Sustainability in the Hospitality Industry: The Right Data in the Right Place at the Right Time
Wednesday 10th May
Food service business can and should take a leading role in driving a more sustainable food system. WILL NICHOLSON, Founder of IntoLife shares some key technology and data trends that could revolutionise the way restaurants do business.
Food systems contribute at least 25% of manmade greenhouse gas emissions1, are responsible for 70% of water consumption2, cause deforestation3 and both terrestrial and marine biodiversity loss4, and yet about a third of the food that we produce is never actually eaten5. Added to that, food demand is predicted to increase globally by a further 50% before 20506. Now that’s what I call an unsustainable system.
There has been a lot of talk in the research world about how we might produce food sustainably, ranging from more “natural” systems such as organic, conservation agriculture, and agroecology, to the more tech-oriented solutions of urban vertical farming, GMOs and so forth. Each has their own gang of advocates, pushers and deniers, and the reality seems to be that we lack a clear consensus. Of course, the problem is so complex that a one size fits all solution doesn’t exist and we should look at combining the strengths of each. One thing’s for sure; the food system isn’t solely made up of producers, so consumers can and should play an integral role in driving system change. So what can we do at the consumer end of the system? That seems to be one area with at least some general agreement: eat smarter and waste less food.
Food service business can take a leading role here, and that is where technology and data can help. Smart systems can allow consumers and food service providers to understand their impacts in terms of waste profiles, procurement and sales. This can give them insights that go beyond profit and loss and allow sustainability to be built into business processes. The key is to have the right data in the right place at the right time, so that people can make decisions from a triple bottom-line perspective: environment, health and economy. How, for example, can a canteen serve meals that minimise environmental impacts, optimise nutrition, and are still profitable? And still delight their guests?
Hospitality is sometimes seen as being a bit late to the tech party, and for sustainability many rely on overly simplistic certification schemes that often consider factors in silo, rather than really understanding the food they use. Some of the questions we should be asking ourselves, which certification schemes are often too vague on, are for example how much antibiotic was used to produce that chicken filet? What is the climate change impact of these sausages? How much pesticide was really used in those carrots? Did the fishermen who caught this shrimp get a living wage, and have the shrimp come from a sustainable source?
How can we possibly communicate sustainability when the factors at play are multiple and so complex?
I believe tech can demystify some of these questions, and here are 3 trends I see coming around the corner, up over that hill, or maybe sneaking up behind us:
1. Smart data in profession kitchens
Understanding the impacts of your recipes, your production and your waste. And joining it all up so you can really aim for sustainability. Companies like Winnow Solutions are nailing the waste issue by giving busy commercial kitchens the tools to weigh, record and analyse their waste and drive both waste and cost efficiencies. My own company IntoLife is tackling some of this from a recipe and procurement angle so that businesses can build sustainability into their production, menus and sales.
2. Big(ish) food data
Research and data is improving, and maybe one day technologies like blockchain can enhance existing data sharing solutions so that chefs can really understand what they are buying from a triple bottom-line. Walmart are looking at blockchain as a means of tracking food safety, and in the UK the Co-op has trialled the technology with Provenance to tackle slavery in the fishing industry. This is surely only the beginning.
3. Communication with customers
We are only really dipping our toes in sustainability communication, but new apps and platforms are coming to the fore where customers are empowered to make more sustainable choices. Apps like TooGoodToGo are helping consumers and restaurants to reduce food waste by making surplus food available for collection before a store closes its breakfast, lunch or dinner service and this is surely only an early example of consumers being able to make informed choices.
The hunger for sustainable solutions seems to be growing in both the industry and with consumers, so it is key that both research and technology come together to create credible solutions, devoid of ideology and bias from different advocacy groups. We need reliable data and scalable technology platforms to help people and businesses be informed across the whole food value chain; Like I said, the right data in the right place at the right time. The 3 trends I’ve mentioned here have the potential to transform the hospitality industry and the food industry more widely. But they are in fact quite reliant on each other, so no more silo thinking please!
- Vermeulen, S. J. et al. (2012) Climate Change and Food Systems. Annual Review of Environment and Resources. 37. p.195-222
- Kissinger, G., et al. (2012) Drivers of Deforestation and Forest Degradation: A Synthesis Report for REDD+ Policymakers. Lexeme Consulting, Vancouver Canada, August 2012
- WWF (2015) Living Blue Planet Report
- FAO (2014) Food waste footprint. Full cost accounting (www.fao.org/3/a-i3991e.pdf)
- Alexandratos, N. and J. Bruinsma. (2012) World agriculture towards 2030/2050: the 2012 revision. ESA Working paper No. 12-03. Rome, FAO
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