Future fit? The business case for sustainability

Sustainability must be an ever-present on the menu long after the Covid-19 crisis if the industry is to survive and thrive, reports Michael Jones

It would be a strong contender for understatement of the decade to declare that the hospitality sector is facing some challenging headwinds at present. But, for readers suffering from ‘Covid-crisis’ fatigue in terms of industry coverage, you will be pleased to learn that this supplement is not another treatise on the industry’s travails in the pandemic. Instead it focuses on a topic that was, finally, getting the attention it deserved before the virus rampaged through our lives – and our sector – at the beginning of 2020: sustainability.

Pre-pandemic, the lip-service paid towards sustainability for years before had finally begun to turn into demonstrable action that saw energy-saving practices placed at the heart of many successful foodservice operations; the disingenuous greenwash spouted by companies for years had solidified into considered action plans for saving resources and food too good to be wasted. Empty slogans were become strategy.

Sustainability had finally earned its seat at the table because in this industry, as in all others, money talks. Operators, suppliers and manufacturers had finally become convinced that equipment, processes and practices that saved energy and prevented waste could also save a considerable amount of money in return.

The worry is that all this hard work – which had been benefiting the planet, the consumer and the industry holistically – would go into reverse. That we would fall back into bad, old habits in terms of how we operate in the face of an uncertain future.

Thankfully, that concern is not the prevailing view – sustainability will not slip off the radar. “Sustainability matters in our business, because it matters everywhere. Our industry today cannot avoid being involved in sustainability. It’s a very, very important issue,” consultant Paul Montegut FCSI told me recently on FCSI’s Sustainability Lowdown podcast.

Montegut, the chair of FCSI France, will play a lead role in the organization of the 2021 FCSI Europe, Africa, Middle East (EAME) Conference in Chantilly, Paris, next year. The theme of the Conference? You guessed it: ‘Sustainability’. As well as leading consultants and industry experts giving presentations on the topic and its importance to the future of the sector, the Conference will have its carbon footprint meticulously measured and analysed (see page 18) and a report of the findings published subsequently that will hopefully become a blueprint for future FCSI events to reduce their carbon output. The initiative is led by FCSI EAME Allied member representative Mick Jary, of warewashing manufacturer Meiko.

A mindset change

For Montegut, the Covid pandemic, while self-evidently horrendous for operating profits within sector itself, is actually “good for sustainability,” he says. “Now people will have to change their own life and way of working. We have to live a life completely linked to sustainability. Working from home is very good for sustainability. Less travel is very good for sustainability. I think this year will accelerate the sustainability issue.”

Montegut, like many other concerned individuals, believes that society has little choice but to embrace a sustainable future and feels a personal burden that his – and preceding – generations have not been good custodians of the planet soon to be inherited by his children’s generation. “This planet has been destroyed in 100 years, which is a very short time. If we continue [like this], there will be nothing left. I have kids and grandkids. We have to work for them. In terms of weather and climate change, it’s just unbelievable.”

Fellow consultant Frank Wagner FCSI, chair of FCSI Germany/Austria and also an interviewee on the Sustainability Lowdown podcast, believes there has been a fundamental shift towards sustainability in recent years. “People want to be sustainable now. We cannot continue as we have done the last 20 years. We give this environment to our children, so it would be good if it’s intact. Also, from an economic point of view there is nothing bad in saving electricity, garbage, waste and space. I think that’s a mindset. People should not waste resources. We should make sure our children have the same standard of living we have – or better.”

The food and foodservice sector is, needless to say, a major contributor to carbon emissions. According to research by Joseph Poore and Thomas Nemecek (2018), published in Science, the global food system, encompassing agriculture, production, processing, and distribution, is responsible for approximately 26% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Those stark statistics are finally starting to hit home though and it is the consumer that helping to drive change.

People power

In the UK, new research from energy provider E.ON (E.ON’s Renewable Returns report, has highlighted the shift in consumer purchasing behavior towards more sustainable products in the food and drink sector.

A survey of business leaders and consumers across the UK revealed that: 79% of small businesses in the food and drink sector are targeting growth through sustainability and have made ‘becoming more green’ a top business priority for 2021. 36% are now purchasing more sustainable goods and services than they did before.

