Sustainability: it’s an emergency! But do we even know what it means?
“The days of just grabbing a thoughtless bite must be numbered. Yet with so much conflicting information around, it can be difficult to judge what we should and shouldn’t do. And if professional chefs like us put things on the plate that we shouldn’t, then what hope is there for the casual home cook?”
– Honey & Co Chefs Sarit Parker and Itamar Srulovich in the FT
Tried and Supplied aims to support chefs and food service buyers in becoming more sustainable, so how could I, as the founder, bypass this comment from Honey & Co and not do anything about it? Especially as it’s so true.
Sarit and Itamar’s comment related specifically to eel and whether it’s possible to get sustainable eel. Our response to the sustainable eel question will be the first in a series of articles that aim to provide some well-researched clarity to the complex subject of food sustainability, so that you won’t be left guessing, but will have the knowledge to back your sustainable eating decisions.
But first it is important to start with a brief discussion of what we mean by sustainable and eating sustainably:
The sustainable emergency
The Extinction Rebellion led by sixteen year-old, Greta Thunberg, has made climate change the subject of this Easter weekend with their protests in London. It’s certainly about time that we started to treat protecting our environment as something of an emergency, but, while making demands is easy, knowing how best to achieve them is somewhat harder. I launched Tried and Supplied as a means of finding local food and drink producers earlier this year in the hope that I can help make a difference and facilitate a change towards a more sustainable food system. But reducing food miles isn’t always the answer. New Zealand lamb is so efficiently transported, that relative to British lamb in certain places like London, it can have a lower environmental impact through transport. That doesn’t necessarily mean it has a lower impact on other factors like animal welfare, biodiversity or supporting the livelihoods of local British farmers who help to maintain the pastureland. Sustainability, ultimately, is rarely obvious.
What does sustainability mean?
The first meeting I attended as part of the Sustainable Restaurant Association served to highlight the complexity of the situation. They started the session by asking us what sustainable actually meant. On a very basic level the word must refer to an activity that can be sustained indefinitely without depleting the resources required to carry it out, but the word is coming to mean something more than just this. The Brundtland Convention defined sustainable development as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. This brings not only environmental and economic factors into the equation, but social needs too. The SRA preferred social responsibility to social needs and included animal welfare in their discussion of sustainability, even though high welfare standards wouldn’t technically be required to ensure that future generations can meet their own needs.
“an activity that can be sustained indefinitely without depleting the resources required to carry it out”
It seems that the word ‘sustainable’ has come to mean something, social responsibility and animal welfare now included, that is generally good and ethical all round with respect to both the environment and society, extending beyond just human society to the whole animal population. It is worth remembering where it came from as a word though, because I have come across contexts in which it it is still used without social responsibility applying. It would be hard to argue that that use is incorrect, but it might not be as sustainable as you imagined. Equally it is hard to be instantaneously sustainable if traditional practices have been far from sustainable especially in long-term industries such as farming. Does making progress on one or two aspects of a whole plethora of areas with room for improvement make a business sustainable? This appears to be relative.
“the word ‘sustainable’ has come to mean something, social responsibility and animal welfare now included, that is generally good and ethical all round.”
Businesses that called themselves sustainable several years ago, would not be able to continue doing so on the basis of the same standard. We expect more from businesses nowadays than we did several years ago. In the past companies like Shell thought it worth their while sponsoring the Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition and exhibition, with the aim of raising awareness of the threats faced by animals, plants and habitats, but nowadays consumers see through superficial sponsorship schemes or advertising claims and this can often lead to greater backlash than not providing sponsorship in the first place.
Preventing greenwashing from making sustainability meaningless
I met with a friend for a drink recently and we were discussing what sustainability meant to us. Her main concern was that the word didn’t get so overused that it became completely meaningless. And with sustainability adding an edge to so many marketing messages, that is a serious concern. Greenwashing isn’t a new phenomenon. It was coined as a term in the 1980s and continues to this day with companies widely publicising their so-called sustainable activities without making sustainability central to their business. More confusing still are the waves of misinformation and conflicting information about what is and isn’t sustainable often from well-intending sources.
“Businesses that called themselves sustainable several years ago, would not be able to continue doing so on the basis of the same standard.”
What to do with packaging is a classic example that came up at the SRA. In the dramatic move to reduce plastic waste, compostable packaging alternatives emerged, but before there was any decent infrastructure to ensure that that compostable packaging actually composted. Yet compostable packaging is still advertised as a sustainable alternative. In my ignorance, I had thought that it was sustainable because it composted of its own accord in landfill sites, but apparently landfill sites are sealed and don’t contain enough oxygen to compost anything at all, so in order for any compostable packaging to have any positive impact it has to be disposed of correctly. Living in the centre of London I have yet to see anywhere I could correctly dispose of compostable packaging, so I have to conclude that compostable packaging is not a sustainable plastic alternative in my area for the time being.
It would be very easy to take a peak at the complexity of sustainability and be incapable of making any decisions for fear of making the wrong one, but we don’t have time to get stuck like this, as Greta and the Extinction Rebellion has made very clear to our politicians this weekend. We have to at least try to do something, and if it turns out it doesn’t work, be prepared to quickly adapt a different strategy.