Insight from the experts, part 14

Sustainability is often talked about, but what does it really mean? Sue Parfett looks at what it takes to be a sustainable caterer

In last month’s article I wrote about how climate change is putting a huge strain on crops. Little did I know that we would then experience a winter of high temperatures followed by torrents of rain. Both of which have put a huge strain on the farming industry. This, together with a weak pound, will probably mean food prices will soon rise. As such, overseas produce could be seen as a cheaper option, especially with the price of oil continuing to fall. So what should the balance be between being sustainable and being economical? The trouble is that sustainability isn’t particularly well defined or understood. So, to help, I’ve enlisted the support of my business partner and in-house sustainability expert, Kate Martin.

Kate says: “The Sustainable Restaurant Association (SRA) works on three pillars of sustainability in the food industry: sourcing, society and environment. For catering, the objective is to have its food sourcing minimising the negative impact on the environment and maximising its positive impact on its community.”

The SRA say there are several factors to being a sustainable caterer, 14 to be exact. This includes areas such as using local and seasonal produce, energy efficiency, treating people fairly, promoting healthy eating, community engagement, waste management and responsible marketing. Kate explained that: “We have to ensure that our supply chains are ethical and that they promote positive farming methods – both environmentally and socially. It sounds simple when put into words, but the process can involve a lot of time for the average caterer who usually picks up the phone and places an order.” 

Kate added: “A good example is the Fairtrade scheme – which many consumers often try to use. Fairtrade, on the surface, seems to be a very positive idea. There is definitely a lot of good that comes from it, but the increased price of Fairtrade goods can in fact reduce the demand for the products. There are also valid questions about how much of the money actually reaches the farmers producing Fairtrade crops. These kinds of schemes will always be questionable in a free market and a healthy degree of skepticism is useful, but fundamentally I believe the scheme achieves more positive results than negative.”

Then there is the issue of air freight versus heated greenhouses and hydroponic growth when considering the energy required. Aircraft are becoming more fuel efficient so the alternative of flying produce in from abroad can in some instances have a smaller carbon footprint.

On this subject, Kate says: “If it is possible to focus on home grown and seasonal, it has to be better for the environment.”

There can, however, be problems with sustainability. One less well known area is what Kate has termed ‘sustainability fraud’. She adds: “I have heard there are some producers and food-supplier businesses which claim to be sustainable, but in reality simply are not. For example, some meat producers will claim their meat is organic (which is itself a questionable sustainability concept) when the produce used to feed the animals has actually been treated with pesticides. This is why an SRA accreditation is meaningful: and not just smoke and mirrors, as many try to promote dubious credentials.” 

So, as Kate has explained, being a sustainable caterer takes time and effort. But doing so has real advantages for all and for the world we leave behind. And whilst we can control our sustainability credentials, the only thing we can’t control is the effect of the weather.

Kate Martin and Sue Parfett are managing partners of The Brookwood Partnership W:    

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