Why the Status Quo is Unsustainable

Foodservice Footprint Charlie-Miers-2-150x150 Why the Status Quo is Unsustainable Comment Features  Sustainability attitudes to sustainability Businesses are keen to find a solution to a more sustainable industry without actually understanding why the status quo is ultimately unsustainable.


What is sustainability? What does this overused word, synonymous with all environmental issues, actually mean? The most pertinent definition was published in the Brundtland Report

of 1987 in which it is stated that sustainability is “Meeting the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs.” In short it is about living within our ecological means in order to create a legacy for our children and beyond. I, rather perversely, like Thomas L. Friedmann’s interpretation in his book Hot, Flat and Crowded in which he said: “Human society has been like the proverbial frogs in the pail on the stove, where the heat gets turned up slightly every hour so the frog never thinks to jump out. It just keeps adjusting until it boils to death.” I think this can either be taken metaphorically or more poetically. The perversity is that the poetry of this is almost more fervent because we are collectively engineering the destruction of the order that we have created. As Bill Collins of the Berkeley National Laboratory in California said: “We’re running an uncontrolled experiment on the only home we know.” Businesses, no matter what size, have an unprecedented responsibility to the environment.


But why is the foodservice industry so implicated in furthering a sustainable world? Should this not be down to the action of the individual?


There is very little doubt that foodservice as a whole is concerned about its ecological credentials. But not enough. Far too much of foodservice efforts are driven by its customers. This is frightening if one analyses the ignorance amongst consumers.


An ICM poll published recently shows 85 per cent of Britons believe that climate change is already a threat or will become one, but only a third thinks that they do enough to fight it.


They support many of the personal steps promoted by the campaign, with three quarters or more saying that people should turn down their heating, consider buying more fuel efficient equipment, consider buying more fuel efficient cars, driving less, and buying less food from outside Europe. And yet, fewer than half consider that they can personally have any effect. Though people know they should act to reduce their environmental impact, the general consensus is that as individuals they can do little to make a difference to a problem of this scope. The poll also shows that since 2005, there has been little shift in the proportion of Britons who accept or deny the existence of human beings caused climate change.


Retail is probably the best way to highlight one industry’s efforts and analyse the shortcomings of the foodservice industry. Wal-Mart’s CEO commented that sustainability is ‘the single biggest business opportunity of the twenty-first century’. Wal-Mart is moving quickly to reduce waste and unnecessary energy loss. Recent decisions to stock only concentrated laundry detergent will save 400 million gallons of water, 95 million pounds of plastic resin and 125 million pounds of cardboard, as well as the energy required to manufacture all this excess packaging. Wal-Mart will obviously feel the benefit of this very quickly, not only on the bottom line but also for their PR. But the most important thing is that Wal-Mart has acknowledged the commercial opportunity in sync with genuinely improving the businesses’ green credentials.


Nicholas Stern, the economist, commissioned by the UK Government to examine climate change, warned plainly that the ‘greatest and widest – ranging market failure ever seen’ would be businesses’ failure to become sustainable (Stern Revue – Cambridge University Press).


But the problem to most businesses remains how? Let me put this to you as simply as I possibly can. A hotel or restaurant group will be very much concerned if one of its units is in a low-lying area that is threatened by global warming – let’s say the Caribbean or the Maldives. Its insurers will be extremely jumpy about its risk exposure and its bankers will be most hesitant in underwriting further debt. The statement I DON’T KNOW HOW! will no longer be a get out clause.


Australia’s £32 billion tourist industry, of which hospitality will play a significant part is, in short, climate dependent. The Australian Business Roundtable on Climate Change pointed out that the Great Barrier Reef supports £1.5 billion of this alone, but following a 2-3 ?C increase in temperature 97 per cent of the reef could be bleached white. This would be the end of tourism revenues in that part of Australia and would be devastating.


In Alpine countries winter sports will only be viable in areas above 1800 metres. Imagine the impact of these tourism revenues of Switzerland, Austria, France and Italy.


Climate change may initially not impact on British hospitality in this manner but it will certainly have an impact on supply chains and on profits. Just because it is not impacting in the short term doesn’t mean it won’t eventually.


According to a comprehensive report by KPMG, the tourist industry is one of the five sectors in the danger zone. As hospitality plays a significant part in this sector, it is worrying.


