How to develop a food manufacturing sustainability strategy

The conversation around sustainability is now a key concern for all industries, and none more so than the food sector. From production, to packaging and everything in between, sustainability has never been more influential in terms of strategic decision making, but where do you start? The subject matter is one of various complexities and not one that businesses can simply pay lip service too, with the increasing demands and accountability from both the public and employees.

We caught up with Sustainability expert Emma Knight-Strong , from Green Arch Consulting to find out how businesses within the food manufacturing industry can start making sustainability, sustainable.

The key to being a resilient business, no matter what your size and sector, is to fully understand your dependencies. With more extreme weather events resulting from climate change, businesses are increasingly facing hidden costs and challenges. In a world of global supply chains a wet summer in Spain can mean a Europe-wide shortage of salad ingredients. For example, at the beginning of 2017 Southern Spain had far too much rain which resulted in the price of courgettes increasing by 60%. More recently, UK food prices are predicted to rise by 5% because of the hot weather experienced over last summer.

 Food manufacturing has traditionally been one of the main areas of focus for sustainability in the food industry, so there has been a lot of progress to date. However, with sustainability there is always more to learn and always more improvements to be made.

The good news about paying attention to sustainability is that it gives business a lens through which to understand risks to their revenues and their profit margins. The great news is that mapping your risks and opportunities can help you identify a strategy for diversification so you can be more resilient in a rapidly changing world.

What are the key sustainability issues food manufacturers should be addressing? 


  • Sustainability of raw ingredients.


Have you mapped out your supply chain risks? Do you understand what impact extreme weather events can have on your supply chain? Here are some questions to consider:


    • Where, exactly, does your supply chain come from? What impacts are those countries / regions / locations seeing from climate change? For example, here in the UK we are seeing hotter, drier summers and warmer, wetter winters. How does that affect your suppliers?
    • How resilient are your suppliers to extreme weather events such as prolonged drought? If something happens, how will that impact your schedules?
    • Will delays in receiving ingredients cause you to miss deadlines with your own customers?
    • Does your supplier have larger clients that they may prioritise over you? If so, even once they’re back online you may find that you are de-prioritised.
  • Resource use

Looking closer at home, how much energy are you using? Importantly, how much water are you using? How much waste do you generate, both in your manufacturing processes and for consumers down the line? All of these things impact your bottom line so if you haven’t had a comprehensive resource efficiency review undertaken then you are potentially reducing your profit margin.


  • Product sustainability

What about what you produce – how often do you think about changing consumer demand? For example, if you produce meat-based products there is a significant push towards vegetarianism and veganism. While this might not be impacting you right now, how might it impact you in the future? Do you have a way to adapt and evolve your products to cope with an increasingly climate-conscious and ethical consumer base? If your customers are large-scale retailers – what pressures are they being put under in relation to sustainability and are you able to pitch a solution to them?

What are the key challenges for food manufacturers implementing an effective sustainability strategy?

All businesses are focused on the day-to-day, but it is vitally important to spend time on the strategy as well. Make the time to map your risks, think about the bigger picture issues and identify pitfalls in the years to come. Give it the attention, and the resource, that it deserves. Take it seriously in-house, and get help if you need it. Planning a strategy will allow you to make gradual, well-considered changes to your operating procedures, helping to avoid potentially expensive ‘knee-jerk’ reactions in the future.

What are the quick wins, small or large food manufacturers could implement that would still make a difference/impact?

Commission a review of your resource efficiency: energy, water, transport and waste. If you’ve already done that then work on mapping your supply chain risks. What is your largest dependency / cost? How are you managing potential climate risks?

Are there any other industries that the food sector could learn from? 

Take a look at how the major corporates are managing their climate risks (all of them have sustainability reports). Some of the ways they handle their supply chain will be relevant, either directly or indirectly, to the food sector.

Look at the major re-insurance companies (Zurich Re, Swiss Re etc) – they all have climate change information on their websites including datasets that could be vital for developing an internal business case for doing more work in this area.

How does the food manufacturing industry compare to others in terms of making sustainability a key strategic goal?

As stated above, the food manufacturing industry is one of the areas that has traditionally had a lot of sustainability focus, but there is always more to do. Defra is currently working on a National Food Strategy which will focus more in this area.

If you would like to discuss how FESS Group and Green Arch Consulting can support your business and sustainability, we’d love to talk.


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