A sustainable food system is no longer an option. It’s a necessity

How can we achieve a sustainable food system? This question now has urgency. Ten years ago ‘sustainable food’ might have been on the ethical wish list, but today...

Co-operative Group members are taking part in Let’s Talk this month – an online discussion panel to shape the future of the organisation. One of the issues was rethinking food, and here the Sustainable Consumption Institute’s Dan Welch sets out what the Group can achieve …

How can we achieve a sustainable food system? This question now has urgency. Ten years ago ‘sustainable food’ might have been on the ethical wish list, but today the transition to a sustainable food system is a necessity if we are to feed the nine and half billion people projected to be sharing the planet by 2075 without destroying our climate and ecosystems.

When we think about sustainable food it should be as the root of resilience on which rests our prospects for decent standards of living and well-being, global equity, and environmental sustainability. We have, as environmentalist Lester Brown argues, entered a new era of “the politics of food security”. Without investment in a sustainable food system there is no long term food security. Business as usual will not lead to business as usual.

So what are the key elements of a sustainable food system? Firstly, it’s got to address the ‘triple bottom line’ – economic, environmental and social. Without economically sustainable supply chains there is no way of improving environmental and social standards. Without environmental justice there can be no social justice.

Without a commitment to social welfare there will be no support for environmental initiatives. That’s why a commitment to certification schemes such as Fairtrade, in which the Co-operative Group has led the way, and to the wider commitment to the fair treatment of workers in supply chains is central to driving sustainability in the food system.

Such schemes are only possible through long-term investment in relationships with suppliers. It also suggests practical ways within businesses to foster a culture of sustainability – such as rewarding meeting sustainability targets as highly as financial ones.

Such initiatives which drive both environmental and social standards also engage consumers. That’s essential. But consumers don’t want, and can’t be expected to, navigate the complexities of sustainability for themselves.

Sustainability often involves complex trade-offs. Take packaging. Consumers are rightly concerned about excessive packaging as a waste of resources – but packaging can also be crucial in reducing food waste in store and in the home (and the wastage of all the resources embedded in that food). The role of retailers is to navigate these complexities for their customers.

Consumers no more want the choice to consume unsustainable food than the right to consume unsafe food. Sustainability should be the new hygiene. And that requires a holistic approach on the part of retailers, which addresses people’s multiple ethical concerns, whether they be animal welfare standards, climate change impacts or labour rights.

Retailers and manufacturers are adept at promotion and marketing. They have a responsibility to use these skills to engage their customers in ways that benefit them and the planet. Take food waste. UK households throw away £60 of edible food a month, according to WRAP.

There are a number of ways in which retailers can help their customers waste less food – existing examples include innovations in packaging, better information around storage, apps and devices to plan meals and use up ingredients, and engaging people in understanding the wider social and environmental costs of food production. That wouldn’t just save households money. Eliminating avoidable food waste in the UK would be the equivalent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions as taking 1 in 4 cars off the road.

So whether it’s working with organisations like the Marine Stewardship Council on sustainably sourced fish, reducing waste in supply chains, or helping people with issues like good nutrition, working towards a sustainable food system requires joined up thinking. It also requires consistency, businesses should avoid tokenism and picking a sustainability issue here or there to take action on alone.

The transition to a sustainable food system necessitates action on all the issues material to a business. It requires business to take long term responsibility for their relationships with their suppliers, their employees, consumers and the wider society which gives them the licence to operate. The Co-operative Group has done this very well in the past – but while it is going through this period of renewal it should be vigilant about not letting its standards slip and build on its past successes.

Take part in the Co-operative Group’s discussion on Let’s Talk.

• Dan Welch is a researcher at the Sustainable Consumption Institute, The University of Manchester and Board Director of the Ethical Consumer Research Association.

In this article

Join the Conversation