Sourcing ethical products will win over eco-conscious customers

19 October 2023 by

Caterers who source ethical products will win over customers looking for a spotless supply chain, panellists discovered in an event in partnership with Seasoned

If you want to know where Britain stands on ethical eating, consider the avocado.

On the one hand, this undeniably delicious and texturally delightful green fruit is a pleasing addition to a salad or a Mexican meal; on the other, it's an ecological nightmare. The fact that it remains so popular in the UK, despite the public being increasingly well-versed on the subject of sustainability, suggests we have a way to go.

"Everywhere you look – bistros, coffee shops– there's avocado on the menu," says Colin Sayers, managing partner at Seasoned, an independent, socially-focused catering company. "Why? Avocados are the worst thing in the world in terms of how far they have to travel to get here and in terms of the amount of water they require – but they're trendy. That's where we are, but it's an education process. It's about talking to people."

For avocados, read ethical eating in general. This was the focus of a recent breakfast panel discussion at conference and events venue the Mermaid in London, which brought together a host of industry experts to discuss the question, "What is the true cost of a social conscience?"

The first thing to acknowledge, panellists agreed, is that attitudes towards ethical eating are changing fast, particularly post-Covid.

"During Covid everyone was at home and there was an increased focus on local [food] and on social enterprises," says Samantha Davis, group procurement and supply chain director at CH&Co Group. "Coming out of Covid, there's been a lot more emphasis on it. When I look at how we do our procurement, it's about doing the right thing and the products are better – they're artisan. I think there is an increasing will for that. But it still seems very much centred on London."

It's not just the food, it's the buzz – the whole ecosystem

Sayers agrees. "Pre-Covid there was a movement towards social enterprise, but since then, it has really come to the forefront of everything we do as a business," he says.

There's a push-and-pull effect driving this, according to Jackie Harding, commercial director at the Mermaid London. Ethical products are not necessarily more expensive than their rivals and buyers are keener than ever to do the right thing. "It's about choice," she says. "Buyers want to buy consciously, and sometimes that's going to come at a price – but there's also more choice at the basic price point and, partly because of that, buyers want to be seen to buy the right products."

Partner up with ethical producers

Many of these ethical producers, though, are very small, and for Davis this is where it becomes about partnership. "Once you've found the right partner, the difficulty comes when you want to scale it up. That's where we come in and try to help," she adds. "We say to them, ‘You've got an amazing product, let us be the ones to help you scale it up across the UK."

Does the relative smallness of many of these producers mean there's more of a risk? "If you've done your due diligence and you're realistic, I don't think so," Davis explains. "We take what the supplier has the capacity to provide. They don't want to get bigger than they need to be, so it's about being practical – you have a very different relationship with them than you would with Coca-Cola Enterprises, for example. I think they're often quite grateful for that mentoring, too. In the end it's about doing the right thing. I love to see small enterprises flourish."

But how do you find suitable partners in the first place? According to Sayers, there are a variety of ways. "We collaborate as a team, we've done it through research, we've done it through recommendation," he says. "We were first introduced to a lot of social enterprise products through a company called Social Supermarket, but we wanted to speak directly to the suppliers, to open a dialogue.

"We say to them: this is what we do as a business, we think your product will look brilliant in our portfolio, so how do we go about meeting? It does take a while, because a lot of these companies are very small and we work at their speed – we don't want to push and push, we want to encourage them."

Some haven't worked out, he says, but that's the nature of the sector and it's not enough for a company to just be a social enterprise. "The product has to be equal or better than what they've already got," he says. That's a crucial point for customers as well as caterers, as Davis points out: "People choose based on how something tastes and the story goes with it."

Join a network

Once you've found one good supplier, according to Nemi Teas founder Pranav Chopra, it's much easier to find others, thanks to the network these companies have created between themselves. Nemi works with Redemption Roasters, which provides coffee industry training for those in or who have recently come out of prison, for example.

Pre-Covid there was a movement towards social enterprise, but since then, it has really come to the forefront of everything we do as a business

"There's always new players coming through, and we're always on the hunt for amazing companies we can work with," he explains.

There's a value to working with social enterprises that goes beyond the most obvious benefit, according to Sayers. "I love working with them," he says. "I'm very passionate about it, and so are they. I love talking to these companies about where they get their coffee beans from, the stories behind them. When you get into that, it drives you more, too."

Cost is a worry for many, but perhaps that's because they're not looking at it in the right way, according to Neller Davies founder Julian Fris. He says there's additional value in engaging with and using social enterprises that goes well beyond the basic cost of a product or service.

"We've seen a shift in how organisations are looking at this," he adds. "They're looking at the overall value of quality catering. When you look at the cost of replacing a top professional, which could be £250,000, they're thinking, ‘If I look at it properly, I've got better retention, I've got better wellbeing for my staff, better productivity, and it's a small price to pay'."

There can be extra costs and requirements, however. If you're truly committed to ethical buying, that means making sure it's as it should be all the way down the supply chain. It's a lot of data collection, according to Davis.

