment Day – a day to encourage individuals and businesses to make positive changes to reduce their impact on the environment. This year’s theme is linked to the “Think.Eat.Save. Reduce Your Foodprint,” campaign sponsored by the UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) and United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

In the wake of the horse meat scandal, focusing on food is no surprise but what can businesses actually do about it?

Supply chain transparency and accountability in the food and catering industry is the new ‘hot potato’ for environmentalists but having an oversight of suppliers and suppliers’ suppliers is not easy. While reporting on environmental metrics has become an integral part of business sustainability policies, openness and transparency are new words in the vocabulary and they are not willingly uttered by all businesses. There are however new pressures on businesses to conform.

While conscious consumerism continues to grow on the supermarket floor, food suppliers are faced with an increasing headache – how do I keep track of suppliers and their suppliers without spending a small fortune? It’s not an easy problem to solve. While a recent study found that nine out of ten consumers believe ingredient transparency is an extremely or very important issue that companies must address, food suppliers are slightly hamstrung. Years of sourcing on price has pushed supply chains across the globe, making it even more difficult to trace ingredients. While it is possible to trace specific products to source (some consultancy firms will offer this service), there are obvious limitations in that the information is specific to one product only.

What the industry really needs is an early warning system, a process which can flag up potential problems across the supply chain, enabling businesses to explore issues further but in a more targeted and less haphazard and hopeful way. This is where transparent data can have an active role. Enabling suppliers to connect with customers, sharing verified open data on key sustainability metrics and materials of interest can initiate an early warning process if the data is live. Build this into procurement and you have an incentive to comply. We are already on this road but there is still some way to go.

What we are seeing already are companies using localism as a central part of the procurement decision making process. ISS for example stated in its recent report that preference is always given to local companies where possible, especially within its food operations, as this also limits waste. According to

Paul McIntyre of Inside Catering, this is also key to enabling transparency. “Consumers demand more from their produce than ever before, and even though industries are becoming globalised… food is something that must remain local so that quality and traceability are retained… customers want to know what they are eating and that it has been sourced from a tangible place.”

NGOs have long campaigned on this issue too, with extensive research being undertaken by organisations to ascertain who knows what is going into their produce. Oxfam’s ‘Behind the Brands’ report investigated the supplier codes of food and beverage firms, and the results were not encouraging, with Oxfam stating that firms are still ‘overly secretive’ when it comes to sustainability and social responsibility.

Oxfam also highlighted that governments and consumers need to play a more active part to encourage ethical and sustainable behaviour within corporations, so that they and their suppliers become more open about product sourcing. The topic of transparency and sustainability is creeping up the government agenda, and is set to form a central part of the UK’s G8 presidency. There is also the impending renewal of the Millennium Development Goals which are due to expire in 2015.

Interestingly, one ISS supplier called e-foods has built a business on the idea of localism and is in many ways a shining example of how it can be done. The company will only use local suppliers and operates a 30-mile radius limit policy. The company is already mapping its suppliers’ sustainability and plans to have complete and transparent oversight. This is how it can work but unless the industry is willing to join the dots and multilaterally confront this issue, progress will be painfully slow. It starts with a commitment to transparency. With that mind-set, anything is possible.

World Environment Day was established by the United Nations (UN) General Assembly to mark the opening of the 1972 Stockholm Conference, the first time the international community met to discuss international development and the natural environment in a holistic way.  

June 6th, 2013

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