Sustainability Reporting

"One Planet Plate" shows the many different ways to eat more sustainably.

Why One Planet Plate is a great step in the right direction for thinking about recipe development as a way to tackle the complexities of food sustainability.

Sustainable decision-making can be complex

Food systems contribute at least 25% of man-made greenhouse gas emissions (1), are major consumers of available water (2), major causes of deforestation (3) and both terrestrial and marine biodiversity loss (4), and yet about a third of the food that we produce is never actually eaten (5).  Added to that, food demand is predicted to increase globally by a further 50% before 2050 (6).  I think we can call that an unsustainable system.

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It is also highly complex system with multiple challenges that are sometimes aligned and sometimes not.  Does meat with a lower climate change impact also have higher animal welfare?  Does the lower carbon footprint of most fish always make it a better choice than meat?  If not, why not?

One Planet Plate and recipe "KPIs"

Which is why the One Planet Plate initiative by the Sustainable Restaurant Association is so timely – shining light on recipes that contribute to the solution in different ways, through low carbon footprint, local sourcing, better meat, sustainable seafood or low waste.  As part of this initiative I helped them on the low carbon footprint part of this, looking at a range of recipes that would have a lower (or higher) carbon footprint. 

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The really interesting thing about this work was the variation in recipes and, whilst the vegan or vegetarian dishes were all the lower carbon footprint dishes, there was a big gap between these and “the meat dishes”.  Fewer dishes seemed to be embracing “less meat” for individual dishes, which is in no way a criticism of the recipes, more a reflection on an opportunity that the industry might not yet be making the most of.  A curry with 60g of chicken is more sustainable than a curry with 120g of chicken – it does not always have to be vegan.  I also saw that a number of dishes that were proposed by chefs as low carbon footprint did in fact have higher carbon footprints because of the dairy content – we often forget the role dairy has in the prevalence of livestock in our food systems.

And whilst of course recipes using more meat do tend to have higher carbon footprints, if the meat has come from a farm with high animal welfare then this is in itself a step in the right direction.  The goal really is for us to use “less but better” meat rather than trying to unrealistically remove meat, fish and dairy from our diets, as well as celebrating local, buying sustainable seafood, eating healthier more plant-based meals, and cutting food waste.

At IntoFood I use carbon footprint as one of the KPIs for sustainability because climate change is one of the defining challenges of our time.  But I also know that this needs to be seen within the wider context of these other issues. Yes, we need to serve much more fruit and vegetables, less meat, fish and dairy, and avoid air-freighted food and unnecessary packaging.  But we also need to focus on the quality of the meat, fish and dairy that we are using.  Having a low carbon footprint is a good way of putting real numbers on what you are doing, especially if you combine it with high animal welfare, less waste and the use of certified sustainable produce.  So well done to the Sustainable Restaurant Association for putting these issues into context in what may turn out to be the first real attempt to get the industry to think about recipe development in a way that captures the complexity of sustainability challenges.

References

1.       Vermeulen, S. J. et al. (2012) Climate Change and Food Systems. Annual Review of Environment and Resources. 37. p.195-222

2.       www.unwater.org/fileadmin/user_upload/unwater_new/docs/water_for_food.pdf

3.       Kissinger, G., et al. (2012) Drivers of Deforestation and Forest Degradation: A Synthesis Report for REDD+ Policymakers. Lexeme Consulting, Vancouver Canada, August 2012

4.       WWF (2015) Living Blue Planet Report

5.       FAO (2014) Food waste footprint. Full cost accounting (www.fao.org/3/a-i3991e.pdf)

6.       Alexandratos, N. and J. Bruinsma. (2012) World agriculture towards 2030/2050: the 2012 revision. ESA Working paper No. 12-03. Rome, FAO

3 things caterers should focus on to drive sustainability

Recent research highlighted some challenges to, and opportunities for, increased food sustainability in catering.  Here are three concrete areas to focus on that have been shown to bring about success.

