Why sustainability makes business sense

Gu Thallon
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Guy Thallon is head of research, development and innovation at The Produce World Group, one of the largest expert growers and suppliers of high quality fresh vegetables in Europe

Sustainability is a common sense business strategy but in the fresh produce sector this extends beyond the controllable long-term economic sustainability of a business to encompass the environmental impact of farming systems and the social value of providing nutritious and wholesome food, which improves the health of the nation.

The responsibility to support these societal services in an increasingly competitive and challenging market is a burden few fully appreciate. However, there remains an opportunity to turn something seen as a ‘cost-of-doing business’ into an incubator for innovation and commercial success.

The Produce World Group is a family-owned business that specialises in field vegetables and has evolved as a supplier to the higher-end of the retail market. On this basis, there is a strong legacy of ‘doing the right thing’, underpinned by a well-established set of values and long-term relationships with grower partners.

Our 4Life Sustainability Strategy is borne out of a desire to do the right thing, to innovate and to understand, and to continuously improve. The strategy aims to encapsulate the breadth and depth of our activities, from planting trees on farms to enhancing the nutritional content of our products.

4Life is made up of four pillars: Responsible Sourcing, Workplace Culture, Environmental Stewardship and Community Impact.

Responsible Sourcing is how we work with and develop our growers, as suppliers and as independent businesses. Workplace Culture is how we engage with employees to nurture talent and drive innovation from the floor up. Environmental Stewardship is about reducing the impact of our operations and putting in place a framework for continuous improvement. Community Impact is about making a positive contribution to society and supporting a circular economy.

This strategy is intentionally broad and holistic, covering the entirety of our operations from seed to shelf. It satisfies the corporate social responsibility requirements expected of a modern business and, more importantly, it provides a framework for conversations, investigations and interventions aimed at tackling the macro-scale challenges that face our industry.

Agriculture is the canary in the coal mine when it comes to climate change, and this impossibly large and complex challenge sits alongside population growth, depleting natural resources, water scarcity, urbanisation, oil demand, biodiversity loss, land degradation and market speculation, to name just a few. It’s the interaction of these threats and the culminations of their impacts that results in a global food security challenge.  

The big question is: how can such an ambitious and complex sustainability strategy itself be made sustainable?

The answer lies in forming a hotbed for innovation; ensuring that projects and initiatives are run with entrepreneurial mindset and any commercial opportunities are recognised and exploited.

‘Win-wins’ are the aim of the game – identify synergies across functions, projects, initiatives and partners. This is simple with things like water, carbon and waste management within supply chains, where a net-reduction is a positive for both the environment and your bottom line.

A more complicated example to explore is how donations of edible food waste to food redistribution charities such as FareShare provide tangible commercial benefit to a business as well as the newsworthy or warm-fuzzy feeling factor that has a significant, but frequently short-term impact.

Regular donations of fresh produce to FareShare provide three significant benefits to our business. The first is employee engagement, where colleagues prefer to see produce go to human consumption, rather than animal feed or anaerobic digestion. More engaged employees are more likely to want to do a good job, more likely to think about opportunities to improve processes, and more likely to stay with the business.

The second benefit is derived from the microscopic focus on edible food waste within our process: if regular donations are being made, can the process be changed to develop an unrealised income stream for the business?

The final benefit is that by actively increasing the overall proportion of fresh produce available to low income families we will address the bias towards dried and tinned food, supporting a drive to improve diets and change relationships with food, and ultimately increase the number of customers buying fruit and vegetables.

The ambition behind our sustainability strategy is to continue to make doing the right thing the norm across everything that we do. The challenges that threaten our food systems are diverse, complex, interconnected and immediate. The responses must be truly sustainable, effective in building resilience and as broad as our entire supply chains.  

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