Local steps toward a smaller global footprint

Sustainability is a hot topic when it comes to putting our money where our mouths are these days. As consumers, we often equate sustainability with green and earth-conscious practices or organic production. But what does it mean exactly when a restaurant or product claims to be sustainable? This year the Swedish food and restaurant industry took two major steps to help us see more clearly exactly what’s at stake.

Last January KRAV, which manages the certification and standardization of organic food in Sweden, joined forces with the White Guide to create an award for sustainable gastronomy. They also designed a way of grading restaurants according to sustainability, making it easy for consumers to support restaurants who made the cut.

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The second major development was the establishment of a manifesto by the Swedish Food Federation (Livsmedelsföretagen). The Federation’s members span 800 companies, representing all aspects of the food industry. The manifesto clarifies what it means to be sustainable in the food industry and includes a set of goals.

“It’s a living document that takes the long view,” says Johan Anell, the Federation’s CSR and sustainability manager. “With the manifesto the industry plans to show that it is modern, long-sighted, and competitive when it comes to producing food in an environmentally-friendly and ethical way.” The manifesto also gives the industry a platform for discussions with politicians, environmental organizations and other interest groups that Anell says will help push the agenda.

Goals in the manifesto

  • Streamline energy use
  • Decrease the food waste in the food chain
  • Work for increased equality and diversity
  • Contribute to high animal protection standards within Sweden and Europe
  • Reduce the presence of unwanted substances in foodstuff
  • Reduce climate impact
  • Have a vision for zero working accidents
  • Make it easy for the consumer to make conscious choices
  • Use sustainably grown produce
  • Use more renewable energy
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Photo: Erik Olsson

While some companies may have needed the extra push that the manifesto provides, many are already global leaders in sustainability. Here are a few examples of companies that are getting it right.

One good cup

In 1995 coffee company Löfbergs brought the first organic coffee to the Swedish market. “Not because it was in demand,” says CEO Lars Appelqvist, “but because it felt like the right thing to do.” Today they are one of the world’s largest purchasers of organic and Fairtrade-labeled coffee. But this wasn’t the first forward-thinking move the company has made.

“We have close, long-term relationships with coffee farmers around the world,” says Appelqvist. “We buy coffee directly from cultivating countries and each year we spend about 150 days visiting coffee farmers. By learning about their situations, we can contribute to more sustainable farming practices and help improve their competitiveness and living conditions.”

Among their other accomplishments, Löfbergs introduced the first aluminum-free packaging in Sweden and by 2016, all their coffee will be certified by at least one of the five certifiers with which they work. They also plan to move toward 100 percent renewable energy – but that shouldn’t be too hard for a company that has doubled production over the last twenty years without increasing energy use.

Sewing the seeds of change

Lantmännen is one of the largest groups within food, energy and agriculture in Scandinavia. It’s unique in that its ownership is shared by 33,500 Swedish farmers. Claes Johansson, head of sustainable development at Lantmännen, says that the company’s biggest challenge is to satisfy the needs of a growing population without jeopardizing fragile ecosystems. “Our long-term goal is to cut our environmental footprint in half,” says Johansson.

The company’s most recent step toward this goal has been the creation of new methods of planting seeds. “Chemical substances are often used to protect seeds and crops against competition from weeds and pests such as fungi and insects, and to get a consistent quality and good yield,” Johansson explains. “Lantmännen BioAgri’s new methods use naturally occurring micro-organisms and the heat treatment of seeds to achieve an adequate effect without chemicals.”

Today, about 60 percent of the seeds Lantmännen sells are treated with these alternative methods and every fourth grain field is sown with seeds treated with these sustainable techniques. “It’s not about a niche solution,” says Johansson, “it’s a technology that we plan to spread on a large scale.” At the end of 2013, Lantmännen announced that it is making a sustained effort to introduce its eco-friendly crop protection products in Brazil.

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Not your average fish sticks

Findus, the leading supplier of frozen foods in Scandinavia, is also the UK’s No.1 producer of frozen and chilled seafood under the brand name of Young’s Seafood. “When it comes to our sustainability agenda, sustainable sourcing is a major focus,” says Åsa Josell, head of CSR at Findus Nordic. “We sell a lot of fish, so this is one area where we have a lot to contribute. Plus, it’s important that we have fish for coming generations.”

More than ten years ago Findus was the first company in Sweden to introduce wild-caught fish from fisheries that have been independently certified according to the standards of the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC). In addition to the goal of buying only MSC-certified fish, the company has its own rigorous program called “Ten Principles for Responsible Fish Procurement.” Participation in the MSC program was Findus’s way of drawing attention to the issue in the industry.

When it comes to the sourcing of vegetables, almost half of Findus’s products are grown in Sweden (on their web site you can see exactly which ones are grown where). All the vegetables sourced from Sweden are climate-certified according to Svenskt Sigill and grown according to the company’s own LISA concept (which stands for “Low-Input Sustainable Agriculture”). “Our LISA system has clearly reduced the climate and environmental impact, and contributed to healthy soils and sustainable agriculture,” says Josell, “which means our vegetables have the same low level of pesticide residue as baby food products.”

A third priority at Findus has been using sustainable palm oil in their portfolio. “We don’t use that much palm oil, but our goal is to make sure that any palm oil we do use comes from sustainable farms.”

Healthy food is an investment in the future

The French company Danone has taken active steps toward sustainability for more than forty years. “Health is what we focus on more than anything else,” says Frida Keane, Health & Corporate Affairs Director for Danone Nordics.

As an example, Keane points to ProViva and Activia, the company’s probiotic fruit drinks and yoghurts, which are hugely popular in Sweden. “We invest a lot of money in scientific research for our products,” says Keane, “and more than 100 clinical studies have been published about ProViva and Activia in reputable peer review journals.” The company also invests in local collaborations with nonprofit organizations like Mag-Tarmfonden, a Swedish research fund for gastrointestinal problems, who they assist with fundraising by including information about them on their packaging and other communication.

“Our Group vision is: health through food,” Keane concludes, “We believe that health is one of the most important sustainable issues for which the food industry must be responsible. We are therefore internally and externally engaged in building knowledge about health and being a credible partner in this issue for the future of humankind.”

It’s up to each of us

According to Johan Anell at the Swedish Food Federation, the weakest link in the journey to sustainability in the food industry is the consumer. At the end of the day, products that are made in a more sustainable way cost more to produce and restaurants that buy those products must charge higher prices.

“If the consumer is going to pay extra for those products, they need to know what it means for a product to be sustainable,” says Anell. “Consumers need to know the difference between Fair Trade and the Rain Forest Alliance, for example. Most importantly, they need to understand the extra value they are paying for and why it’s better for them and the planet.”

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Photo: Sandra Pettersson