"Probably the best challenge is supplier engagement and the sharing of data," she explains. "I must have said a thousand times to suppliers that we're not doing it for commercial gain, I don't want to do a deal, I want to know so I can be 100% confident of that chain."

Another potential frustration is the attitude of the current government, which can appear conflicted. On the one hand, as Fris points out, the Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs is coming up with "fantastic specifications and initiatives," around social enterprises; on the other hand, government accountants are pushing in the other direction.

As an example of how catering can impact the quality of a workplace, Fris cited a piece of work Neller Davies had done recently at a semi-state organisation in Ireland, which was aiming to compete on quality with the likes of Dublin-based Meta. "It's not just the food, it's the buzz – the whole ecosystem," he says. "They had a barbecue and the chief executive was cooking sausages. He's not some elusive character – he's there talking to the staff. That's fantastic, and it's having a greater impact than we anticipated."

Send a message

At the Mermaid London, meanwhile, customers are being incentivised to do the right thing, according to Harding. Throughout 2023, the conference and events space has been donating £1 to homelessness charity Streets of London for every delegate who attends the venue on a Day Delegate Rate, rising to £5 in December for each festive party guest. "It's one way of giving something back and being proud of what we're doing," she says.

It's the sort of message more likely to chime with a younger generation, a generation that – perhaps ironically – has often been erroneously accused of putting regular servings of avocado toast above saving for a home. "For students and younger people, these ethical concerns are right at the front of their decision-making," Davis says. "We are on a journey and we have a massive job on our hands around education."

Harding agrees: "For buyers who are in their mid-20s to 40s, it's so important for them and it overrides other commercial decisions. If you're telling them, we can do this, we can provide that, it's massively important."

Ethical catering, it appears, is only going to become more and more important in the years to come – unlike, perhaps, the avocado.

The rise of socially conscious companies

Nemi Teas was established seven years ago and is at the forefront of a socially-conscious group of companies aiming to change the way business is done in Britain.

Founder Pranav Chopra wanted to help refugees gain a foothold in the employment market, and tea (specifically blends, including loose-leaf, teabags and a Chai syrup) has been his chosen method of doing so.

Other companies are taking aim at different targets. Tap Social, a brewery in Oxford, employs those who have left or are about to leave prison, much as Redemption Roasters does in London. Toast, a brewing company, uses bread in its beer to highlight the amount of unnecessary bread waste there is in the UK.

Big River Bakery in Newcastle, meanwhile, provides a host of social contributions to its local community, from breakfast bags for kids who would otherwise go without to free food for the homeless. Belu Water invests its profits in WaterAid. In each case, there are specific issues to address. For Chopra, it was the difficulties refugees faced with gaining employment in the UK, despite experiences and qualifications gained in their home countries.

"We help them with training and employment," he says. "We also work with large caterers, which has really helped us to scale our business." He's also opened a café in Islington, called Trampoline, which is run entirely by refugees.

And the product? "It's amazing," says Sayers. "It comes in a lot of different formats that work for different parts of the hospitality industry. For us, it's about weighing up the flexibility versus the quality versus the cost. At the price point it sits at, it compares very well with some of the big names in the tea world. We're a nation of tea drinkers and this measures up – the tea is fresh and good quality."

Seasoned social partnerships

Seasoned has rolled out two new hospitality training partnerships as part of its social goodness manifesto.

Managing partner Colin Sayers and his events team have begun a partnership with social purpose organisation Shaw Trust to try and break down barriers to entering hospitality and enable social mobility.

This monthly training initiative began in the walkways of Tower Bridge, where the Seasoned team introduced five students aged 16 to 20 from local London schools and colleges to life in the events industry.

The students buddied up with the Seasoned team for a live event set-up and were taught everything from table lay-ups and napkin folding to service etiquette and recycling. They then learned about the history of Tower Bridge and were treated to a three-course dinner in the East Walkway, where they served each other to put what they had learned into action.

The monthly programme of events will continue to be offered to students affiliated with Shaw Trust and give them experience in front of house service, kitchen production and events management. Following the event, any students who wish to experience more will be invited back and buddied up with the Seasoned team for paid shifts.

Sayers says: "We like to practice what we preach and play an active role through our volunteering, so tonight was a great way to give students first-hand experience of the industry and hopefully an opportunity to kick-start their career if they are inspired to learn more."

Meanwhile, fellow Seasoned managing partner Graham Turner is also about to launch a new hospitality training partnership at Chichester Cathedral with local charity Aldingbourne Trust. The Seasoned team at the Cathedral will be providing paid work experience placements for people who have disabilities in the hospitality and catering sector.

The four-week programme will allow participants to try all aspects of working in a popular café, including front of house, kitchen porter roles and cheffing, enabling them to realise their strengths, skills and potential as well as identifying talented future employees.

Turner says: "We are really excited to be partnering with the team at Aldingbourne Trust. Our skills training programme has been carefully designed to give those with learning disabilities and autism the skills, confidence and work experience to find employment and make a difference in the Chichester community."

The two projects are part of Seasoned's social manifesto which is part of the caterer's journey to become a B Corp business.

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