Sustainable innovations don’t all need to be ‘moonshots’

From the C-Suite newsletter: WGSN suggests the best results for food companies come from proven, scaleable options.

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The scope and urgency of the climate change crisis means companies have been looking to brave new technologies that sometimes border on science fiction to address it. But sometimes, the best solutions are a bit more grounded.

WGSN recently released a report looking at the innovations and brands have been exploring to improve their impact on the planet, providing looks at different sectors, as well as the issues and solutions that may be unique to them.

But whether it’s investing in biotech, starting closed loop recycling systems or developing entirely new kinds of material, the advice for the food and beverage sector seems to be things it has been told for years.

Or, as the report’s authors put it, companies need to stop focusing “on scientific moonshots” and instead look to things that are proven to be “sustainable and commercially viable options.”

For example, one of the main things food sector companies can do to improve their practices is reduce their carbon footprint and move towards carbon neutrality. While this seems like a somewhat obvious point, it’s one to take seriously: consumers, increasingly value-driven, have likewise become increasingly aware of the carbon footprint of the foods and drinks they buy year after year, with the term “carbon footprint” accelerating in social media conversations. It’s also a major factor behind people eating less meat and dairy, showing how far back in the supply chain consumers are looking, and their savvy is being applied to other areas, such as packaging and shipping.

As an example of how companies are removing carbon from their supply chains, WGSN points to Canadian company Natreve, which makes vegan and grass-fed-whey protein powders and snacks. The company partners with Plastic Bank to pay coastal communities in countries like Haiti and Brazil to collect plastic trash from their shores. While “reducing plastic” can be seen as missing the greater problem around emissions and carbon production, Natreve’s partnership with Plastic Bank is meant to ensure that plastic is sent back into the manufacturing supply chain, which offsets the amount of carbon it produces. It also has a community-oriented angle that has further appeal to consumers, as it improves the wellness of communities that are most impacted by the overuse of plastic winding up on their shores. To date, Natreve says it has helped clean out over 28 million pounds of plastic.

But executing those initiatives while also communicating the complex impact to consumers can be a challenge. For example, U.K. retailer Tesco began putting carbon measurement stats on its products roughly a decade ago, but stopped due to the cost and time associated with processing all the data involved from farm to transportation to processing to transportation (again) to packaging and so on and so on.

Luckily, there are new technologies that make managing that data easier and more efficient. Some brands have gone the partnership route, working with bodies like Carbon Trust or Climate Active, as they lend credibility to the brands they work with, providing consumers with the trust they need to address their carbon worries.

Another area that seems overdone but has seen new innovation is food waste. While it seems removed from emissions being put into the atmosphere, food waste is responsible for a huge amount of greenhouse gas emissions – WGSN points out that if “food waste” were a country, only the U.S. and China would be bigger polluters.

This is an issue companies are well aware of. Major players like Mondelez, Nestle and PepsiCo have come together with retailers like Walmart to cut their food waste in half by 2030. Unilever’s Hellmann’s brand has made reducing food waste one of its key brand pillars.

This can be a tricky prospect for those with full view of the supply chain, as a lot of food waste seems inherent in the manufacturing process, where surplus, waste materials and imperfections are unavoidable. One innovation that aims to address this is 3D printing. An EU-funded project resulted in the creation of eight new materials made from food waste that could be employed in prototyping for the automotive and manufacturing sectors. WGSN points out that, once scalable, this could be employed at households or local restaurants, where leftover food or scraps could be turned into other things right away.

It doesn’t even have to be 3D printing: Corona has found a way to make biodegradable packaging out of waste material generated from its beer brewing processes, while the Body Shop has made a shower gel from misshapen cucumbers that would otherwise be discarded by farmers or retailers.

But the other major source of food waste is on the consumer front, where food goes unused and expires. Part of the issue is a simple consumer education effort: giving them more information about how long food is safe to consume or ways to use it once it appears to be past its prime. But there are also tech solutions here too: U.K.-based company Mimica Touch has developed labels and packaging that contains pectin. Typically used as a vegan alternative to gelatin, pectin can also be made to decay at the same rate as many foods. So, as it goes from being smooth to bumpy, so does the label on top of it, giving consumers an easy way to tell if their food needs to be thrown out, and also takes into account temperature and other environmental factors that increase or decrease a food’s shelf life.