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Some recent research has looked at the constraints, challenges and opportunities for caterers and food sustainability, loosely concluding that different caterers have different challenges, but there are in fact some common challenges and opportunities.  Which sounds about right.  (If you want a quick overview of how menus and customer type influences sustainability, have a look at this).  Taking this as a given (that different caterers have different challenges) this research discussed constraints for caterers being related to the consumer base, the sector (public/private), service delivery (in-house/out-sourced), contract type (concession, commercial etc), costs & bottom-line issues, and skills & knowledge.  (Access the research paper here).

Breaking this down a bit, there seem to be some common issues across these different constraints:

- the type of consumer impacts the food you can serve, for cultural, financial, and demographic reasons.

- concerns about cost are prevalent, although this can be overcome by smart pro-sustainability menu engineering.

- knowledge and skills are key within the catering organisation (both in-house and out-sourced) at many levels, from a lack of sustainability management roles and overall corporate culture, to pro-sustainability knowledge and skills among chefs.

So if you want to overcome these challenges you need to focus on these three areas:

1. Understanding the relationship between food costs and sustainability

The idea that sustainability costs more money is only partially true and this misunderstanding normally stems from the idea that "certified sustainability" costs more money (think MSC certified seafood, organic produce and so on).  But while on a product by product basis this may be true (mostly), we are not in the business of feeding people by individual products - we serve meals made up of many different ingredients and it is this ingredient mix and menu sales mix that defines your actual food costs.  Depending on your contract (concession, commercial and everything in between) this will influence your profit. 

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And here is the key point: there is a growing consensus in research that the two non-negociables with food sustainability are that we need to consumer less (but better) animal-based food and we need to reduce food waste.  Both of these will reduce your food costs, and intelligent menu engineering will allow you to include higher cost individual products within a more sustainable balance of ingredients and less wastage.  I bang on this rather a lot and use a simple formula: Menus x Sales + Waste.  If done properly, you can manage your food costs and increase sustainability (see here for more on how this can be done). 

2. Appropriate communication with your customers

"Consumer type" is rightly identified as a challenge to sustainable food service.  So the question we should be asking is "How to communicate this so that guests come with us on the journey?".  I have recently been collaborating with specialists in corporate culture, conflict resolution, and the psychology of communication (see here for our concept for Food Sustainability Heroes). 

You need to do 3 key things here.  1. Build knowledge and understanding throughout the catering business - a lack of "Sustainability Managers" has been noted by Goggins in his research, in addition to variable or low skills and knowledge within catering staff in the kitchen. 2. Understand how to communicate sustainability to different types of customers.  Should you talk about health, or the environment, or focus on food trends? It depends who you are talking to.  3. Relate this to how you present the food in the restaurant buffet.  This is where choice architecture, nudging and how you present each dish gives you the ability to shift consumer choice towards sustainability in a more subtle way. 

3. Measuring your real impacts

If you are going to menu engineer in a pro-sustainability way, reduce your food waste, and combine these initiatives with effective communication, you need some numbers to firstly understand your impacts and secondly to feed the communication decisions.  Storytelling is just data with a soul, after all.  So take steps to understand which recipes and food concepts are more sustainable, and how you can combine these concepts to create a food service that is designed to help customers choose sustainably.  When you have this in place, then you can talk about it with your customers (both directly to your guests, and higher up in the corporate ladder when you are agreeing contracts, bidding for new contracts, or simply reporting to your clients).  No data, no storytelling.  The goal here should be continuous improvement, broken down into goals that can be backed by data.  Cut your climate change impacts by 10% in six months, reduce your food waste by 30% in three months, increase your servings of fruit and vegetables by 15% in six months.  

