With retailers and manufacturers facing insufficient demand for sustainable food, there is no real incentive to increase its supply, a new report from the Food Ethics Council argues.

Instead, transformational change must be driven through higher levels of business engagement, not just with consumers – but government and supply chains too.

For retailers, this means cultivating a broader conception of value among customers so they take into account the wider social and environmental costs incurred in procuring their food.

According to one retail sector representative who fed into the study, there is still not enough understanding on these issues – even among green consumers.

“The green consumer wants free range eggs. But then tell them that battery eggs are lower in carbon and they either won’t believe you, or they’ll be confused and feel they’ve been misled,” the source pointed out.

“The level of detail, of understanding, the conflicts and compromises, is beyond someone standing in front of a retail shelf and making a choice.”

This is further complicated considering the food retail and production industry as a whole needs to show far more willingness to make itself publicly accountable for its performance on sustainability.

“One practical measure being developed by businesses involves linking performance assessment and reward to long-term sustainability targets,” the report notes, adding that any new business models must be grounded in sustainability.

In terms of supply chain engagement, it points to the need for increased levels of collaboration. This could be through direct investment in developing long-term relationships with suppliers or by aligning with those suppliers who are already pursuing sustainable practices.

However key barriers remain. There is no incentive structure within the food sector for more forward-thinking companies. “For businesses that have led the way, the food system does not seem to adequately reward leadership and innovation,” the study states.

As a result, pressures to adopt short-term approaches such as company performance being judged on the basis of quarterly reports and shareholder demands for quick returns often end up militating against longer-term investment in sustainability.

“Even where there is a genuine recognition of the need for change, it is often difficult to embed this commitment across the whole business,” the report notes.

This appears to be backed up by those working in the sector. One representative said that the biggest problem was getting people [in companies] to think “beyond the next 12 months” while another said that much of the progress made by their company to date had been relatively cost-neutral.

Maxine Perella

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