The food and drink industry is also notably where consumers expect strong environmental credentials. Three quarters (78%) of food and drink small and medium enterprises (SMEs) have reported greater demand for sustainable products and practices from their customers in the last year. Interestingly, three quarters (75%) of food and drink SMEs have reported increased pressure to act is coming from their own staff.

Purchasing power – and indeed people power generally if we factor in employees too – has become a massive factor in why foodservice brands choose to adopt more sustainable practices. It’s the reason McDonald’s, for example, announced two years ago that it would set two hugely ambitious environmental goals to achieve by 2025: to have 100% of customer packaging sourced from “renewable, recycled, or certified sources” and have recycling available in all its restaurant locations. In 2018, 50% of customer packaging came from sustainable sources and only 10% of its restaurants are recycling.

In January 2020 Starbucks announced ambitious plans to become a “resource-positive” company, aiming to reduce emissions within a decade. Plant-based meal options have been expanded alongside a shift to reusable packaging and less single-use plastic. The company will also invest in innovative agricultural practice, eco-friendly operations and stores, and better waste management.

The foodservice giants, and a plethora of other high-profile foodservice brands, are savvy enough to realize that adopting good, sustainable operating procedures (and telling the world about them), is an investment in their own future. It is sincerely not a good look for any company to be associated with guzzling gas and depleting rainforests. Pillaging the planet’s resources or contributing to climate change when your current and future customers care deeply about the ethics of environmentalism is a shortterm approach that will bury brands that cannot read the room and do what’s right.

And the biggest group of current customers really do care about sustainability. Millennials’ spending overall was forecast to grow at a higher rate than other age groups (2.6%) in 2020, reflecting a growing spending power as that demographic assumes more senior professional roles in the worldwide workplace. According to Goldman Sachs Global Investment Research (Millennials: Coming of Age), the Millennials generation is the biggest in US history, even bigger than the Baby Boomers.

The role of the manufacturer

That incentive for brands to change for the better – marrying the ecological imperative that customers desire along with the economic benefits bestowed by efficiency gains – is also being driven by foodservice equipment manufacturers. “The focus on sustainability starts with product development. Each product is developed by R&D with the aim of being precise, sustainable and efficient,” says cooking technology manufacturer Giorik’s Ilaria Savi.

“Our compact ovens achieve very high performance and cooking levels, but their energy consumption is reduced to a minimum. But we are not just talking about energy saving. Our washing systems are developed with a specific water recirculation system that allows very low water and detergent consumption. Our boiler can complete the descaling cycle without chemical agents, but with simple vinegar.”

Giorik, says Savi, “tries to reduce waste as much as possible”. Packaging is often made of recyclable material and never plastic where possible. Even the printing of pricelists and brochures is minimized, with storage systems or downloads from the cloud preferred for customers, to reduce the damage caused by deforestation.

“Digitization is our ally when it comes to sustainability,” she says. “Even technical assistance services are now carried out 90% remotely thanks to software and workstations specially developed to solve problems even hundreds of kilometers away. This helps us to reduce movement by car, train or aircraft – reducing CO2 emissions.”

The manufacturer also works with customers to calculate the exact amount of emissions that the production, use and shipment of its products can cause to the environment and contributes to their disposal. There are many other laudable initiatives from equipment manufacturers, making important contributions to reducing waste and reducing resources during the production of equipment that, in turn, is far more energy efficient than previous iterations.

Electrolux Professional recently enhanced its own sustainability commitments based on the United Nations Sustainability Development Goals and the Paris agreement. The ambition for the company, a signatory of the UN Global Compact – a voluntary call to companies “to align their strategies and operations with basic responsibilities to people and the planet” – is to become climate neutral from operations by 2030. “I am very proud to be able to announce our strategic sustainability commitments, that will guide our operations and business in the years to come. We have a strong foundation in our sustainability legacy. Our sustainability focus areas and targets are designed to set the pace for the future within the professional food, laundry and beverage industry,” says Alberto Zanata, president and CEO.

As well as becoming climate neutral within the next decade, the company will also reduce scope 1 and 2 CO2 emissions by at least 50% until 2025. “The main environmental impact occurs during the product-use phase as customers operate products consuming resources such as energy, water and detergents. We are determined to continue developing, and offer low resource consuming products, which benefit both our customers’ running costs as well as our planet,” adds Zanata.


