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Catering for sustainability roundtable

07/06/16
Liz Barling

Young diners are increasingly likely to want higher-welfare meat and ethical choices when they eat out, according to a recent Populus poll. But are foodservice companies ready for this shift in demand?

Catering for sustainability roundtable

 

We gathered a number of foodservice business and supplier executives together to discuss this and other findings from our new report ‘Catering for sustainability’, on 24th May 2016.  Guests included representatives from sit-down and quick service restaurants, and private and public sector caterers, as well as suppliers to the industry.

 

We wanted to know whether the findings of our report resonated with industry insiders, and what they can do to take forward the sustainable diets agenda in their own businesses and across the sector.

 

‘Catering for sustainability’ was commissioned by WWF-UK and Sodexo UK & Ireland to explore the business cases for adopting and promoting sustainable diets in the foodservice sector. It argues that it’s time to move beyond the moral case, and embed sustainable diets in foodservice.  But while the moral case is clear, there’s still a lot of work to be done in communicating the business cases. The big challenge is that clients and the general public want sustainable choices, but many aren’t yet ready for the opportunity costs.

 

In our discussions about the report we wanted to find out whether our roundtable participants agreed with our ‘ingredients for change’ in the foodservice sector. It was really interesting to see a consensus around the room that there needs to be a shared definition of sustainable diets. People wanted the definition to be clear and easy to understand so that they could feel comfortable talking about it to clients, customers and staff within the business.

 

Engaging staff on the sustainability agenda was also seen as very important. If you don’t motivate staff to be passionate advocates of sustainable practices, change will happen very slowly, or not at all! Giving staff the opportunity to suggest changes for sustainability, or offering sustainable diets in-house were seen as great ways of getting staff on board.

 

Getting together with other foodservice companies to share examples of how to achieve sustainable diets was another idea that was warmly welcomed; as was encouraging suppliers to deliver sustainable products. That kind of encouragement might involve foodservice companies investing in developing sustainable supply chains, to gain suppliers’ confidence.

 

And could smaller foodservice businesses band together to demand sustainability standards from suppliers, or even collaborate as neighbours on the high street on issues like food waste and logistics?

 

It was great to be party to this kind of progressive and open thinking. There was a real appetite to get to grips with sustainable diets, but a recognition that educating customers and advocating to government to support the changes was equally important. Integrating different standards and charter marks was another idea – getting NGOs and accreditation bodies to work together to develop a standard that covers all aspects of sustainability, from nutrition to the environment, was something that many of the people in the room thought could work.  Food for Life was mentioned as one example of an initiative that already exists which is aspiring to be a ‘standard of standards’.

 

What might a shared definition of sustainable diets look like? It was really clear in the room that we need one. It was also universally agreed that WWF’s LiveWell principles are already a compelling and accessible way into the concept, so why reinvent the wheel? Making sure that WWF promotes the principles more widely – not just to the industry, but to individual customers would be invaluable in pushing forward the agenda.

 

The challenges facing the food system, from climate change to population growth to resource constraints, are huge, and radical steps are needed across the industry – and across society as a whole. But it’s just as important to acknowledge that baby steps are also useful in addressing the issue, not least because celebrating those steps is positive and empowering and can lead to that more radical action that is so urgently needed.

 

I was encouraged by the overwhelmingly positive responses to our report. People felt it was a very helpful addition to the evidence base for taking actions – big and small – within and beyond the foodservice sector. With more young people than ever taking a close interest in where their food comes from, it’s becoming increasingly clear that sustainable diets will be a permanent fixture on the menu.

Populus interviewed a sample of 2,000 adults representative of the UK population on 7th May 2016. The full dataset is available here.

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