#EcoEchoes: Committing to a greener future

July 2, 2024 | By Rupkatha B

#EcoEchoes session at Food Business Forum 2024

From ethical and local sourcing to adopting cutting-edge technologies to curb food loss and wastage, MENA-based economies are undertaking multi-fold measures to secure the future of food in the region. The grocery retail players, particularly, are putting in concerted efforts to build a sustainable and secure food ecosystem. With food systems contributing around one-third of the global greenhouse gas emissions, and in a region where almost 90% of the food is imported, the grocery retail landscape is seeing the emergence of unique ideas and business models to build a cleaner, sustainable food ecosystem.

The big question is how does one commit to a greener, more sustainable future.

“In everyday life, the damage we are causing to the planet is real, and we see this manifesting in new and unique ways. Till a few weeks back I didn’t know that extreme turbulence on planes can be attributed to climate change. We keep finding out that there are new consequences in which the climate is getting impacted,” observed Anurag Bajpai, Partner, Head of Consumer & Retail, KPMG as his opening comments during the session that he moderated at the recently concluded Food Business Forum 2024.

In a region like the Middle East where almost 90% of the food gets imported in, food wastage is a big issue. While a lot is being done and things are moving in the right direction, a lot of food still gets wasted.

So, what are brands doing in their respective businesses to build a cleaner, sustainable food ecosystem, Bajpai asked. “Have we reached an inflection point with consumers are walking the talk? Are they willing to pay a premium to be environmentally sustainable?”

“Food waste is, indeed, a huge concern globally. A lot of people are not even aware of how their daily habits contribute to food wastage,” observed Daniel Solomon, Founder, HeroGo. “Having said that, there’s been a lot of awareness from different entities, including the government agencies on educating people and giving them the right information about how a simple action can reduce waste from people’s plates. We’re starting to see people becoming ambassadors advocating for a sustainable way of living.” 

“Sustainability is obviously a hot topic, but I think it all boils down to money. No doubt it helps to support the cause and purchase mindfully, but if sustainable products are inaccessible, if they are more expensive, then what’s the point? I think it’s important for players in the market to understand this and make sustainable products more accessible for the end consumers. It’s important to have a firm foundation and a good platform first and then we can make a big push for the sustainability agenda,” observed Chang Sup Shin, Chief Executive Officer, 1004 Gourmet.

Globally, consumers’ social consciousness is growing. We see greater demand from consumers for greener products, and they are open to paying a premium as long as it is not too much,” said Mario Moreira, Director, Jomara. “I also feel that sustainability shouldn’t be looked at from a mere P&L [profit and loss] perspective, but as the responsibility of all stakeholders. We need to incorporate more sustainable processes and practices at our homes first. At the same time, we must work on our supply chain so that we get better costing and reduce the impact on the planet. It’s the conscience and responsibility of each company worldwide to contribute for the greener tomorrow.”

“We’ve reached a reflection point and I believe consumers have reached a point where they are taking actions to correct the impact of human actions on the environment. They prefer products which are more health and environmentally friendly. In my own company, when we switched from plastic to glass bottles 25% of our consumers opted for it despite the prices being slightly higher. Consumers are beginning to realise that sustainability is an investment,” added Ashwinii Khatavate, Founder & Chief Brand Officer, Rootz Organics.

However, offering a completely different perspective, Swapnil Pawar, Founder, ASQI Technologies said, “There is a serious trust deficit between consumers and producers as regards sustainable and organic food, and we need to figure out ways using technology and other means to bridge that gap.”

Education and impact-making go hand-in-hand

The consumer needs to see value in what they are spending on and therein education is crucial, Bajpai stated.

“I think education is key to solving any challenges. For instance, the only way you could start solving the food loss and waste issue is by speaking directly to the people who are participating and wasting food at the household level, helping them understand the economic impact of their waste,” Solomon emphasised. “That’s why we share recipes in our HeroGo boxes, to support our customers with ideas to cook dishes using products that they may not be familiar with, which helps in reducing food wastage.”

Education is crucial, Shin agreed. “In our case, since we deal with Korean, Japanese, Thai products, a lot of our ingredients might be foreign to people who are not from these countries. So, we host cooking classes. We try to create content where people can learn how to use our products. While internally, since we’re dealing with 3,500-4,000 products, there will be wastage due to overstocked items. But here too, we’re undertaking measures. For example, we had 1,500 kilos of Mandarin left, so I called a friend who has a jam factory, and converted the Mandarin into 1,000 kilos of jam, bottled it up and now we’re selling it in the shop. When we’ve near expiration products, we give it to our customers, and they appreciate that we’re not wasting food.”

At this point, Bajpai asked how sustainability can be integrated within any business in a manner that’s positive to the top line and bottom line.

Sustainability will come at a cost, Khatavate stressed. “Having said that, I firmly believe sustainability is going to be one of the key factors in which every business will be valued, viewed and acknowledged in the future. In that sense, sustainability is going to be the new digital future. The sooner businesses accept sustainability as the new normal and start adopting sustainability practices and frameworks, it will automatically have a positive influence on our top lines because more and more consumers will associate themselves with us and automatically the associated costs are going to come down. In addition, with the growing awareness for organic living and sustainable products, I firmly believe that the cost of producing these products will come down, which will mean more volumes because more consumers are going to buy it, which in turn will mean more profitability for a business.”

Sustainability doesn’t have to be necessarily expensive for businesses and consumers, Moreira observed. “It doesn’t have to be premium. But it will continue to be premium if companies act in silos. The cost will go down when we achieve economies of scale.”

Advisory and verification are two challenging areas when it comes to sustainability and this can be solved through education and by leveraging technology, Pawar opined.

Balancing choice and climate action

“We live in a city where almost 90% of the food that we eat is imported. As n import-centric company, I feel guilty when I look at all the plastic packaging,” Chang admitted. “But as a way of giving back, we work with local farmers. We’ve a nice butchery inside our shop where we sell free-range Omani chicken, which is delicious and not expensive. Theirs is even a Korean farmer in Abu Dhabi farming Korean vegetables. And here’s the thing, we’re not only selling these items it in our shops, but also supplying to 500 restaurants. In addition, we are looking at alternatives to replace plastics without passing on any cost to the consumer. We are also optimising delivery routes, therein not just saving emissions, but also saving money on petrol.”

“We control the water consumed by each date plant, by each section across our farm. We investigate the quantity of plastic packaging. For example, in our restaurants we serve more than half a million meals through our delivery scheme, where we’ve stopped using any plastic cutlery. We’ve shifted to compostable packaging. We’re measuring emissions, so we can reduce our production of CO2 mostly with logistics,” Moreira shared. “Nothing comes cheap; it’s all about the perceived value. If we deliver the right value, the right proposition to the consumer, and communicate our sustainability values they will be a lot more willing to accept our pricing, which is higher compared to our competitors.”

“Perhaps the whole concept of food being expensive is about the perspective. There’s a need for change in the perspective of a consumer through education and awareness and we’re doing our best to change the perspective,” Khatavate added.

“To make a real and long-term positive impact on the planet and take climate action, one needs to get the context right in everything we use and consume. One area shouldn’t be looked at in isolation from another,” Pawar recommended.

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