So this is where you need to focus.  Find the cost profile that allows you to serve more sustainable recipes and food concepts by thinking beyond certified sustainable products and audits, and look more towards the two non-negociables : less but better meat and less waste.  Build the knowledge and skills throughout your catering business, from top to bottom, and understand that you can communicate effectively with different types of customer.  And measure your impacts, because that is the data that allows you to communicate the what and why of your sustainability, allows you to actually track your food costs against your sustainability, and create food concepts that are tailored to your customer type, contract type and all of the other organisational constraints that seem to act as barriers to change.  Knowledge is power, both for your staff, your concepts and for your customers.

If you want to learn more about designing sustainable food concepts, measuring and reporting on your actual environmental impacts, and "best practice" learning opportunities within your catering organisation, just click here. 

It's not just what you eat, but what your food eats.

Or... why animal feed needs to be a key indicator for sustainable foodservice.

Most sensible people agree that animal products have a disproportionate impact on natural resources, climate change and, in certain cases, our own health.  And whilst most metrics for understanding your impacts tend to make beef look like the bad boy of food sustainability, there is also a consensus that we need to reduce our intake of animal products in general, and eat more fruit, vegetables and healthy grains.  What is less clear is how we decide what meat/fish/dairy we should be eating, even when we are eating less (you can watch a short explanation of what "Less But Better" meat really means here).  For example greenhouse gas emissions always make beef, lamb and cheese look like a bad choice.  The same goes for land-use requirements, when "land-use" does not differentiate between cropland versus grassland and so on. 

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So this is all helpful to give us metrics to reduce our overall meat intake, but it does not help us make decisions between and within types of meat.  Is pork better than chicken?  Is this chicken better than that chicken?  Here we use data from FAO as a baseline to illustrate how knowing the type and source of animal feed can help us make informed decisions.

Impacts from different types of animal feed

Firstly, some definitions.  Here I use two key impacts:

- land-use change carbon impact, estimating the carbon emissions from deforestation etc to clear land for growing animal feed.  You could also see this as a very rough proxy for biodiversity loss, albeit with some caveats.

competitive land-use, estimating the land-use requirement to produce animal feed when that land could have been used to produce food that could be eaten directly by humans.  This matters in a world of limited agricultural land, growing populations and persistent hunger in some regions.

In this article I use three different types of feed to show the different impacts:

- soy from South America.  High land-use change impacts; high competitive land-use (assuming the land is now competing with human food since it has been changed from a natural habitat).

- grains from Europe.  Low or no land-use change impacts; high competitive land-use.

- ecological leftovers (eg grass, byproducts from agriculture that are not suitable for human consumption). Low or no land-use change; low competitive land-use.

Bear in mind that these types of feed have different feed efficiencies (ie the conversion rate of feed to meat) with ecological leftovers being generally associated with lower feed efficiency.  So the below scenarios are simply models to illustrate how we can use this as a principle to go "Beyond Carbon" in terms of indicators for more sustainable meat choices.

This chicken or that chicken?

Imagine that two staff restaurants both serve a chicken casserole for five hundred guests each, using 100g of chicken per serving.  So each kitchen buys 50kg of chicken breast.  Restaurant A uses chicken that has been fed an even split between soy from Brazil and grains from Europe.  Restaurant B uses chicken that has been fed only grains from Europe and ecological leftovers.  Based on FAO data for land-use change, crop yields and taking an average feed efficiency of 3:1 (3 kg of feed produces 1kg of meat), Restaurant A will have an additional land-use change carbon impact the same as driving over 1000km in a family car, whereas Restaurant B will arguable have no additional land-use change climate carbon impact.  For competitive land-use, Restaurant A's chicken meat would need over twice as much cropland than the chicken meat from Restaurant B.  So the chicken in Restaurant B is demonstrably a better choice.

This beef or that chicken?

