Last week I attended the annual sustainability conference of one of the UK’s major grocery retailers and it was interesting to see further examples of alignment on priorities. Held in the same week in which the UK’s long-awaited 25-year plan for the environment was launched, there was mention in both of the plastics crisis covered in earlier posts, and plans in both (of a sort) to take action. Although the policy document received a mixed reception, given the urgency of the challenge, it is at least comprehensive. It will be particularly interesting to see how the ambition to make 2019 a ‘Year of Green Action’ shapes up over the coming months and there will be coverage of that in this blog as it evolves. There is growing recognition in the commercial world of how environmental damage and risk is becoming progressively more relevant to a range of stakeholder groups. Financial investors are starting to better understand how the value of their investments can be damaged by social and environmental issues which their recipients fail to address. Younger consumers in particular place increasing importance on the environmental credentials of the products they buy, and awareness among the public is reflected more and more in the choices they make.
There is a tendency for the environmental narrative to be dominated by issues which are most obvious, and the new focus on plastics owes much to Sir (perhaps that should be Saint) David Attenborough; SDG14 (life below water) now has a rallying cry. I made a modest contribution in a guest lecture to student food engineers this week, encouraging them to think about resource efficiency in their future employment in the context of a broader global picture on the environmental and social value of water. The tragedy of the commons still seems to apply to deforestation, however, so the mention of it being a major consideration in this particular retailer’s plans is good news. If there is a future re-make of Life On Earth, maybe it will have the same galvanising effect and SDG15 (life on land) may benefit from the same fillip.
Over the last few days I have also attended a conference on food waste (pictured above) which saw researchers from a number of institutions describe work they are doing to reduce the impact of waste and co-products in the agri-food system. I have for a long time been banging the drum about resource efficiency needing to come before so-called valorisation of waste, and it was heartening to hear the theme repeated by many of the speakers. One of the sessions focused on work being done in Egypt and the collaboration between the two countries. For those of us living in the UK it is easy to imagine that the rest of the world has the same starting point as we do. That illusion can be quickly shattered when you learn that in Egypt, for example, a mere 20% of municipal waste is collected for controlled disposal. The focus on reducing waste is all the more urgent in those circumstances and the joint projects presented at the conference offer a glimmer of hope for progress.