Meaningful change: Thinking big, starting small, acting fast.

Creating a sustainable food industry for meaningful change (6 minute read).

Ylva Johannesson is a shining light in global sustainability leadership. Previously one of our Sustinere panellists at our Leonard Street eatery, Ylva is an independent sustainability consultant with an MSc in Food Policy and a BSc in Nutrition based out of Amsterdam. She works closely with food-led businesses and organisations wanting to improve their sustainability credential, from food sourcing to social responsibility and environmental impacts. Ylva’s work aims to bring clarity to complexity, to inspire change and to challenge the status quo. We are very humbled to have her in our world.
Meaningful change doesn't just happen by itself. Within the hospitality sector, we need to carefully explore what needs changing and take time to understand why the change is needed. Only then does the change itself become meaningful.
The notion of ‘meaningful change’ is imperative: it encourages us to recognise change as progress. As such, it suggests that it is worthwhile thinking critically about the change we make, and why it is important. To explore how change can be meaningful, let’s approach the topic with three questions in mind:
  • How will change impact the individual e.g. customers?
  • How will change impact the collective e.g. the business?
  • How will change impact our planet?
The last question is perhaps the most urgent. With three global United Nations Summits on Food, Climate Change and Biodiversity taking place around the world, 2021 is set to be an important year for food and sustainability. It is indeed an exciting time to be part of the food industry. Whether businesses or citizens, we have the opportunity to create meaningful change by considering the consequences and the impact of our food choices.
To sum up the status quo: the way we produce and consume food is highly unsustainable. Four of the nine Planetary Boundaries have been exceeded, a third of food grown and produced is wasted, and diet-related illness is a leading cause of death globally. Today, nearly one million animal and plant species are threatened with extinction, mainly due to deforestation and over fishing. And the trajectory for keeping global warming below a 2ºC rise is unfortunately, not looking good.
In order to create meaningful change, which contributes to a better food system, hospitality businesses will need to make decisions that are regenerative, nourishing and fair.
 A ‘regenerative’ food system is restorative and resilient, and considers the holistic relationship between human wellbeing and planetary health. It respects seasonality, helps sequester carbon, protects pollinators and re-connects us with the way food is grown. A ‘nourishing’ food system brings individuals and communities closer together to celebrate traditions, knowledge and culture. It focuses on plant-based ingredients for the benefit of both human and planetary health. A ‘fair’ food system is ethical, equitable and adheres to values that respect people, animals and the planet. It ensures a fair return to farmers, transparent supply chains, high animal welfare standards and just working conditions.
The change towards a better food future will require a collective approach of thinking big, starting small, and acting fast.
Restaurants and other foodservice businesses are expected to play an active role in fixing our broken food system. Simply aiming to be ‘sustainable’ is no longer good enough as this term is ambiguous - it means different things to different people depending on values, cultures and metrics. It can be used broadly, or specifically. In terms of sustainability as an enabler of meaningful change, goals and actions must therefore be defined much more explicitly to avoid confusion, misinterpretation or greenwashing. 
Indicators measuring sustainability are abundant, complex and often not fully understood. Whether aiming to be carbon neutral, zero waste, a living-wage employer, or all of the above – it doesn’t just require businesses to look at the surface of their operations.
So how can we create a path forward that creates meaningful change, step by step, allowing us to celebrate our achievements along the way?
In order to put the jigsaw pieces in the right place, and in the right order, we need to create a sustainability roadmap which identifies what changes can be made immediately and what needs to change in the next two, five and ten years. 2030 is an important milestone for governments around the world with the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) coming to an end. There’s no reason why businesses can’t work towards these common goals too. In combination with the Planetary Boundaries framework, the SDGs provide holistic and scientific goalposts for meaningful change that will benefit people, planet and profits.
In the words of Peter Drucke, the father of business management: ‘you can't manage what you can't measure’. It is almost impossible to know whether or not you are successful unless success is defined and tracked. Analysing data can help identify hotspots and drive more specific and impactful solutions. It can also help businesses communicate their aims and goals more clearly, enabling them to justify their actions without fear of criticism or unintentional greenwashing.
For change to be meaningful there has to be a baseline. It doesn’t matter what that baseline is, you can be at the beginning of your journey or nearly at the end. Once you know what sustainability indicator it is you need to measure, make sure you also understand where your business is at: how much food is wasted and where? What’s the carbon footprint of everyone’s favourite dish and how many are you selling? Is there a gender pay gap or equality concerns? And what type of pesticides are farmers using to grow your produce?
Things don’t simply get better by themselves. If we want to see meaningful change, every stage of the food system, including the production, transport, processing, marketing, consumption and disposal of food needs to take responsibility to make gradual but meaningful improvements.
So what does that mean in practice? Here are five things businesses can do to create change that is meaningful: 
  1. Understand what needs changing, why it is needed, and how it impacts people and planet.
  2. Set a baseline number for what you want to improve and measure the change regularly.
  3. Make short, medium and long-term plans that are ambitious, yet achievable and actionable.
  4. Act and implement immediately by allocating people responsible for the change.
  5. Communicate your plan, journey and change clearly and transparently with stakeholders.
It can be difficult to know where to start, and the food systems issues are many and complex. Working with a consultant to help identify the hotspots, engage staff and ensure your business is on the right track can be worthwhile.
And finally, as individuals we can influence meaningful food systems change by deciding where to spend our dollars, pounds or euros, and by taking responsibility for our own actions. Every time we eat we have the opportunity to vote for the world we want to live in. Whether at the supermarket, farmers’ market, the local café or high street restaurant - take a moment to ask a few questions about where the food is from, who produced it and what impact that has on people and the planet. Make sure to use your knives, forks and chopsticks wisely by supporting businesses that have implemented planet-friendly practices.
Meaningful change is an opportunity to become better versions of ourselves, to ensure we play a part in creating better businesses, and together aim to create a better world for us and for future generations to live in.