Making Sustainability Stick by Stephen Oswald

7th June 2019

Making sustainability stick by Stephen Oswald

Brexit aside, 2019 seems to have been the “year of green” in the UK with consumers taking unprecedented action to highlight the impact of environmental issues. From Extinction Rebellion to the Environment Agency saying £1bn a year needs to be spent on flood management, there has been so much activity recently to raise the profile of sustainability issues, and this is only going to increase.

Transformative change required

Environment secretary Michael Gove recently announced a ban on plastic straws, stirrers and cotton buds from April 2020. Hospitality operators should feel proud of the part they played in helping put the issue on the government agenda, with many companies leading the way in removing these items in the past couple of years.

However, suppliers and operators need to maintain the momentum on tackling sustainability and ethical trading in our businesses and work to embed a positive culture around these issues within our teams. Brexit has put the brakes on for many businesses as they wait to see its impact, but hospitality leaders need to keep moving forward and put sustainability high on their agenda.

This isn’t just a worthy stance, it’s business critical. By having robust sustainability and ethical trading policies your business is protected. Initially you’ll be judged on superficial things customers see in your venues but, increasingly, consumers are digging deeper into your restaurant’s sustainability credentials and issues such as modern slavery policies and the suppliers you use. Operators need to select the right suppliers to do the hard work in sourcing and supplying the products and packaging that tick these increasingly important boxes for consumers.

This might include suppliers that deliver in reusable plastic trays and offer compostable packaging, or companies that offer sustainable seafood or products with an explicit sustainability message.

Sustainability doesn’t cost more

At a time when operators are increasingly searching for better margins to offset ever-rising business costs, adopting a sustainable stance on sourcing will lead to a more consistent and reliable product and reduced costs.

I think there’s a big misconception that sustainable products are more expensive. Our Direct Seafoods business sells plenty of good-value fish that has been caught sustainably, such as Best Aquaculture Practices four star-certificated prawns from Vietnam.

To embed a culture of sustainability in your business it’s important to give it a dedicated focus initially. We have a sustainability manager working across the Bidfresh business who also focuses on ethical trading, as well as sustainability specialists in our produce and seafood businesses. As a business leader it gives me great peace of mind knowing we have a specific focus on these key areas. This focus also helped us make significant progress, such as becoming the first foodservice member of the Ethical Trading Initiative.

We have created a sustainability culture through constant reinforcement and clarity and through education and support for customers on issues such as at-risk fish species. We encourage them to change and give them options to help push them across the line. A great business book, entitled Nudge, offers some great tips on this.

Empower your team

You need to empower people in your business to create ideas around sustainability. It makes them feel good and can add real value to your business. We are trying to embrace circular economy principles within the business and one of our Oliver Kay managers suggested introducing an automatic screw process that removes water from fruit and vegetables to convert all waste produce from our warehouses into compost for farmers. It has had big benefits – for us and the farmers.

I don’t think I would have seen the value of such ideas before I undertook my two-year Master of Studies (MSt) at Cambridge. I’m far more willing to approve projects and ideas from people within the business now, as I understand the issues.

Sustainability leadership 

I think every hospitality business would benefit from the MSt in sustainability leadership I studied, and I thoroughly recommend it to leaders. If you understand sustainability issues, they won’t cost you as much to implement. The number-one issue for operators at present is costs, and you have to work sustainability into your business without increasing your cost base. I’m still using what I learned from this course as principles to guide the business forward.

The most valuable thing I learned is you can’t force people to embed sustainable practice, you have to encourage them and work with them to convince them they want to go in that direction. If you don’t get people behind you, they will rebel – and sustainability won’t stick.

Stephen Oswald is chief executive of fresh food specialist Bidfresh and holds a Master of Studies (MSt) in sustainability leadership

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