The Future

The new eco-issues that all food brands need to consider

While researching one of its 2012 trends, Food as the New-Eco Issue — the idea that the environmental impact of our food choices will become a more prominent concern — JWT Intelligence interviewed Dan Crossley, principal sustainability adviser at Forum for the Future, an NGO that works globally with business and government on sustainability issues, with Crossley leading the group’s efforts to take more sustainable practices around food into the mainstream.

Dab CrosslyBased in London, Crossley has worked with leading food businesses, including PepsiCo, Cadbury, Marks & Spencer, Tesco and Tata Global Beverages. He recently led PepsiCo’s Scenarios & Strategies 2030 work and Consumer Futures 2020 with Sainsbury’s and Unilever. Before joining the Forum, Crossley was a food sector researcher for a large food manufacturer and a factory financial controller. We discussed the sustainability issues involved with food and touched on consumer awareness (and how to improve it), what brands are doing right and why there’s some reason for optimism.

What’s your organization’s 30-second elevator pitch?

Forum for the Future is a not-for-profit organization working globally with business and government to help create a sustainable future. Work on food is one of the key systems we’re focusing on. We want to help mainstream sustainable food by doing three things: rebalancing equity and fairness in value chains; reconnecting people with food to allow producers to raise standards; and restoring resilience in the food system, making more effective use of resources and cutting food waste.

“Sustainability” is a term that’s thrown around so loosely these days. How would you define it in relation to food and the environment?

Sustainable food is a complicated concept. These foods would have minimal environmental impacts, positive social impact and appropriate nutrition for people. It’s always a balance of those three key areas. We believe sustainable food is something that is enjoyable, desirable and fun.

What are some of the key macro eco issues surrounding our current food production and distribution systems that you’re concerned about?

Firstly, food waste. In countries like the U.S. and the U.K., between 30% and 40% of food that consumers buy is thrown away. If you include food grown in lots of developing countries where are there pre-harvest and post-harvest losses, some estimate more than half the food grown in the world is thrown away without being eaten. That’s arguably the biggest issue within the global food system.

Food waste is so critical because there’s more than a billion people starving and malnourished but also because of the huge environmental impacts of food production and growing: the climate change-related impacts, all the energy and labor that goes into making all that food being thrown away, is massive in itself. And the disposal of that food waste, particularly in the developing world, has huge greenhouse and other impacts.

The whole idea of sustainable diet is an emerging macro trend impacting food. People are looking at what they eat and the impacts of those diets. For example, meat consumption has huge, huge environmental impacts. If people can reduce meat consumption in the developed world—where they’re eating too much meat—it can have huge health benefits but also huge environmental benefits. Brands are starting to get into this very tricky issue of how you shape consumer demand, consumer purchase and what they’re eating.

Another key issue would be water scarcity: 70% of fresh water used by humans in the world is for agriculture, and two out of three people in the world are expected to live in water-stressed areas by 2025. This will have an impact most noticeably for beverage companies, many of which are starting to take good steps. Water scarcity is also an issue for food businesses, farmers and growers, clearly.

Biodiversity is also a massive issue that is only starting to get recognized. Bees represent between a quarter and a third of the pollinating force in the food we eat, so they are critical; without them, we all starve. We fundamentally rely on biodiversity and ecosystems. The collapse of bees in the U.S. and other parts of the world, for example, has led to hand pollination of some crops in China.

Another key area is climate change across multiple levels, such as the carbon impacts, the actual impacts of growing, producing and disposing of food. How people, businesses and countries adapt to climate change will be hugely important. We know some areas that can grow food now won’t be suitable for growing those crops in 20 or 30 years’ time. We’re already seeing more instances of extreme weather events in many parts of the world.

Population growth is another issue. It’s not an environmental issue in itself, but clearly if we’re going to have 9 billion people on the planet by 2050, we will have significantly greater demand for food, plus a warmer planet to produce those resources from.

These issues are arguably really macro for people to think about. How much consumer awareness is there around the link between what we eat and the environment?

Most people do not know very much, but it depends on which part of the world you’re talking about. For parts of Europe and the U.S., most people are very disconnected from how food is grown, where it comes from, how it’s produced, what the impacts are. That’s why one of our big strategies is trying to reconnect people with food and working with brands, amongst others, to help them connect people with food in order to make them value it more so that they throw less away and understand some of those hidden impacts.

In the developing world, generalising hugely, there’s more subsistence agriculture, and lots of people are more directly connected to the land and to food. They can see some of the impacts of climate change, water scarcity and soil degradation more prominently. Whereas, for those of us sitting in a nice Starbucks in New York or in London, it’s very easy to forget about the people that grew and processed the coffee beans or all the pesticides and water consumed to create that steaming cup of coffee.

Which food issues are consumers are aware of, and how will this change over the next few years?

Again, it varies market to market. Consumers aren’t completely disconnected, but often they think of the impacts of the packaging itself. Whilst important, if you had to rate the material impacts in order, that would be lower down the list. But it’s very tangible and visible. What people don’t think about is the impacts of growing, production and food distribution as a whole. Certainly we expect brands going forward to help educate consumers on where the big impacts are.

If you look at what some of the leading organizations in this space, like Unilever and PepsiCo, are doing, they are starting to translate some very complicated messages into easier-to-understand messages for the consumer so they can start to connect with this. We’ll see more signs of radical transparency happening. 

In a non-food example, Asda, the U.K. arm of Walmart, has put webcams in its clothing factories with live feeds to their website so consumers can watch where their clothing comes from—the same could apply to food. There is a growing demand to see where things are made and where they come from.

We want brands to help shape what consumers buy and create demand based on sustainability, rather than saying to consumers, “Soil is really important. Climate change is really important. Water is really important. You must understand these issues.” That is becoming quite old-fashioned green messaging. We’re seeing brands being much cleverer in their thinking about how to resonate with consumers. If you talk about cooking in a more energy-efficient way that saves money, that might appeal more than saying, “Think about what the carbon impacts of this food are.” There will be some education needed by brands on these big issues, but brands need to be very careful in the way they try to engage consumers on this agenda.

Issues like water and biodiversity will start becoming more mainstream, but it will take time and, given the urgency of the challenges, brands are better off trying to make the complicated decisions on behalf of consumers rather than trying to educate them about the impacts to the whole system….

JWT Intelligence: Read the full article here [do continue reading – this is essential stuff for all brand owners with a savvy eye on tomorrow! Ed]