Breakthrough innovation – creating a brighter future

Vicky Murray, Forum for the Future principal sustainability advisor, explains why we all need to be innovating to shift the foodservice sector for the better, and how we can make it happen.

Foodservice Footprint VickymSQ Breakthrough innovation - creating a brighter future Comment Vicky Murray Sustaination Innovation Forum for the Future Cafedirect












IT IS 1991. The coffee price has plummeted. A bunch of investors see a gap in the market and launches a different kind of coffee – high quality and fair trade. Fast forward to 2012: Cafédirect is the fifth largest coffee brand in the UK, is served across the foodservice sector, has helped over 1.6 million farmers, shifted the habits of millions of consumers and forced every major coffee brand to respond. Most recently, it launched its new EcoToolkit to help its foodservice customers reduce the environmental impacts of their venues.


Cafédirect is an example of a ‘breakthrough innovation’ – a product or service which simultaneously shifts a market and has superior outcomes for the world at large. Many more big businesses want to have the same sort of breakthrough innovations. Why?


Fundamentally, sustainability challenges like climate change, resource crunches and poverty hurt shareholder value.  Also, globally we need to move to an economy where people can realise their potential and play a positive part in society within the boundaries of what the planet can cope with. And we need breakthrough innovations to get there. Any business that pushes in an unsustainable direction will become more expensive, regulated, criticised, and difficult to maintain. Activities that contribute to a sustainable future will be more profitable.


So, what breakthrough innovation is there on the horizon in the foodservice sector? And what change do we need to see?  Here are three ways that we think the food system needs to shift, and some interesting examples of technology-based innovation we’ve seen emerging that, if taken to scale, could see the sector shift for the better.


Firstly we need to reconnect people with the food they eat so we all value our food in ways that benefit the whole food supply chain., the free mobile phone app, brings product information directly to consumers’ phones, allowing them to check a company’s social responsibility rating and environmental credentials. If taken to scale, everyone’s mobile phone would become a barcode scanner, and could trigger a revolution in corporate transparency.


Secondly, we need to restore the system’s resilience by pioneering new ways to make better use of resources and cut waste. French company, for example, provides a platform for businesses to let customers know in real-time when they have food reaching end of life, for sale at discounted rates. If this became the norm it could greatly reduce the amount of food that went to landfill.


And thirdly, we need to rebalance equity in the food system, championing fair relationships between farmers, manufacturers and foodservice companies, just like Cafédirect has done at scale.  Another emerging example is which helps small food businesses connect and trade with each other directly.


Inspired to create breakthrough innovation in your own organisation? Here are three recommendations:


  1. Have a balanced portfolio of activities. Some activity should be aimed at the incremental sustainable innovations which will capture the low hanging fruit such as energy efficiency. But at least some resources need to be devoted to creating and protecting the more radical ideas that will create new markets or shift existing ones in a more sustainable direction.
  2. Make sure that sustainability and an innovative mind-set is embedded in your culture.  It should be evident in who you recruit, how they are managed and incentivised, and where you look for new ideas.
  3. Have formal structures such as an innovation fund or company competition to protect fledgling ideas from the grind of day-to-day business and allow them to flourish.


Foodservice companies need breakthrough innovations to succeed; we all need those breakthroughs to help create a sustainable world.


Vicky Murray is a principal sustainability advisor at Forum for the Future, the non-profit organisation working globally with business and government to create a sustainable future. The recommendations come from a new report, Breakthrough Innovation: your guide to innovating for a brighter future