The next day Restaurant A serves chicken (again... but today it's a curry), but Restaurant B serves a beef wok.  The same volumes as before, and Restaurant A uses the same chicken supplier, but Restaurant B uses beef that has been fed only ecological leftovers.  Classic LCA research shows that beef has a carbon footprint of around 25kg of greenhouse gases per kg of meat (give or take a bit), and chicken normally comes in around 5kg of greenhouse gases per kg of meat.  However, this normally assumes a low impact for land-use change carbon impact for the chicken, so in this case (based on FAO data for soy from South America) the actual carbon footprint of Restaurant A's chicken could increase to around 9kg of greenhouse gases per kg of meat.  It is still lower than the beef, but the gap has been closed a bit.  Note that we have not included the potential for carbon sequestration on the land the cattle may be grazing or indeed put a value on the carbon stock of that land if the carbon is stable, so the beef could in fact be no worse that the chicken based on carbon footprint alone.  And then let's look at competitive land-use: the beef is fed on ecological land-use so has virtually zero competitive land-use requirements, but the chicken's cropland requirement would be very significant (around 500 metres squared of cropland, loosely calculated from feed efficiency rates and FAO yield data). 

And remember this is just one day in the life of two restaurants.  Multiple that fifty times and we're still nowhere near the volume of chicken being served on a daily basis, even for a medium-sized foodservice business.  So the beef has a higher carbon footprint, but the chicken is putting more pressure on limited cropland, and in this case, deforestation.  Are we done with the "just eat less beef" thing now?

Animal feed as an indicator

These scenarios are just examples, using FAO data with a big old bundle of assumption thrown in.  It is not a peer-reviewed research paper and it of course does not mean your chicken has this impact, or your beef is not impacting competitive land-use (it almost certainly is).  But it does show how understanding what your food eats is really important for understanding the impacts of what you eat, and what decisions you can make to reduce your impacts.  Eat less meat, but eat better meat.  Animal feed is one of the factors you need to consider, and IntoFood can help you start to understand this.

3 "must have" plans for successful food sustainability projects

It does not seem to matter what KPI you are going for, in food sustainability projects things will get messy if you do not have clear plans in place for skill requirements, measuring outcomes, and audience-specific communication plans.

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Yeah, yeah, yeah, we know, you need plans or the wheels fall off.  Of course.  It goes without saying.  But there are "nice to have" plans, and there are "must have" plans.  Hard-earned, coal-face experience has taught me that, when it comes to food sustainability projects, there are three kinds of plan you cannot do without: a skills plan, a measurement plan, and a communication plan.  Here is why they matter and how they are interrelated.

Skills plans

Almost by definition, food sustainability initiatives involve some changes to routines, to menu plans, and to procurement policies.  And for people to be engaged in change they normally need to know why, how and what.  "Why is this a sustainability issue?  How will we do it? What is the expected outcome?"  Staff who are fully engaged in the sustainability issues at hand - be it food waste, climate change, sustainable seafood, plant-forward menus or any other issue you care to pick - will almost always respond more positively because they understand the reasons and they can build a sense of ownership for the solution.  It sounds obvious, but it gets missed more often than it should.  And the kind of skills needed will vary in different parts of the organisation; the sustainability skills you need in the kitchen are not the same as for front of house, or for client relationship management.  Try implementing a new food concept without making sure that your client account managers or regional managers have got the skills to explain why you are doing it, and you'll see what I mean.

Measurement plans

How you measure - the tools you will use - means having a plan in place that includes a usable tool for accurately measuring the impact you are trying to affect.  A food waste tracker, an analytics tool for procurement impacts, customer satisfaction tools and so on.  Test the tools before you commit to a full-blown industry-wide project.  What you measure needs a bit more thought too.  For example with food waste, you might want to define categories of food waste that you will measure; for climate change you might want to measure recipes (to define "planet-smart" recipes) and procurement (to benchmark your actual carbon footprint).  But you might also want to measure sales of different recipes to understand which recipes sell best and how that relates to your sustainability.  And of course for food waste, wouldn't you want to measure on a daily basis?  But probably not for a project to increase the amount of sustainable seafood you are buying - here a monthly procurement analysis might be enough. One common mistake is to rely on annual audits alone.  Annual audits give us an overview of what happened, but give us no real data on how or why.  And if you are not sure that your measurements are meaningful then you cannot really communicate your outcomes very clearly. 

