Industry leaders call for reframing of sustainability and more early-stage education

More work needs to be done to educate the future generation about sustainability – that’s according to more than 20 leaders from across the hospitality sector who joined forces for a roundtable discussion on the major issues facing the industry today.

Held at the H&C EXPO and sponsored by Beyond GM and Hope & Glory Tea, the roundtable brought together people from the world of restaurants, catering and hotels, as well a number of leading suppliers that work across the sector.

The session focussed on the challenges around defining sustainability as well as broader and disjointed levels of awareness and understanding.

Lawrence Woodward OBE, director and co-founder of Beyond GM, introduced the session by saying: “Sustainability is just like teenage sex. Everybody says they are doing it, but nobody is. Those who are doing it, aren’t doing it properly.”

While bringing much amusement to the participants, the point was echoed through the debate, and underpinned the issues around terms of reference within the sustainability world.

Cyrus Todiwala OBE, founder, Café Spice Namaste, said: “There is a real lack of knowledge about sustainability as a whole. There are too many issues and people just don’t understand what these are. We need better categorisation of the issues and we need to slowly feed these through to the industry.”

Woodward agreed. He said: “There are indeed so many misconceptions across our industry and newer ones are being created every day.”

Pat Thomas, also a director and co-founder of Beyond GM, noted in her introduction to the session that a lot of misconceptions about sustainability come from adherence to a philosophy called the ‘triple bottom line’. She argued that the triple bottom line of ‘people’, ‘planet’, and ‘profit’ is inadequate in every way when it comes to talking about or monitoring sustainability. And because of this, corporate social responsibility (CSR), which is the public face of the triple bottom line, is now also widely discredited.

She said: “The problem with them both is that they lack nuance and discourage deeper enquiry while encouraging us to reach for the low hanging fruit; to think of sustainability as a solvable problem for which, if we just keep trying, we can find the one thing that will fix it all.

“Often this includes technofixes like synthetic or genetically engineered foods, but it also includes things like farmed salmon. It can also include just focusing on one thing i.e. reducing waste or carbon counting while other equally important measures of sustainability fall by the wayside.”

“But the nature of sustainability is dynamic it has a flow that isn’t always predictable and is connected to and mediated by all kinds of external factors. It’s rooted in season, geography and weather and any number of other less natural external factors like the vagaries of government policy on health and trade and the rising power of agrochemical corporations. This is why isolated solutions often fail in the long run. There is, therefore, a need to put sustainability at the core of any business plan rather than make it a CSR bolt on.”

While the issues exist, the education sector is taking great strides to help alleviate the issues. Gaurav Chawla, course leader for Hotel and Hospitality Management at the University of South Wales, said: “Communication within the sector is definitely lacking. Companies will often talk of sustainability but to what extent employees understand the question is up for debate.”

His colleague, Rob Mathews, director of development at the University, added: “When we did some research a while ago, people said they didn’t understand what sustainability actually was so we took the step to embed it into our degree programmes. It’s important to have an understanding of what it means at an early stage.

Education at university level was welcomed by participants, however, Sara Jayne Stanes, CEO of the Royal Academy of Culinary Arts and Chefs Adopt-a-School, urged the industry to go further. She said: “We need to focus on students at a much younger age to ensure that they take their understanding forward into the world of work and beyond.

She also added: “While a lot of us have been working on this for a long time, there are many who have started their journey now. We need to ensure that people are being educated at all ages and levels. This should start in schools.”

Bharat Chudasama, co-founder of Hope and Glory Tea, explained that a wholesale reframing of the debate is required as current dialogue and activity is limited. He said: “We need to recalibrate the conversation. Education is important, and we need to look at ways we can create a movement. Rather than focus on this huge issue that few people can articulate or understand, we need to look at things differently.”

Stanes agreed and added: “Small increments of change will lead to bigger understanding.”

Richard Dickson, head of partnerships, from Carbon-Free Dining, warned: “Business that don’t embrace sustainability now won’t last.”

Beyond GM’s Thomas also noted the heavy responsibility of leaders and discussed the issue of challenging the idea of ‘customer as king’. It was argued that caterers and food businesses should have the authority to decide what they use on their menus.

Woodward cited the example of farmed salmon, which he described as an “ecological disaster and an abomination as an animal and a food”. He said: “Chefs and caterers should feel empowered enough to say no to the idea of having salmon on the menu every day just because customers expect it.”

He concluded that it is likely that change, if it comes, will comes from the middle ground not from big businesses. He said: “Big businesses find it hard to implement change quickly or in a widespread way and smaller businesses may not have the resources. However, medium sized businesses who have the flexibility to experiment and to work with local/regional suppliers to source more sustainable food, can be the driving force behind change and progression.”

Article by Piers Zangana, Director, Susa Comms

H&C EXPO would line to thank Pat Thomas and Lawrence Woodward from Beyond GM and Nina and Bharat Chadasama from Hope & Glory Tea for enabling the Sustainability Roundtable at H&C EXPO to take place.

Copyright – Images in this article by Majella O’Connell, Pavlova & Cream, London