Many chefs, both of the high-profile variety and those lower down the food chain, are also notably becoming more vocal on the subject of another compelling sustainability topic: food waste. Interviewed in the Q4 2020 edition of FCSI’s Foodservice Consultant magazine, Japanese chef Masaki Sugisaki describes his experience working with European chefs and how there exists, he feels, some cultural divergence in how ingredients and waste are viewed in different regions “I want to train them and let them know how to be friendlier to the environment,” he says.

“I see a lot of European, experienced chefs are so aggressive towards the ingredients, they don’t pay much attention to wastage. It is painful for me to watch.” Food waste has also become something of a hot-button issue in China recently. In the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, in August 2020, president Xi Jinping announced that the “shocking and distressing” amount of food wasted in China had to be addressed. Xi has called for increased legislation and supervision to stop food waste. WWF China revealed approximately 17 to 18 million tons of food were wasted in China in 2015, enough to feed 30 to 50 million people annually.

As Foodservice Consultant reported in its Q3 edition this year, ‘Operation Clean Plate’ is now in effect in all eateries in China. “This raises consumer awareness not to waste food when they eat out,” said Xi, who has instigated local authorities and individual restaurants in China to step up and stop wastage. France is a country that has already made successful attempts to mitigate against food waste. “In France, we have had a law for many years now that says restaurants – whether a staff canteen, a hotel or a commercial restaurant – must valorize [attach a value] to their organic food waste,” says Montegut.

“So, operators are very keen on that and try to adapt their production to the reality of the number of people [they serve]. Now, you cannot offer 10 different meals between 12-2pm. They are reducing their offer. That’s good for them too, because food waste is a cost. It’s good for the planet and it’s good for money. We have good laws in France for food waste, I think we are quite advanced on that.”

Wagner remains positive for how the industry in general will get to grips with its reduction of food waste in the future. “We will manage food waste better. And smarter than we do now too, through a combination of food waste tracking and communicating how much food chefs are throwing away. That’s [already] reducing dramatically. It’s also a matter of how you plan your recipes, how you order, how you store, how you purchase food and then how you sell it. In the next five years, everything will be related to artificial intelligence helping us be better.”

Around the world, from high-end to QSR and chain restaurants, smart ideas are coming to the fore that will help reduce food waste and showcase green credentials to discerning customers. In November 2020, Restaurant Hospitality reported that Shuggie’s — a San Francisco-based startup due to open its doors in spring 2021 will serve up a menu of woodfired pizzas made out of food waste. The ‘trash pies’ will be made from “oft-discarded ingredients such as offal, ugly produce, and leftover spent grain from breweries and oat milk facilities.” The owners are also the brains behind San Francisco’s Ugly Pickle Co., which boasts a similar concept of selling gourmet food “made from discarded produce and plant parts.”

Disposables, net zero targets and mega trends

Concerted efforts to change the bad habits of an industry previously drowning in single-use plastic before the pandemic, have been hampered because of this year’s mass pivot from table service towards takeout and food delivery. “Recent years had seen incredible momentum in reducing the use of disposables for foodservice, but Covid has seen an overnight reversal of this at many operations as they move away from self-service to pre-packaged product,” Ed Bircham FCSI, director at Humble Arnold Associates in the UK tells Foodservice Consultant this quarter.

In the magazine, Bircham predicts one of the ‘mega-trends’ set to dominate the industry in future years is so-called ‘net zero targets’, which will impact how operators and foodservice designers optimize kitchen operations. “We are at the embryonic stage of companies and organizations divesting themselves from fossil fuels as part of ‘net zero’ targets. This laudable environmental initiative will present operators and designers with a real challenge to fulfil the consumer demand for authenticity.”

Sustainability is indeed now an authentic and very real mega trend in itself and those foodservice companies – whether operators, manufacturers or suppliers – who continue to ignore it, could well end up being a footnote in the sector’s history. Survival of the fittest remains the watchword, pandemic or not, and being future-fit requires becoming sustainable enough to face new challenges.

Michael Jones


Further details:

To read the rest of FCSI’s Q4 2020 Sustainability print supplement, please click here.

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