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Meeting sustainability expectations, but at what cost?
Thu, 9th Feb 2023
FYI, this story is more than a year old

The world’s population is predicted to grow to more than 9 billion by 2050, and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that the planet will need to produce 60% more food to feed everyone, a huge increase that will undoubtedly take its toll on the planet.  

Add into the mix the impact of climate change on harvests and the pressing need to massively reduce waste right across the food supply chain, and it is not difficult to see why the food and beverage sector is under ever-increasing pressure to embrace sustainability.

Supply chain pressures and fluctuating customer demands and tastes, in combination with squeezed margins, mean that food and beverage businesses need to achieve the holy grail of doing more for less. 

The industry is expected to boost its sustainability credentials, while working hard to save money, staying profitable even when faced with the most disruptive of market challenges.

This conundrum has led many to question if it is, in fact, possible to be sustainable AND profitable, with some surmising that it is actually impossible. In reality, it is no longer a choice. 

Sustainability is rapidly becoming not just a ‘nice-to-have’ but instead is a crucial part of doing business in the food and beverage sector. Firms must reduce their environmental footprint alongside producing enough food to feed a growing population while turning a healthy profit.

As is so often the case, the answer lies in innovation, with the right technology applied in the right way, maximising yield, driving down waste and increasing operational efficiencies, ultimately underpinning a food and beverage sector that is both sustainable and profitable.

Sustainability – a pressing priority

While sustainability certainly is not a new topic for the food and beverage industry, the last couple of years, in particular, have served to propel the issue towards the top of the priority list. 

Coupled with the forecasted 60% increase in food production and associated environmental impact to consider, food waste levels are massive too, with roughly one-third of all food produced in the world wasted each year (one-third estimated to be lost in transit through poor planning and refrigeration, and not forgetting the waste generated during production too). 

More consumers are taking sustainability considerations into account when choosing which products to buy, increasingly looking to brands to prove their sustainability credentials.

Regulatory pressure to become sustainable is only set to increase. Thanks to the worldwide nature of the food and beverage supply chain, local, country-specific sustainability requirements can quickly become global and applicable across borders if organisations want to continue to do business in the international marketplace. 

Rising energy prices have led more businesses to prioritise energy efficiency, becoming almost sustainable by default as part of wider efforts to cut costs. In short, the pressure to become more sustainable is coming from all directions.

Sustainability as an enabler of growth

When looking at sustainability, it is imperative to examine the business benefits to be reaped from embracing sustainability, an approach that helps to build a strong business case for investing in environmental initiatives.

As with other industries, there are increasingly preferential finance options made available to food and beverage businesses who can evidence their environmental credentials. Additionally, non-sustainable sources of raw ingredients are becoming and will continue to become, more costly. 

Reducing waste undoubtedly helps the bottom line, and some innovative food businesses are even putting their by-products to good use, turning them into additional revenue streams.

Talent attraction is another major benefit of becoming more sustainable. More employees want to work for ethical businesses, businesses who play their part in achieving a better world for us all. 

In an industry where the labour shortage is rapidly becoming a major threat to productivity, the ability to take your pick from a dwindling talent pool is not to be sniffed at.

Perhaps most important of all is the increasing consumer demand for sustainable products, meaning that sustainable businesses will continue to win a bigger market share. And, more brands are choosing to only work with sustainable suppliers, those who can provide evidence of just what they are doing to reduce their environmental impact alongside compliance with sustainability standards.

No longer a choice

It is not if but when for embracing sustainability in the food and beverage sector, not just in terms of satisfying regulatory requirements or reducing costs, but if businesses are to set their sights on long-term business growth. To answer the initial conundrum, it is not sustainability versus profitability - indeed, for the food and beverage sector in particular but more a case of sustainability equals profitability.

A sustainable risk assessment

This need for increased sustainability does not change the fact that, for some, embracing sustainability can be seen to be somewhat of a herculean task and one that can potentially involve a substantial investment. In reality, this definitely does not have to be the case, with smaller, more targeted environmental initiatives often the key to making a real difference. 

Individual businesses need to fully assess the risk of not embracing sustainability before embarking on any sustainability endeavours. To do this requires data, not just data from the business but from right across the supply chain. 

Access to key data enables organisations to fully assess the risk they face if they are not sustainable, more often than not, providing tangible evidence of why and how sustainability is a key enabler of business growth and profitability.

It is this data that will ensure businesses can ascertain their current environmental footprint, providing a starting point to identify which initiatives will have the maximum impact on not only sustainability but profitability too. 

Collaboration across the supply chain is the key; collaboration is facilitated by technology. So complex and multi-faceted are the supply chains that form the backbone of the food and beverage industry that spreadsheets and manual processes are no longer fit-for-purpose when it comes to knowing exactly what impact a business is having on the environment and how it can minimise this while still turning a healthy profit.

Turning data into insight

Organisations are all dealing with swathes of data, and it is knowing what to do with the available data that can make all the difference. What is needed are solutions with sustainability capabilities built-in, technology that will grow alongside a business and the rapidly-evolving legislative and regulatory landscape in which they are all operating. 

The application of machine learning technologies to a single, unified source of supply chain-wide information can result in previously undiscovered, actionable insight that will inform which sustainability efforts will have the maximum impact on reducing environmental impact while boosting profits.

For instance, increased forecasting accuracy can reduce waste at all points of the supply chain, as well as saving on the associated costs of over and under-production. Yield optimisation is another benefit for both the environment and the bottom line, again with the right insight enabling a business to optimise operations. 

Similarly, it is access to supply-chain-wide data that underpins innovations such as dynamic best-before dates and smart shelves, as well as enabling businesses to supply that all-important provenance information to customers. 

These all contribute to reducing the environmental impact of the food and beverage industry while boosting customer satisfaction and meeting and even exceeding customer expectations.

It is this visibility, collaboration and insight-based decision-making that is vital if the industry is to play its part in securing the future of the planet while still remaining a profitable sector. 

Investing in sustainability initiatives today represents the most cost-effective approach to securing long-term profitability, with the technology available to make full use of huge amounts of data. 

The right insight lays the foundation for truly informed decision-making, helping organisations to achieve the most sustainable outcomes within the constraints and parameters of their individual businesses, achieving long-term security and profitable growth at every step of the way.