Friday, 11 September 2020

Opinion: Will F&B sustainability initiatives survive the pandemic?

William Leonard

Sustainability is not a contest and it doesn’t have a finish line. Though The Loco Group recently achieved our sustainability goal of becoming carbon neutral, making us the first independent F&B operator in Singapore to do so, we will always have some sort of environmental impact, whether indirectly through our supply chain or directly through our operations.

I like to think about sustainability like the wake which follows a ship as it moves through the ocean. The wake is the environmental impact of any business or person. What can we do to make it just a little bit smaller every week, every month, every quarter, every year? Can we get to a point where we’re hovering above the water?

We started counting the carbon footprint of our direct operations in mid-2018. As we learned about things we could do to become more environmentally sustainable, I realised that relatively simple changes could have a big impact. We started by putting flow restrictors on our taps so we use less water and eliminating single-use plastic packaging for takeaway orders, saving approximately 4,500kg of plastic annually.

The Loco Group’s house spirits, such as its Arquitecto tequila, are packaged and distributed with low-carbon and low-waste technology

By replacing imported bottled mineral water with premium filtered tap water, we reduced the emissions from importing and the disposal of roughly 9,000kg of glass annually. Our house-pour spirits from Proof & Company come in large refillable demijohns which saves 10,000 glass bottles – about 14,000kg worth of glass waste – from going into the landfill each year.

We are also committed to not using palm oil and ensuring that all coffee beans are ethically sourced, all wines are sustainably farmed and all chicken used in our outlets are free-roaming, organic-fed and non-GMO certified. Meat has a relatively high carbon footprint, so this year we are also going to increase our vegetarian and plant-based items from 30% to 50% of our menu.

“This year we are also going to increase our vegetarian and plant-based items from 30% to 50% of our menu”

We offset what remained of our carbon footprint by purchasing carbon credits. This year, we’ll be funding the planting of over 300 trees in Uganda through our partnership with reforestation start-up Green Steps Group. By the end of 2020, we hope that our customers will also be able to purchase a tree with their meal, if they wish.

With four outlets in Singapore, we knew we weren’t going to change the world. But as we progressed, we realised there were many other small businesses like ours that were interested in sustainability. If we pulled everyone together, we could accelerate and magnify our impact, so we formed the F&B Sustainability Council in November 2019 with 12 founding members.

Getting started is often the biggest challenge for businesses. Sustainability is something of a buzzword, and it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by all the initiatives and messages out there. I think there is a misconception that becoming more sustainable is difficult and expensive, which creates inertia to action. In reality, there are so many different approaches you can take.

The Loco Group’s biodegradable packaging is used across its restaurants, saving approximately 4,500kg of plastic annually

Covid-19 has, of course, thrown everything for a loop. In some areas, there’s been a rush to acquire many, often plastic, single-use items such as masks, gloves and packaging. However, reusable products have also emerged. Who would have thought that reusable masks would be a fashion trend in 2020?

I also see opportunities in how consumer behaviour has been forced to change. For instance, a year ago I would have said it was too risky to do away with printed menus, but now that everyone has been using QR code scanning to access buildings, a digital menu opened on the phone is much more likely to be accepted by the consumer. This would save us a tremendous amount of printing paper and menu covers.

“There’s no escaping the reality that while a business is struggling to remain solvent, thinking about the environment is difficult”

There’s no escaping the reality that while a business is struggling to remain solvent, thinking about the environment is difficult. But I would urge businesses to see how the pandemic is shaping consumer behaviour and revaluate what is truly needed, such as with the above example of digital menus. This would reduce consumption and waste, save cost and, if executed right, add value to the consumer experience.

The first night that people could dine out once the circuit breaker was lifted felt a bit like New Year’s Eve, and it solidified to me just how important eating out is in the community. I don’t think that will go away. However, the dynamics of the industry will change. With more businesses seeing that working from home is possible and less tourists for the foreseeable future, downtown locations will see reduced footfall, and higher density residential locations will be more desirable for operators.

A dish made with sustainably farmed barramundi

In the future, I would like to see restaurants being brave enough to serve more blemished food. So much produce gets wasted because it might have a bruise or a funny shape, and people aren’t prepared to pay for it because they think it’s not fresh or it’s poor quality, all because we’ve been programmed to think that the food we buy has to be “perfect”.

End to end, food waste is also big issue. Around 60% of our restaurants’ waste is food that comes back on plates, which has to be thrown away and ends up in a landfill or is incinerated. But the technology for processing leftover food and scraps and turning it into fertilizer is simple. For example, a company called Biomax Technologies has a machine that turns organic waste into fertilizer in just 24 hours.

“Diners are so used to having everything at their fingertips that it’s easy to completely lose touch with what was involved in getting that produce to you”

I also love this increasing trend of connecting the customer to their produce. Diners are so used to having everything at their fingertips that it’s easy to completely lose touch with what was involved in getting that produce to you. It’s been really encouraging to see people question where their food comes from, how far it travelled and how it was raised.

Ultimately, the F&B industry can’t do it alone. I hope to see more customers taking initiative and voting with their dollars, because at the end of the day the consumer is the most powerful person in the value chain. If customer behaviour changes, then businesses will change, too. And how we do business can change the planet.

SEE ALSO: Opinion: Sustainability as a concept has to be fundamentally normalised

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