It is a bit of a corporate mantra isn't it? "We are only as strong as our people". Or for Richard Branson: "Clients do not come first. Employees come first". All well and good, no arguments there from me. I am not here to argue whether organisations walk the walk or not, but I do think I can argue that, for sustainability, there is no doubting the power of employee engagement. Sure, you need to measure and manage your impact against goals, but in my experience a critical factor is also about the people, and how they engage your customers. Why is this especially important in sustainability? Because shifts to a more sustainable way of doing things involve change by definition, and normally require a new way of looking at things. And change is always our biggest challenge.
In food service the need is clear. I have seen food waste initiatives struggle because of a lack of leadership, and new menu concepts die because of lack of engagement from front of house staff or resistance from key members in a kitchen But I have also seen 25% reductions in climate change impacts, 20% increases in servings of fruit and veg, 50% reductions in food waste, with both happy teams and happy customers. Part of this is down to smart solutions, but a big part is down to the people.
Organisations, NGOs and advocacy groups are latching on to this too. The Chef's Manifesto, part of SDG2 Advocacy Hub, is a great example of getting chefs together and creating awareness and solutions. As they say, working together we can help deliver a better food system for all. When it comes to food waste, renowned food waste reducers Winnow are running a chefs campaign For The Love Of Food, focusing on food waste. Again, getting chefs talking and sharing solutions. At IntoFood we have recently taken a very concrete "skills-based" approach. In the autumn we ran a set of surveys and interviews with chefs in order to learn more about what they knew about food sustainability. While the sample size was small, the message was clear. Only 5% of chefs felt they had a good enough understanding of the environmental impacts of food. Indeed, the majority said they wanted to know more about key impacts such as food waste, climate change, biodiversity loss, ocean habitat loss, deforestation, and how to apply this knowledge to their jobs. These are the sort of issues that research is clear on: we need change.
Why does this matter? Because if you really want to succeed in sustainable food service, you cannot just tell people what to do. You need to engage them in the "why", not just the "how" and "what". And you cannot just pin all your hopes on the chefs. Like I said, I have seen initiatives fail because middle managers assumed the on-site staff would just nail it, or the front of house team totally disengaged from what the kitchen team were trying to achieve. But I have also seen restaurant managers walking around talking with guests about food sustainability, and inspiring people to go on that journey with them. It's not just down to the chefs. So we need to give people across the industry a good understanding of why it matters and what they can do in their jobs, every single day, to be part of the solution. All the way down from the CEO to the dish wash team. And if you really want to create change... start 'em young with more focus at catering colleges, schools and apprenticeships. Food sustainability should be a core education for food service professionals at all levels and all ages.
Food service will benefit from this on a business level too. The people who understand the issues (the "why") are not only more likely to implement initiatives successfully, but they are also more likely to find new solutions on their own. Which means you have a greater opportunity to let them get on with it, rather than always checking that they are doing what you asked them to do. I have not seen any research on staff turnover, but my gut feeling is staff that feel part of a cause for good are more likely to stay. I know I would anyway. So we need to give power to the people in order to benefit from the power of the people.
IntoFood helps food service businesses with two key things: reducing food-related environmental impacts and training their staff. You can see more about our software solutions for measuring and managing impacts here, and our online sustainability training courses at The School of Sustainable Food Service.