Sustainable food trends 2023-2024: What’s next on the agenda?

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Future Food Movement founder Kate Cawley joined thefoodpeople’s director Charles Banks at their 2022 Online Trends Summit, alongside food industry leaders and strategic experts such as Henry Dimbleby MBE and Dr Chris Parry, to discuss what’s happening in the food and climate space, and what businesses need to be doing to get ahead. Here are Kate’s key takeaways: 

There’s a reason the food industry faces so much scrutiny 

When businesses first get in touch with FFM, they often comment on the amount of negativity there is around the food industry, Kate says, but the reason is simple. “We all have to eat, so the industry affects literally everyone. Secondly, it’s not just about decarbonisation. Yes, the industry is a major carbon emitter, but it’s also responsible for the destruction of the important natural environments that are helping to mitigate against climate change. It’s all encompassing,” she says. As such, we need to fundamentally change the way we grow, produce and consume food.  

The climate skills gap is a major threat to the food industry 

Companies are setting big, bold climate targets, says Kate, but many of them don’t know how to get there. “There’s a skills gap – not just at board level but throughout the whole business right down to the factory floor.” This needs to be urgently addressed if food companies are going to really move the needle on sustainability. 

Sustainable practices will attract the best talent 

Gen Z and Gen Alpha will demand more from employers, Kate says. “If you can’t prove your environmental and social credentials, they just won’t want to work with you, and that puts you at risk of not being able to attract the right talent.” Businesses need a fundamental transformation – it’s not about “tinkering at the edges”. And while the food industry might not be the most obvious port of call for those looking to make a difference, she believes that given its influence on the environmental and social issues of today, “there really is no other industry where you can have a greater impact”. 

Employees have more influence than they think 

Kate says she hears a lot from individuals who want their companies to be making more of an effort in this field, but aren’t sure how to approach the issue. “Employees often underestimate their power – they’re such a critical stakeholder group to the business that if there’s a mass movement in what people want then leaders have to take notice.” She adds that leadership is often focused on shareholder returns and keeping customers happy, so they often don’t consider other stakeholders. “Employees can play an important role in challenging their businesses to do better.” 

We don’t know what the diet of tomorrow will look like – but that’s okay 

Some elements are clear: to align with a 1.5C future we need to consume less meat and dairy products. But exactly what a future-fit, climate-smart diet will look like is still in the works. “This means there’s a lot of scope for innovation, for new solutions, for ideas,” says Kate. “We can all have an impact here, and that’s really exciting.” 

We need to reframe the narrative around sustainable diets 

“People tend to think that eating sustainably is about going on some kind of miserable diet where all the good stuff is taken away,” says Kate. “Why not focus on all the things we can add? We generally eat a very limited range of foods, but there’s an absolute abundance of other – more sustainable – food sources out there. Let’s get people excited about that.” 

There’s compromise in the meat versus vegan debate 

It doesn’t have to be an either/or situation, says Kate, who believes there is room for meat and dairy within a largely plant-based diet. It’s tricky, she notes, because as part of the natural carbon cycle we do need ruminant animals. “But we need to be eating less and ensuring the meat and dairy products we do consume are produced in the best way possible and give back to nature.” She adds that we tend to view this issue through quite a Westernised lens: “I was talking to a client in India recently and they were laughing at this whole debate because their diets are, by default, around 80% plant-based.” 

It’s up to businesses to drive change 

“Consumers are time and cash-poor, and they don’t have the headspace to be making decisions around sustainable food,” says Kate. “If we wait for consumers to drive change in the market we’ll be waiting forever.” As such, companies need to start looking at sustainable product innovation and reformulation to make it easy for consumers to make choices that are better for people and planet.  

People genuinely care about their food 

This is particularly true following COVID: “You can’t have healthy people without a healthy planet, and vice versa. So we’re seeing increased interest from consumers about what’s under the lid and on the label,” says Kate. She notes that developments around blockchain and AI will be major drivers of a new “radical transparency” in this area. 

Consumers will vote with their wallets when they can 

When asked how she believes the cost-of-living crisis is affecting sustainable progress in the food industry, Kate says: “The cost-of-living crisis is a moment in time. Our advice is that you’ve got to get on the front foot with sustainability, because while customers might not be able to afford to change their purchasing habits right now, the desire is definitely there. From a future-proofing perspective, you’ll have clear winners and losers in terms of businesses making this a priority now.” 

The narrative is moving away from ‘climate change’ to ‘climate justice’ 

People are increasingly engaging with climate issues because of the people element, says Kate. “Social connection and ideas of global citizenship have really grown through COVID, and I think that will move the need on climate-smart diets more than anything else,” she says. “People connect with people better than they do the science.” 

Leadership must not put sustainability on the back-burner 

The food industry is facing into a raft of challenges right now, Kate says, but that doesn’t mean sustainability should be less of a priority: “There’s a lot of distracted leadership at the moment, and a lot of people are asking if they can just park sustainability while they get through these current headwinds, but they absolutely can’t.” 

Businesses can’t stick their heads in the sand 

Kate says that while she understands how daunting it might be for companies to make a move on these issues, they can’t ignore them. “It’s about progress, not perfection. No-one is nailing this.” She suggests looking at best practice frameworks to guide first moves, and taking the time to properly understand business impacts. “And communicate your efforts with confidence. You don’t have to be an expert, just talk with passion. People connect with passionate people.” 

It’s okay to admit it’s a challenge 

Kate stresses how it important it is to take a human approach to these issues: “It’s okay to say that you don’t have all the answers. Being authentic is critical, and I think we need to be more honest about our challenges and share the grey areas. We tend to operate in siloes because of the competitive nature of the food industry, but we need to break that down.” 

There are businesses out there doing great work 

Collaboration will be vital to driving change, says Kate, who points to the partnership between Wildfarmed and M&S as a good example of what can be achieved. “You’ve got these incredible trailblazers in the regenerative agriculture movement partnering with a major retailer to bring it to the masses, making it accessible and mainstream. I’d love to see more of that.” 

We can learn a lot from COVID 

The pandemic forced the food industry to adapt quicky and to flexibly reimagine its entire system – it needs to do the same with sustainability, says Kate. “We need the same level of commitment and motivation, and some really brave leadership.” She acknowledges that there can often be a disconnect between need and action because these big climate target years seem so far away, so it’s still seen as “tomorrow’s problem”. But, as she cautions, things are changing rapidly. “The extreme weather events we’ve had this year have been really quite frightening – and they’re just the tip of the iceberg.” 

Companies that don’t take action simply won’t survive 

“You can’t be a successful business without embedding sustainability into what you do,” says Kate. “People won’t want to buy from you, invest in you or work for you. And economically, we’ll probably see taxes, policies and penalties in this area, designed to pull the laggards up – and that will just be expensive and painful.” 

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