The scale of this is unimaginable. The problem is that foodservice relies heavily on food, water and energy and these are the resources most implicated. That is why we feel our industry has to act more quickly than any other.


Whilst chefs obsess about organic, bio- dynamic, recycling of food waste there really is a bigger picture that needs to be taken into consideration. Hospitality has emerged with a ‘micro-green’ mind- set and we need to graduate into the bigger sphere of comprehension in this movement, evolving from its allotment mentality of focus on the obviously noble causes of local sourcing, provenance and food miles to understanding more about the agriculture, weather patterns, sociology that is most impacted by our every day actions. This is now par of the course but the causes and implications of the bigger picture have to be understood. Otherwise I fear that our efforts to fire fight will be futile.


But what is the bigger picture? Global warming is very much at the centre of the sustainability issues. Global temperatures, rising sea levels and declining northern hemisphere snow cover, make it clear that we are in trouble! An intergovernmental panel on climate change reported that sea levels are rising at 20 times the average, compared to the last 3000 years. There is uncertainty about how quickly the rise in global temperatures will hit weather systems, water levels and crop yields. The atmosphere is heating to a stage of catastrophic irreversibility! The big concern is ice. Ice caps act as the world’s coolant system, reflecting the sun’s rays over a vast area.


Now to the shocking bits. In 2007 the area covered by the Arctic ice, shrank to 1.6 million square miles. Although the data fluctuates from year to year, much to the sceptic’s delight, there is very little doubt that the readings are abnormal. The worry is that vast chunks of ice will break into the sea in Greenland and Antarctica. Accumulatively this could have an enormous impact on sea levels. The other worry is the melting of permafrost in Siberia. The East Siberian Sea contains dangerous levels of methane. There are large stores of the gas underneath the permafrost which so far is keeping a lid on these toxic gates. Now this lid is leaking.


These symptoms are enhanced by the vast greed and perpetual consumption in some way or another of an unsustainable world.

• Population growth is forecast to rise from 6.7 billion to 9.2 billion between now and 2050: this increase of 2.5 billion is greater than the total global population of 1950, which not only gives you shivers on the projected growth but also in the growth over the last half century.

• Most of usable land in Asia is already under cultivation.

• Oil supplies are running low, the price of petrochemical fertilisers will rise making food more expensive (a great argument in the organic camp butin practice unrealistic in most global



Footprint recently highlighted Paul McCartney’s campaign for Meat Free Monday. According to the UN 18 per cent of global greenhouse emissions come from livestock production. A kilo of beef requires between 50,000 and 100,000 litres of water. One single cow on average produces more greenhouse gas than the average 4×4 car. These are just a few examples that would concern the realms of food supply. But these are the big issues we need to comprehend and fight before we tackle the micro ideas.


How, exactly can industry play its part?

Some have claimed that the lack of action from national leaders, in a timely fashion, is the greatest failure in political history. Having said that, “the times they are ‘a’changing.” Barack Obama has promised a new chapter in the fight against climate change. David Cameron has climate change high on the agenda.


Given the incompetence of previous political administrations, the responsibility very much falls onto the business community and the message has to be that it is not too late. We mustn’t just, as Karl Marx argues, react to the world but we have to change it.


Business leaders, no matter what size of their operation, have to be aware of what psychologists call ‘path dependency’, ergo acting in the same way because that is what they have always done, they have to change to really make a difference.


I have heard it over and over again that companies blame customers who are not willing to buy greener products because of cost, but customers are demanding greener products and it is no longer

an excuse. Multiple estate foodservice businesses in particular are going to have to wake up and there is a very real argument that only the greener products should be made available throughout the supply chain.


What cannot happen is that we repeat the great human resource swindle of the 1980s – gender equality. Most businesses in the country are ‘equal opportunity’ employers, but, are they really? We cannot afford to green wash. To profess to be green-conscious is not good enough. A ‘think before you print’ caption under your email and a recycling box does not make your business green, carbon neutral or sustainable. It is time to pull up our socks!


A true understanding of the ecological strains our planet is under is as necessary as sales and marketing. Particularly in view that foodservice is busily depleting the most precious resources we have. Business of the future will not solely be about profits; it will be about the stewardship of our environment. This will be the driving force of commerce. The sooner we wake up to this, th