The key driver to a more sustainable future is closer to home than we previously imagined, writes Cato Hunt
The term ‘food futures’ likely takes our minds to its more headline-grabbing zeniths: from lab-grown meat to high-tech robot-staffed agriculture solutions, or even 3D printed food.
But there are myriad possible futures and emergent ways forward for food, and many of these are occurring simultaneously and pulling in different directions.
There’s one key aspect of food futures that’s very literally closer to home: localisation.
A homegrown trend
Two vital strands are at play with localisation. The first is concerned with how we can support our local economies, and the second with ensuring our supply chains become more resilient.
Longer supply chains are more carbon intensive and less controllable – as we’ve witnessed over the past couple of years through the pandemic, increasing awareness of the climate crisis, and the ripple effects of political instability.
Covid hastened and catalysed the growing trend to shop nearby, and to buy more locally produced food. Since lockdowns and border closures narrowed our geographical range, people became increasingly savvy to the benefits of local shopping.
According to a Barclaycard survey reported by The Guardian, nearly two thirds of UK consumers chose to buy closer to home between March 2020 and March 2021. This was not always a matter of choice, but crucially, the survey revealed that 9 out of 10 say they will continue to do so.
Why go local?
Whether people will continue along that trajectory remains to be seen, but such stats show how vital it is for FMCG brands to tap into people’s increasing desire to reconnect to their community and support their local economy. This extends to the desire for ‘home grown’ ingredients, products and brands, as people become increasingly aware of the carbon impact of long global supply chains.
From an environmental perspective, one of the biggest benefits of localisation is the reduction of food miles. Products created regionally don’t engender vast carbon footprints from plane travel or lorry journey, reducing both fuel consumption and air pollution. They also lessen the need for shipping, packing or refrigeration.
In more human terms, in the wake of mandated home stays during lockdown, people have come to recognise the social aspect of local stores, affirming their sense of community and belonging in challenging times.
How brands can harness communities
Brands can play a key role in harnessing local communities and working together for impactful change – it’s key to helping facilitate the transition to a regenerative economy. They need to rethink and reimagine new models of production and consumption, and consider how the ways people shop have changed.
Over the past decade or so we’ve witnessed a huge rise in zero waste stores. In 2019, these numbered around 100-200 across the UK according to a Guardian report, (though many suffered, or had to adapt their models when the pandemic broke out) – and not just in the places we might expect, like London, Brighton and Bristol.
In the simplest terms, these stores have sustainability embedded into every aspect of their operations: shoppers bring their own containers to refill with produce (everything from dry foods like pasta and lentils, to green cleaning products to vegan cheese-wrapped in wax, not plastic of course). They’re resolutely plastic-free.
And unlike gargantuan supermarkets, they don’t rely on gimmicks like buy-one-get-one-free offers that entice people into buying things they don’t really need, and which will often go to waste.
Where do FMCG brands come in?
FMCG brands are crucial to creating a more sustainable future in the food market, and they need to think about how they can feed into these moves towards local production and people’s desires to shop more locally.
For brands, this raises questions around how they can continue to exist and thrive. It will start with taking an honest audit of their current processes and supply chains. Can the route from ingredients to creating products to packing and distribution be shortened? Can ingredients be sourced more locally, and from nearer to one another? How can waste products be harnessed so they become valuable somewhere else?
With the scale and expertise that lies within the FMCG community, there is much important work that can be done. We have seen major developments from FMCG brands across Fairtrade guidelines, investment in more sustainable packaging and improvements in recycling.
In September, Asda announced that it was rolling out its refill proposition to four more stores by the end of the year featuring products including Yorkshire Tea, Kellogg’s, own-label and Nestle cereals; Napolina pasta, and Tilda rice; as well as Persil, Radox, Simple and Alberto Balsam products in stainless steel bottles that can be refilled or returned in-store.
Other developments in Hellman’s sauces trialled in biodegradable seaweed sachets, and JustEat’s large-scale launch of plastic-reducing takeaway boxes that are made from Notpla, an edible, biodegradable packaging made from seaweed and plants.
We’ve even seen the return of the milkman. In some areas, milk floats deliver entire ranges of unpackaged groceries for easy refilling. These schemes tick many boxes. Not only are they sustainable, but they can foster a sense of community, and even excitement.
Embracing joined-up thinking
To continue and accelerate real change, it will be vital to think differently about how and where brands can contribute to systems outside their own business, and take inspiration from projects like The City of Milan Food Waste Hubs, which recently won the Earthshot Prize.
This city-wide programme tackles two major problems at once: food waste and food insecurity. It launched in 2019, aiming to halve waste by 2030, using hubs around the city that recover food from supermarkets and canteens, for NGOs to distribute to the neediest citizens.
The scheme united public agencies, food banks, charities, NGOs, universities and private businesses. The initiative proves the effectiveness of joined-up thinking, collaboration and the power of the local network to mobilise positive social and environmental impact.
Radically redesigning beyond the status quo
Businesses need to recognise the imperfections of the current system and create a vision for how things could be. Re-designing ourselves out of the status quo will involve creating new consumption eco-systems, embracing constraints, challenging assumptions and thinking about collaboration more than competition. It will require an enormous shift in mindset.
Brands will need to ask themselves what they believe in. Following a trend will no longer be enough – action has to go much deeper to be authentic and credible. They must be prepared to make genuine sacrifices if they are to be part of the solution to changing how and what we consume.
Only by doing some deep brand soul-searching will they gain a clear vision of the future they want to create, and a strategy that makes it happen. It is the moment to reframe and restructure businesses for a more sustainable future. There is no time to lose in making these meaningful changes. The time to act is now.
Cato leads this global cultural and creative consultancy that helps organisations become more impactful, meaningful, and relevant by connecting them more deeply with culture. She’s an expert on food futures, with a specialist background in semiotics, cultural insight and strategy.