Sustainability is one of the most important watchwords in today’s food industry. Driven by the increasingly urgent demands of environmentally aware consumers, brands and companies across the entire industry are working hard to incorporate sustainable practices into their operations and offer products better aligned with today’s eco-conscious values.
Since 2009, the Sustainable Foods Summit has been one of the most important resources for food industry players interested in sustainability news, developments, and best practices. Held every year in several key global regions (North America, Asia-Pacific, Europe, and Latin America), the summit brings together a wide variety of food industry stakeholders—including food and beverage brands, packaging companies, ingredient and raw material suppliers, industry organizations, academics and researchers, retailers and distributors, and investors and financiers—to explore new horizons for food industry sustainability.
Focus areas for the summit include topics such as the establishment of a single sustainability standard for food products, advances in sustainable ingredients, practical application of sustainability metrics, and developments in production and marketing of sustainable food and beverages.
The most recent Sustainable Foods Summit was the 2019 North American edition, held in January in San Francisco. Read on for a look at some of the most important themes and takeaways from the presentations and discussions at the summit.
1. Sustainable agriculture is now mainstream.
Once considered a niche practice, sustainable agriculture has now become a mainstream activity. Though conventional industrial agriculture still dominates, the willingness of large food and beverage companies to work with sustainable suppliers is pushing the agriculture industry as a whole toward more sustainable practices. In the future, this transformation could perhaps go even further, from sustainable agriculture to regenerative agriculture, which could have interesting implications for supply chains and brands.
2. The demand for (alternative) protein is growing.
Supplying our rapidly growing global population with sufficient protein is going to require ingenuity and innovation, and that’s exactly what many brands are bringing to the development of alternative proteins. Plant-based protein is already a fairly well-established field, but brands are increasingly exploring other alternatives like cell-based proteins (also known as cell-cultured meat or lab-grown meat). Interestingly, some of the biggest investments in this area are being made by traditional meat industry players.
3. Plant-based eating is not a trend, it’s a major disruption.
Speaking of plant-based protein, participants at the Sustainable Foods Summit were generally in agreement that plant-based eating is much more than just the latest fad. Rather, the popularity of plant-based diets represents a significant disruption in our eating habits and the future of food. Eating less meat and more plants is often posited as one of the most important individual lifestyle actions that people can take to fight climate change. Participants at the Sustainable Foods Summit agreed that this action would be even easier for people to take if the nutrition, taste, functionality, and accessibility of plant-based products continue to improve.
4. The number of eco-labeling systems is increasing.
What kind of packaging claims and labels brands can use to show the sustainability of their products is a conundrum for many companies. Though the organic certification and labeling system is still the most meaningful option for suppliers and brands, new proprietary options and third-party verifications are also on the rise. Experts predict that ethically labeled packaged food will substantially increase in global market share in the next few years.
5. Food byproducts are full of potential.
In our current cradle-to-grave economy, food waste and food byproducts are simply tossed away. But if we truly want to create a sustainable future and a new circular economy of food, we will need to tap into the potential of these byproducts. At present, food manufacturers of all kinds generate billions of pounds of clean and nutritious byproducts every year. Finding appropriate uses for these byproducts represents a significant opportunity for companies to reduce waste, expand their offerings, and increase their profits.
6. “Clean label” is no longer optional.
The “clean label” movement is a shorthand term that describes consumers’ increasing preference for foods that are minimally processed, have a short list of recognizable ingredients, and are produced with minimal use of traditional agricultural chemicals. In other words, consumers are looking for products that are good for them as well as good for the planet—and brands that can meet these expectations are seeing their market share grow.
7. Simplicity is key when it comes to sustainability messages.
Consumers want to know that the products they are choosing are sustainably produced, but they don’t want to be bombarded with jargon and technical information. Participants at the Sustainable Foods Summit emphasized the importance of keeping messaging simple and clear when discussing a product’s sustainability attributes, as well as keeping the focus on consumer health (which is often the most important driver of purchasing decisions).