Special Edition: CSR

Developing a sustainable food industry: The what, why and how

By Caroline Scott-Thomas

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Sustainability

Developing a corporate social responsibility (CSR) strategy offers huge scope for innovation and revenue-building – but there is no one-size-fits-all approach, according to a US supply chain management professor.

Dr. Kevin Dooley is a professor at Arizona State University and a senior adviser in the Sustainability Consortium, an organization that aims to develop science-based tools for sustainable practices in the consumer goods industry. He said the consortium’s current focus is the development of uniform sustainability measurement and reporting standards, encompassing environmental sustainability as well as wider CSR aims, such as ethical sourcing and supplier codes of conduct.

Dooley told an audience of food industry representatives at the recent Research Chefs Association conference in Arizona: “Food products are among some of the most impactful in terms of energy use and greenhouse gas emissions…Your sector, perhaps more than any other business sector, has an opportunity to really make a difference here.”

Logo overload

Focusing primarily on environmental sustainability, Dooley said he recognized there can be tremendous cost to businesses when aiming for third party certification. But the proliferation of different eco-standards – there are currently about 400 in the United States alone – means manufacturers do not have a clear idea of what they should aim for and, just as importantly, consumers do not know exactly what a sustainability seal means. Therefore, the Sustainability Consortium argues that a clear, standardized system – under a single logo – for measuring and reporting sustainability standards could bring clearer economic, as well as environmental, benefits.

Trust and communication

“These environmental and social policy issues are about trust.” ​Dooley said. “People can’t conceptualize about the environment in the same way as us nerdy scientists.”

Taking the example of orange juice, from growing the trees to pack disposal, Dooley explained that many consumers think the main environmental impact comes from packaging, which is only responsible for around three percent of emissions from the entire lifecycle. The largest part is production itself at 60 percent of carbon emissions, with 60 percent of those coming from fertilizer, he said.

But sustainable packaging is still important, both from a consumer perception perspective, and because the collective effort does make a difference.

Dooley said: “The typical person has no conception of manufacturing processes behind the scenes. That said, that’s where we have the most opportunities to be more sustainable. We need to find ways to communicate that to our customers.”

However, there is an added challenge in that parameters for sustainable production can shift according to where food is produced.

“Impacts are highly geographically dependent,”​ he said, citing water scarcity in Arizona as one example of why the ‘eat local’ movement may not always be the most environmentally friendly option. In dry regions, particularly thirsty foodstuffs could be more sustainably produced further afield.

People, planet, profit

Dooley predicts that companies are likely to be required to provide product-level reporting in the future.

“I think there are going to be tremendous early mover advantages here…Work now to develop that capacity in the supply chain,” ​he said.

Those that start now could benefit most from adopting the ‘triple bottom line’ approach to CSR, he said: People, planet, and profit.

“We cannot divorce economics from the equation.”

So, where to begin?

“It makes sense to start within your own four walls,” ​Dooley said. “Most companies, whatever their size, can get at least three things: What’s their energy bill, what’s their water bill, and what’s their garbage bill?”

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