Sustainability: More than just preventing climate change

When consumers and manufacturers consider sustainability, they often think about things such as regenerative agriculture, green technology and plastic-free packaging. But sustainability is about so much more than that.

What is sustainability?

In 1987, the United Nations Brundtland Commission defined sustainability as, “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

Sustainability and the protection of the planet

When most people consider sustainability, their minds go to the protection of the planet and prevention of climate change​. But what are the primary causes of climate change?

The burning of fossil fuels​ such as oil, gas, and coal, is one of the primary drivers of climate change, releasing carbon dioxide into the earth’s atmosphere, and causing the earth to heat up.

According to the United Nations (UN), “fossil fuels – coal, oil and gas – are by far the largest contributor to global climate change, accounting for over 75% of global greenhouse gas emissions and nearly 90 per cent of all carbon dioxide emissions.”

Deforestation​ is another major driver of climate change and a significant concern for environmentalists. The cutting down of trees removes the vital process of photosynthesis, which removes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Additionally, carbon dioxide, which is stored within the trees, is released back into the atmosphere if the wood from the felled trees is then burned.

Deforestation of the rainforests is a particular concern for environmentalists.

The World Wildlife Fund states that, “deforestation is a particular concern in tropical rainforests because these forests are home to much of the world’s biodiversity. In the Amazon alone, around 17% of the forest has been lost in the last 50 years, mainly due to forest conversion for cattle ranching.”

“They’re called rainforests for a reason. They create rain.”

Furthermore, the rainforests serve a very particular purpose.

“They’re called rainforests for a reason,” explained Helen McNair, Technical Director at Lionel Hitchen Ltd, at London Flavour Day, hosted by the UK Flavour Association. “They create rain. And the water they generate goes up into the clouds, it rains back down onto the forest, and it sustains the forest.

“There is a tipping point, they believe, in 2030 if 27% of the rainforest has been destroyed, there won’t be enough rain to rain on the forest and regenerate the forest and the forest will die at a faster rate. Ironically, that rain is used currently to water the crops that the rainforests are being destroyed to make room for.”

Food production​ also contributes significantly towards climate change. Figures from Our World in Data state that food production accounts for over a quarter (26%) of global greenhouse gas emissions. This is a result of factors such as rearing livestock, energy use and food transportation.

Sustainability: More than just preventing climate change. GettyImages/Dougal Waters 

Sustainability and the protection of people

One issue which consumers and manufacturers may not consider to be an aspect of sustainability is the protection of people.

Modern slavery, and human rights issues​ as a bigger concept, are important aspects of sustainability” says McNair. “We have to look after our employees and make sure they’re happy. We have to make sure that we’re providing sustainable livelihoods through the supply chain.”

This is essential, not only on a moral and ethical level, but to ensure the stability of the industry.

“If we’re not paying people enough and we’re not looking after our employees then, if they can, they will do all they can to move out of that industry,” explains McNair.

Furthermore, Health and safety​ in the workplace, whether that be on a farm or in a factory, is an aspect of sustainability, which many people may not be aware of.

“Health and safety is another part of sustainability, and it might not be an obvious one to many, but again if we’re not looking after employees by creating a safe environment for people they’re not going to want to continue their work,” adds McNair.

Business ethics​ also comes under the umbrella of sustainability and must be considered by business owners.

“Business ethics is all about how we run our business. There’s another term that is often talked about in sustainability, which is ESG or Environment, Social and Governance,” says McNair. “And that governance aspect is how managers communicate the values of the business and how they behave ethically.”

Sustainability and profit

The final aspect of sustainability, in addition to the protection of the planet and the protection of people, is profit. This final ‘P’ completes what is often referred to as the ‘3 Ps’ of sustainability.

For a company to successfully adopt a sustainable practice, which protects the environment and the people involved, that practice must be profitable. It must therefore be affordable to implement and continue to provide an end product or service that meets consumer expectations. 

Why is sustainability important for food production?

Sustainability is essential for creating a resilient food chain for a multitude of reasons.

In environmental terms, climate change has increased the prevalence of extreme weather events​ across the world in recent decades. This has posed a direct threat to the supply chain​, causing crop shortages in commodities such as cocoa​, coffee​ and peanuts​. The food and beverage industry must therefore work to prevent and, where possible, reverse the effects of climate change to create a sustainable supply chain going forward.

Furthermore, consumers are invested in sustainability and research suggests they are willing to pay more to ensure, not just the green credentials of the products they’re buying, but also the welfare​ of the people involved in the production process.