Food and drink firms must be more proactive at assessing the sustainability of their products and ingredients, rather than reacting to market interest, according to Leatherhead Food Research expert Emma Gubisch.
Speaking to FoodNavigator, Gubisch said the growing focus on supply could mean some have a competitive advantage – if they are ahead of the trend.
The strategic insight manager said if businesses know the sustainability criteria of their ingredients or products, it can pre-empt good or bad press.
"I think at the moment companies generally react to pressure from lobbying groups as particular issues arise, for example palm oil and orang-utans, rather than actively identifying these issues before they occur,” said Gubisch - who will be running a webinar on sustainability this Thursday.
This ‘reactive approach’ has put the focus on the sustainable sourcing of fish and seafood, palm oil, tea, coffee and cocoa.
"Behaving sustainably has financial and reputational benefits for a company,” she suggested. “If companies’ take their eye off sustainability, there is a danger that they lay themselves open to unseen reputational problems further down the line."
Looking ahead, Gubisch suggested that meat may be the next category to come under closer scrutiny.
"I think the meat category is an area where lobbying groups, governments and consumers are showing increasing concern in terms of the impact on the environment," said the Leatherhead expert.
A ‘proactive approach’, she said, often depends on the sophistication of the company and an internal team focused on sustainability; which is harder for small to medium businesses.
"It requires time, money and commitment,” explained Gubisch. “It also means companies have to understand better their supply chains which are often very complex, but the days where companies could avoid engaging with the issues in their supply chain are over – consumers expect companies to have a handle on what’s going on in their supply chain."
With the focus on financial savings and risk avoidance, Gubisch added that companies will be looking at the full breadth of their supply chain, and will be carrying out full life cycle analysis of products ‘from farm to market.’
"The impact of agricultural practices will become more prevalent in companies’ sustainability considerations, increasing the need for companies and growers to work closer together and respect each other,” she said. "The complexity of supply chains means that companies may need to work together to try and tackle sustainability in a pre-competitive environment rather than using sustainability as a competition point.
A new report from Leatherhead has shown that Unilever is one of the most active food manufacturers in this sphere – with the firm set down targets for sourcing ingredients such as tea, cocoa, palm oil, sugar and soya beans for the years leading up to 2020.
Others global manufacturers such as Mars and Nestlé have also made major commitments in this area, finds the report "Sustainability Strategy Leaders in the Global Food & Drink Industry" - which updates its 2011 predecessor and looks at leading food industry multinationals' social and environmental initiatives.