Food for thought: achieving sustainability in food & drink supply chains

Kat Auckland, Communications and Projects Director

Have you noticed that coloured plastic milk bottle tops are no more? And do you know why?

It’s such an inconspicuous change it might have escaped your notice, but its influence is more significant than you may think. 

Making the bottle and the top out of the same plastic means they’re easier to process into food grade recycled content. The result? An extra 3,900 tonnes of recycled plastic every year, ready to be transformed into new bottles. I didn’t know this until last week, and trying to be more sustainable is part of my day to day – just take a peek at my almost plastic free bathroom!

The green consumer

Telling customers about your sustainability initiatives is crucial; especially with today’s shoppers voting with their feet if they feel the green wool has been pulled over their eyes and they’ve been misled. 

The UK’s top three grocers could boost sales by $8 billion by better connecting with their customers on sustainability. With 72% of consumers now purchasing more eco-friendly products than they did five years ago, and a whopping 81% expressing intent to buy even more in the next five years, the opportunity is ripe for the taking.

The figures around sustainability are equally staggering. Did you know over half of GDP is at risk from climate change? Yet another reason for the business community to get serious about sustainability.  

Our data is taken from a recent East Midlands Chamber of Commerce webinar delivered by James Butcher from Supply Pilot focused on the Food & Drink sector. In this industry, approximately 90% of emissions occur upstream in scope 3, weaving through a complex web of growers, transport, food processing, packaging, raw materials, printing, and more.

Taking control of scope 1, 2 and 3 emissions

Every business is in control of their scope 1 and 2 emissions, but their scope 3 emissions are in the hands of their suppliers – as demonstrated by the National Grid Group here. In the food industry, the takeaway is clear: a significant shift requires the collective effort of the entire supply chain.

James recommends a collaborative approach with the supply chain, focusing on 3-5 priority areas. It’s crucial to avoid ‘Carbon Tunnel Vision’ by focusing not only on CO2 emissions but also other impactful areas like plastics and habitat destruction.

What ultimately turns the dial could be something very simple – anyone noticed a best before date recently? Well, their time might have come! Fewer fresh products now have them, a deliberate step to reduce food waste, and put trust in consumers to judge for ourselves when we need to throw food away.

My husband comes from a long line of best before date deniers, but people do throw perfectly good food away because of what they have read on the label.

This change is already having profound impacts. Sainsbury’s removed the best before dates from 276 lines and believe they’ve saved 17 million items from being thrown away.

For years, business plans have focused on increasing efficiency and reducing waste; and sustainability programmes are ultimately a continuation of this, driving down emissions whilst delivering savings and adding value to brands.

Green energy

One of the easiest steps is investment in renewables for energy hungry processes. As James highlighted, if you’re using green energy and not producing any waste, you’re basically at Net Zero.

So what does green energy look like for the food industry’s field to fork supply chain? At the start of the process you could have growers and farmers using onsite renewables such as solar PV to power heating in greenhouses, poultry sheds or milking parlours. Whilst grain drying could be delivered using low carbon heat and renewable energy, and they could even be charging EVs for use on farms. 

Further up the chain, at manufacturing level, food processing, warehousing and packaging production could all be taking place at plants with solar PV or other renewables at their location.

As highlighted above, green energy is one of the easiest changes to implement and it has an impact on emissions straight away.

The key is not to try and fix everything at once. Work with your supply chain, find out what’s already happening and where the biggest impact could be; consider renewables and most importantly don’t hide your light under a bushel, tell people about what you are doing. 

Team Geo Green has been helping to reduce scope 3 emissions within the food industry for over 14 years, and we may have an installation or two in your supply chain already. Why not contact us to find out how we can support your sustainability goals.

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