Communication plans

I tend to view communication plans in terms of who they are intended for: internal on-site, internal management, client on-site and external client relations.  Each group needs a different message in terms of goals, and then later on what you achieved, any new best practices, revised targets, and areas for improvement.  Each communication plan needs to be clear, concise and tailored, but linked to the measurement plans.  It's about storytelling, but storytelling is just data with a soul so your measurements and data should act as your evidence.  And get this, if you communicate a new project to someone and their response is along the lines of "I don't know why we need to do xxxx, why does it matter?", then you've got yourself a skills gap and something to add to your skills plan.

So these plans are not old school project management file cabinet fillers - they are early phase plans that you improve over time.  Assess your skills gaps, build a draft measurement plan, provide first stage communication plans.  Take onboard questions and ideas, and then revise the skills plan, adjust the measurement plan, and polish the communication plan.  Two or three iterations of this and you will avoid the trap of going ahead with a bold initiative only to find the staff do not really know what the issue is, you cannot make sense of the measurements, and key people are not really aware of what is going on and what to tell your guests and clients.

want our free checklists toolbox for food sustainability projects?

3 tech trends that can help food service to become more sustainable and profitable

Tech and food sustainability: the right data in the right place at the right time

Food systems contribute around 30% of man-made greenhouse gas emissions, are responsible for 70% of water consumption, cause deforestation and both terrestrial and marine biodiversity loss, and yet about a third of the food that we produce is never actually eaten.  Added to that, food demand is predicted to increase globally by a further 50% before 2050.  I think we can call that an unsustainable system.

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Food service businesses can take a leading role here, and that is where technology and data can help.  Smart systems can allow customers and food service providers to understand their impacts in terms of menus, waste, procurement and sales.  This can give businesses insights that go beyond profit and loss and allow sustainability to be built into business processes.  The key is to have the right data in the right place at the right time, so that people can make decisions from a triple bottom-line perspective: environment, health and economy.  How, for example, can a restaurant serve meals that minimise environmental impacts, optimise nutrition, and are still profitable?  And still delight their guests?

Here are 3 trends I see helping to drive sustainable food service:

1.       Sustainability data in kitchens.  Understanding the impacts of your recipes, your production, your waste.  And joining it all up so you can really aim for sustainability.  Companies like Winnow Solutions (www.winnowsolutions.com) are nailing the waste issue, and my own company IntoFood (www.intofood.no) is tackling some of this from a recipe and procurement angle.

2.       Sustainability reporting that is data-driven and research-based.  Integrated reporting can apply sustainability to standard KPIs (revenue, sales, costs and so on).  This allows food service businesses to understand how their food concepts are performing from a business perspective as well as a sustainability perspective, and adds value in a number of ways.  Firstly, unless you are measuring your sustainability, you cannot really communicate it and, in the future, your brand is going to be tied more and more to your sustainability.  It also allows businesses to identify which sites are high performers for both the financial and environmental bottom line, and then build best practices across the business.

3.       Communication with customers.  We are only really dipping our toes in sustainability communication, but new apps and platforms are coming to the fore where customers can make sustainable choices.  Customer-facing portals will allow guests to understand more about their food choices and, when applied to a pre-ordering solution, restaurants can encourage guests to make sustainable choices and simultaneously benefit from pre-sales information.  This helps front of house to manage bookings and helps the kitchens to plan their production better.  Customer feedback can then help to develop menu plans that move continually in a more sustainable direction. 

Which all then looks a bit like this (if tech folk ran restaurants!) :

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The hunger for sustainable solutions seems to be growing in both the industry and with consumers, so it is key that both research and technology come together to create credible solutions.  Many of these solutions exist in some shape or form, but they are not yet very well integrated.  It is this integration that will give the full picture.

Why different food service businesses have different sustainability challenges (and what they can do about it)

To wildly paraphrase George Orwell... All food service businesses can become sustainable, but some will be more sustainable than others.

