Is sustainability going mainstream? What on earth does that mean?

Mark Linehan argues we may be asking the wrong question on sustainability.

Sustainability has been discussed for years, awareness has been raised and there’s no excuse for not having it on the agenda now.

For a while now, people have been asking when sustainability will go mainstream, when it will become a core component in the food service sector, when it will no longer be an “add on”. But I think they’re asking the wrong question. Sustainability isn’t something that can be neatly packaged up into a discrete bundle, a convenient “nice to have” that operators can adopt or ignore depending on how they feel – it cuts across everything we do and is part and parcel of how you run a business, at every conceivable level.

We’ve been talking about sustainability for years, awareness has been raised and there’s no excuse for not having it on the agenda. But sustainability isn’t a “thing”, it’s the way in which you do things. Every business employs staff, sources ingredients, uses energy and creates waste – the way in which they do all of those things is the mark of how much they care for the environment, their employees and the wider community. If businesses are still saying “we’d love to do it but we can’t afford it/it’s quite complicated/we’ve got other things to focus on” (delete as appropriate), then they really need to think again. And dealing with it through an annual CSR report that will sit on the shelf and gather dust doesn’t cut it any more either.

Not taking steps towards greater sustainability no longer represents the status quo. Ten or more years ago perhaps. Back then, few businesses knew about their environmental and social impacts, and the starting point was to focus on doing business and then have a look at this new agenda at some point. But things have moved on quickly and the pressure, should you need it, to be as responsible as you possibly can, is coming from a number of sources.

People actually care – just look at the furore around companies avoiding their tax liabilities, exploiting zero hour contracts, falsifying car emissions data and so on.

You’re only ever a couple of steps away from a PR disaster. And it’s not just public pressure – despite popular reports of government’s reluctance to legislate or regulate, there’s plenty of evidence to indicate that it actually will.

Take food waste, or the wasting of food surplus, probably the highest profile sustainability issue in the food service sector over recent years. When we first started talking about it, there wasn’t a chef, restaurant or caterer who admitted they threw food away – “we don’t have a food waste problem, it must be everyone else”, we heard over and over again. Thanks to the work of WRAP and others, we’ve known for several years that we do have a food waste problem, all of us, and it’s a big one. So a lack of awareness is no longer an excuse and, given the range of solutions to reduce and then ensure responsible redistribution or recycling of surplus and waste, there’s no longer an excuse for inaction.

And, if businesses, don’t start taking the issue seriously, there will be legislation. Well, in fact, there already is. Food waste to landfill was banned some time ago in Scotland, the water companies will start to act to prevent the disposal of food waste into the ground water system (which is already prohibited in Scotland and Northern Ireland) or start to enforce the permits that countless businesses are ignoring as they continue to use “waste to water” systems.

In their report published in April this year – “Food Waste in England” –  the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee of the House of Commons pointed out that legislation already exists to require businesses to follow the established food waste hierarchy:

“the waste hierarchy has been incorporated into UK law through the Waste (England and Wales) Regulations 2011, the Waste Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2011, and the Waste (Scotland) Regulations 2012”.

Speaking at a recent meeting at the House of Lords the committee Chair, Neil Parish MP, reiterated one of the recommendations of the report in urging the Environment Agency to enforce the food waste hierarchy and ensure there is compliance.

Continuing to treat sustainability as an “optional extra” might seem like a good idea, for some, but there might be some surprises ahead. Except they shouldn’t really come as a surprise…