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Sustainability – the great debate

21 October 2011 by
Sustainability – the great debate

London contractor Bite Catering recently hosted a round table discussion about the industry's take on sustainability. Janie Stamford listened in to the hospitality heavyweights that gathered to join the debate

Sustainability and corporate social responsibility are no longer the latest buzz words but the future of business. But while the concepts are here to stay, their meanings are still difficult to decipher. Some of the most important issues are often equally complex.

What is sustainability? When consumers say they want it, do they really know what "it" is? And if so, are they prepared to pay for it?

More often than not consumers will tell you that the likes of animal welfare, product sourcing and low carbon footprints will play a part in their buying decisions, but the reality is less idealistic.

When it comes to putting their money where their mouth is, consumers tend to be a lot less forthcoming.

Niche London contractor Bite Catering, which recently became the first contract caterer to join the Sustainable Restaurant Association (SRA), decided to investigate the hospitality industry's take on the issues further.

Managing director Nick Parker was joined by the SRA's managing director Mark Linehan at a round table discussion last week that saw a selection of hospitality heavyweights gather to join the debate.

The client: Paula Carvell, head of catering and facilities, SEB Bank The feeling for sustainability is out there. Here at SEB Bank we recently ran a Green Day with Bite, which went down very well. Afterwards, 73% said they'd be more inclined to buy sustainable products.

We've been very forward thinking on our waste management, but a lot of FM managers don't know enough about it and of course cost comes into it. We have no landfill at all, but there is a cost related to that.

The caterer: Simon Macfarlane, operations director, Bite Catering In our experience consumers want sustainability but don't want to pay for it. Despite this we work closely with our clients in order to reduce waste. Here at SEB Bank, for example, all of our disposables are Vegware. It costs more but it's the right thing to do.

The operator: Mark Selby, co-founder, Wahaca Everyone means to believe in sustainability but when it comes to it, it's a feel-good purchase. At Wahaca we've always had sustainability practices in place but we don't shout about it to our customers because they are more driven by cost. To go organic we'd have to double our prices and ultimate price dictates buying choices.

Given the choice between a battery chicken, a free-range chicken and an organic chicken, most people would probably opt for the middle ground. We probably have to justify ourselves to our staff more than the customer.

We support British producers but it's dangerous to label it. I take no credit for getting my meat 150 miles away from a farmer that I know and trust.

There is a difference between sustainable and moral decisions and there needs to be clearer guidance.

The manufacturer: Charlie Bigham, Bigham's People's buying decisions change depending on the time of day. What percentage of people in the UK buys organic milk? It's surprisingly low - 3.9% (Kantar Worldpanel, February 2011). Yet McDonald's only uses organic milk, which is probably the only place a lot of people encounter it.

It's difficult to know what vegetables to buy. Do you buy it from a heated glass house in the UK, or ship it in from a village in Spain or Kenya, thereby supporting a local village?

As the cost of waste gets more expensive, moving to a zero landfill policy can actually be the cheaper alternative. Waitrose imposed a number of targets on suppliers that were not up for discussion. One was to eliminate food waste to landfill by 2013. We did it and it has cost us nothing.

The difficulty with labels like "higher welfare" is there is no absolute standard on anything. A chicken labelled as higher welfare could simply have lived an extra day. You have to be driven by your conscience.

The consultant: Chris Stern, managing director, Stern Consultancy Contract caterers are very good at sustainability but they often end up doing it for their clients rather than the end customer. I'm not sure that customers are all that interested. People choose where to eat out based on the food that they want. From what I've seen, caterers are leading the clients.

A huge element of buying sustainably is common sense. Why buy fish from Vietnam when we live on an island? But sustainability goes way beyond just the products. A large part of a project is its lasting impact on a community in terms of skills and infrastructure.

The chef: Ross Pike, chef-proprietor, the British Larder When we set up, we went to every farm within 20 to 30 miles to find the best produce, not the closest. The chicken producer has 20 a week, and we buy 10 of them.

But the pursuit of sustainability has changed in these austere times. We've been open a year and we've seen a huge difference. We've dropped at least 20% off all our lines to make sure the customers still come, but we haven't turned to discounting. Some food costs have gone up 3% in 12 months and we're feeling the pain.

The national supplier: Shirley Duncalf, head of safety and sustainability, 3663 There is a lot of pressure on suppliers to take waste back. People are saying "you provided us with all this packaging, you take it away". We're going to see what we can do for our big customers.

We treat sustainability very seriously. We have four pillars: people; the environment; community; and product. We want to demonstrate legacy and a lasting effect to make it more real.

The fish supplier: Mike Berthet, director, M&J Seafoods We've found there is total confusion when it comes to sustainable fish sourcing. With so many certifications and accreditations like MSC, MCS, Sustain, Locog, ASMI and VAP to name just a few, it's a constant fight, even for us. How on earth can a chef make coherent decisions?

We've set up a Catch of the Day SMS service for chefs, telling them what fish has landed, where it's come from and which boat it was on. They now get a picture of the catch, too.

But what is local? Do we each have a definition of sustainability in our disciplines? For us it means a perpetual harvest, which I don't think is unique to fish. It could be applied to other areas.

The advisor: Mark Linehan, managing director, Sustainable Restaurant Association Sustainability captures a lot of different things. The SRA is built on three pillars: food sourcing; environmental impact; and social responsibility. But it's not for us to say what the detail for individual restaurants should be.

In this economic climate, sales of organic produce have dipped because of a perception of added cost but if you ask people, they will tell you that they want sustainability. Even in these austere times, consumers want to see their home shopping choices reflected when they eat out. They expect transparency wherever possible.

We define "local" as within 50 miles, or 100 miles if you're in London, but it's not the only criteria to consider with sourcing.

If you aspire to free range and local, it's an incompatible conundrum. We also recognise that national suppliers like 3663 and Brakes are more efficient when supplying large numbers of restaurants. It's about supporting local communities but it's not the be all and end all.


the participants

The chair Nick Parker, managing director, Bite Catering

The advisor Mark Linehan, managing director, Sustainable Restaurant Association

The manufacturer Charlie Bigham, Bigham's

The caterer Simon Macfarlane, operations director, Bite Catering

The client Paula Carvell, head of catering and facilities, SEB Bank

The operator Mark Selby, co-founder, Wahaca

The consultant Chris Stern, managing director, Stern Consultancy

The chef Ross Pike, chef proprietor, the British Larder

The national supplier Shirley Duncalf, head of safety and sustainability, 3663

The fish supplier Mike Berthet, director, M&J Seafoods


round table wishlist

â- Replace endangered species with under-utilised species on menus
â- Buy locally and buy seasonally
â- Reduce food waste and save money
â- Waste less water and save money

E-mail your comments to Janie Stamford here.

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