Foodservice Footprint head2-copy Comment: If it’s broke, pretend to fix it Comment Out of Home News Analysis

Comment: If it’s broke, pretend to fix it

The food system must be fixed but too many businesses sign up to comms-led commitments and hope we forget all about them. By David Burrows.

“[…] we have ten years to reset our course and bend the curve on climate change and wild and cultivated biodiversity loss. We need a collective effort now,” said Emmanuel Faber, then CEO and chairman of Danone, in 2019.

Faber was launching the One Planet Business for Biodiversity (OP2B) at a UN climate action summit. This was billed as a “unique international cross-sectorial, action-oriented business coalition on biodiversity” that is “determined to drive transformational systemic change and catalyse action to protect and restore cultivated and natural biodiversity within the value chains”. Arla, Mars, Nestlé and PepsiCo are all involved, with the World Business Council for Sustainable Development and the Boston Consulting Group acting as oversight partners.

By June 2020, OP2B should have developed “a compendium of systemic, meaningful, measurable solutions that can be implemented by OP2B members in their value chains”. Come October 2020, it should have disclosed “ambitious, timebound and measurable commitments during CBD COP15, together with policy proposals that would help to deliver successful outcomes”.

I spent around 30 minutes trying to find these commitments but came up with nothing. I’ve emailed their communications team and: nothing. Look on the UN climate initiatives site and: nothing. Maybe I am looking in the wrong place (but surely the OP2B website or those of the WBCSD and UN would have something given that these are two key initial outputs for a coalition that has been around for almost five years now?). 

There are lots of articles and outputs on the website, and they have identified the three main focus areas: scaling up regenerative agriculture to protect soil health; developing product portfolios to boost cultivated biodiversity and increase the resilience of the food and agriculture models; and eliminating deforestation, enhancing the management, restoration and protection of high value natural ecosystems.

But nothing “timebound” or “measurable” – and nothing “tracked”. In five years’ time it will be 2029 and 12 months from the halving of GHGs required, hitting various SDGs and restoring vast swathes of biodiverse land. And this is something that worries me of late: we have a commitment and often nothing happens, or at best targets are missed and pave the way for another five or 10 years of stumbling progress (or at times reversals – emissions rise, plastic packaging goes up, negative externalities are ignored). And no progress means risks amplify – especially for food companies reliant on nature and at the mercy of global heating.

Where are you?

There are so many of these commitments, covering so many ESG topics, that you’d have thought we are on track with everything. Promises and press releases don’t change business models, though. 

Another one that baffles me is the Council for Sustainable Business. Launched in the summer of 2018 to advise the UK Government on how businesses can help achieve the aims of the 25-year environment plan the council appears to have done very little according to the one page I can find about it. 

The handful of high profile members I checked out on LinkedIn don’t even reference their role on the CSB in their profiles. I found it referenced in just one government press release (see here) and it’s not mentioned in the last two updates on progress towards the environment plan targets.

The webpage of CSB commitments – 14 of them launched in 2020 – has also vanished. Leon co-founder John Vincent helped set up the council with a mandate to “act as sounding board, challenger, critic, innovator and advisor to the secretary of state, ministers and Defra policy teams”. Leon was one of the companies to sign up to the commitments, and in so doing promised to measure all three scopes of GHGs and make the board accountable for the impacts they have. By the end of 2020 the fast food chain should have also identified the “harmful indirect impacts and dependencies Leon has on nature and biodiversity and set targets for reducing them”. A 2030 biodiversity net gain target should have been published three-and-a-half years ago too.

So, what of progress against the 14 targets: nothing. Zilch. 

I have just picked on a couple of examples here. These comms-led commitments are the norm and not the exception, though. And Leon is certainly not the only business failing to make good on the various planetary promises it has made. 

I’ve heard campaigners grumble, off the record, that some foodservice companies they’ve cosied up to publicly then make little progress on their promises once the PR noise dies down. There has been talk of ‘quiet quitting’ of initiatives: companies dropping out of industry-led pacts as resources are shifted, targets look too tricky, or marketing teams simply find another shiny sustainability spot they want to sweet-talk about.

Which all begs the question: what are these food businesses actually doing to address the fundamental issues within our food system? Currently, all I see is a collective effort to delay, deceive and distract. Please, write in and prove me wrong:

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