Let me explain.  We know that the food service industry is not homogeneous, but is made up of contract catering, event catering, hotels, and thousands of different styles of restaurants and more.  And yet we would like all of them to be more sustainable, without really thinking about what that means, and what is realistic for each sector.

At IntoFood, I have worked on sustainability projects with many different food service businesses, from contract caterers to hotels, high street restaurants, vegan cafes and lots in between.  And they all have very different sustainability profiles, which is one reason why generic certification schemes are not really fit for purpose anymore.  Its not about getting across the line, its about continuous improvement.  What we often overlook are the practical ways (your recipes, your sales, and your production "accuracy") to allow that improvement to happen.  I will come back to this later, but that reality looks something like this:

The three key leverage points for sustainability.

The three key leverage points for sustainability.

Variations across the industry

Let's take climate change as a key indicator of sustainability - its not the only indicator, but its certainly one we cannot ignore - we see a wide variation in how "climate-smart" the food is across the industry.  And when we talk about food and climate change, we are unavoidably talking about the balance between animal-based and plant-based foods.  

This graphic below shows how much variation exists, using "carbon footprint per kg of food purchased" for different kinds of food service businesses.  Note, this is based on real data.  And of course variation exists within contract caterers, within hotels and within high street restaurants.  Why?  Because of differences in their menus, their sales profile and their efficiency.

(Burger restaurants and vegan cafes tend to represent to two end points on this line!)

(Burger restaurants and vegan cafes tend to represent to two end points on this line!)

An obvious example, to make the point.  A high street restaurant with a menu that is largely based around meat dishes (think of steaks, burgers, lamb chops, BBQ ribs) will almost always have a higher environmental impact than a staff lunch restaurant because people dining out in the evening are more likely to eat a heavier meal than they would at their lunch buffet.  So a direct comparison is not appropriate.  What is appropriate is to aim for a reduction in environmental impact, relative to the type of food service business.  And the way to understand that potential is to think of food service as a system in its own right.  

Key leverage points for sustainability

The food you buy is ultimately the indicator of how sustainable you are, but this is influenced by three key factors : your recipes, your sales and your efficiency.  Your three leverage points for being more sustainable are to design more sustainable recipes, sell more sustainable menu items, and minimise waste.  In practical terms your procurement is based on ingredients for recipes, volumes for expected sales and some "buffer" that is your waste risk.  Here is that formula again in a bit more detail.

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For example, a TexMex restaurant might have a beef, pork, chicken and a mushroom burrito.  If 95% of their sales are beef, pork or chicken, then small adjustments to those menu items can have a greater overall impact than selling more mushroom burritos.  25% less meat in the meat burritos can mean a much lower overall impact than selling a few more vegetarian dishes.  But again, it depends on your sales; you cannot look at your recipes in isolation.

In a different context, a staff lunch buffet might introduce a meatless Monday.  This is a good thing.  But they could achieve the same overall result by using 20% less meat on Tuesday to Friday.  Or double that impact by doing both!  And if they do not communicate the meatless Monday very effectively (ie, do not successfully sell it as a concept to their guests), then they could risk over-producing and creating an unintended waste problem.  

Or you could focus totally on reducing waste, but end up selling more of the "high impact" meat-based menu items, and actually increasing your overall impact.

It really is: "(Menus x Sales) + Waste".  And the great thing about this approach is that you can measure all of these leverage points : what ingredients are you using in your recipes, what are you actually selling, and what are you actually throwing away.  Optimising these relationships is the key to being more sustainable.  

So where does this leave us when we look at the variation in sustainability across the industry?  Well, every food service business is different but all of them have an opportunity to make "non-drastic" changes to their menus, focus on selling the more sustainable dishes, and link these approaches to production routines that minimise waste.  This approach should give an overall reduction in your environmental impact, and it is this change that counts.  Some types of food service will always be more sustainable, by nature, but all have opportunities to move in a sustainable direction.