The seven sustainability trends that should worry the food industry

By Guest Author on 25 June 2020

A recent article in NewFood highlighted by Robert Blood, Founder of SIGWATCH – the activist observation consultancy – suggests seven sustainability trends that food and beverage industry companies should be aware of if they are to retain and grow their customers.

The article refers to research of NGOs and activists because campaigning groups are classic early adopters of new causes and concerns. Blood suggests that systematic and comprehensive tracking of their campaigning can help companies plan for future problems, such as fracking, palm oil, plastics, and climate change, months or years before media and political attention make decisive action unavoidable.

He points to seven trends that food companies should be taking seriously if they are to avoid losing customers, suppliers or shareholders.

Climate change

Agriculture and food production are one of the biggest sources of carbon pollution, from soil carbon released during ploughing and fossil fuel inputs like fertilisers and pesticides to food waste when grains are lost through poor handling or processed food is thrown away uneaten by consumers.


Activists and commentators are increasingly calling into question the world’s commodity agricultural system, and with it, the rationality of large-scale crop cultivation. Food companies need to take a grip of their supply chains to avoid being tainted by association, or be caught off-guard by rivals posting negative labels such as ‘Deforestation-Free’ on their products to assuage consumer anxiety.

Green vegetarianism

A trend we have seen come through strongly in the last five years is ‘green vegetarianism’: eschewing meat for the sake of the climate and environment, as opposed to the traditional justifications of health or ethics.

Insect apocalypse

It is increasingly accepted, at least in Europe, that there has been a marked decline in insect abundance and biodiversity, born out both by scientific surveys but also people’s common experience of much reduced bug debris on car windscreens, and reduced numbers of certain insect-eating birds. The reasons are not clear, but most of the usual suspects – pesticide use, intensification of agriculture, loss of wilderness, and climate change – touch on agribusiness.

Water stress and agriculture

Water access and stress have been bubbling issues for environmentalists for some time – according to Blood, this will put modern farming under pressure to reduce water waste along with other inputs. The food industry has a choice: to use its buying power and influence to change producers’ practices, or do nothing and suffer the consequences of declining availability of commodities and anger from drought-plagued populations.

Circular economy

In Europe, campaigners and some politicians have responded with a vision of a ‘circular economy’ with ‘zero waste’: maximum recovery and re-use of products, designing out waste and ensuring unnecessary replacement. This is already in the process of being turned into legislation by the European Commission. In such an environment, where will food companies fit, and how will they be regulated to conform to the ideals of a zero waste, fully circular economy?

Sustainability-driven investment

One of the most striking trends in finance in the last five years is the rise in importance of environmental and social governance (ESG). Once the preserve of niche socially responsible investing, ESG considerations are now applied as standard practice for excluding or down-weighting investments by mainstream investment funds. In the Netherlands for example, banks are already under pressure to stop financing large scale livestock production. How many food companies can survive wholesale loss of professional capital?

Editor’s note:

In a South African context, we have already faced the impact of severe water restrictions in many parts of the country. During the severe drought conditions, the food industry had to respond to water restrictions. But what about now? Are those practices part of business as usual?

My experience with food industry corporates has shown the increased pressure on sustainability driven investment. Annual reports now show triple bottom line reporting. How are these aspects linked to other management system requirements such as food safety, health and safety? Integrated reporting calls for integrated management systems to ensure everyone is part of the bigger picture objectives.

This article has been republished with the permission of New Food Magazine and the full article can be seen here: