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Q-and-A: Food Lab helps companies add sustainability to value chains

5 min read

Restaurant and Foodservice

Hal Hamilton founded and now is co-director of the Sustainable Food Lab in Hartland, Vt., which helps companies adopt sustainability practices, gathers data on sustainability efforts and shares that information to promote the sustainability movement. He talks with SmartBlogs about how the lab works and the future of sustainable agriculture.

How did the Sustainable Food Lab get started and what are the priorities?

The Food Lab first convened in June 2004 as a two-year leadership journey. Over the past 10 years it has expanded to include more than 60 member and partner organizations, including brand manufacturers like Unilever, Mars and Stonyfield; food service companies like Sysco, Sodexo and Aramark; retailers like Costco and Marks & Spencer; and NGOs like The Nature Conservancy, Rainforest Alliance and Oxfam.

The reason the Food Lab has grown is that businesses are integrating sustainability into their value chains and need to learn from one another about how to do this more effectively. From peer –to-peer leadership networks, to global learning events, to supply chain innovation projects, to measurement tools, the Sustainable Food Lab helps organizations learn and act together to accelerate progress.

The SFL spearheads market-driven pilot projects. What are current initiatives?

In addition to providing lots of workshops, field tours and tailor-made events for different organizations, the Food Lab manages three big projects right now. The Cool Farm Institute provides user-friendly calculation for environmental impacts at the farm level. The second program is a consortium of companies, foundations and certifiers that are designing performance metrics for small farm systems in developing countries. The third is the coordination of the U.S. Beef Stewardship Collaboration to support continuous improvement and transparency in the U.S. beef supply.

What are the main approaches to the sustainable food movement?

The Sustainable Food Lab itself exists outside of movements and advocacy approaches. We are agnostic about certifications or causes because our core purpose is to help all the mainstream organizations do better. People who participate in the Lab’s project areas and annual leadership summits get to “try on” different approaches and get feedback from people who are different from themselves. Especially during field visits and reflection in small groups, everyone gets “smarter” by seeing things through multiple points of view.

The three most common approaches of the “sustainable food movement” are to build alternative models, tweak the mainstream system and attack the mainstream system. Most organizations in the Food Lab are in the middle category, but we all operate within complex networks and need to understand the motivations of people with a different perspective.

Alternative models, from community-supported agriculture farms to new urban markets, are frequently inspiring. Local food is the personal choice of many people for freshness, flavor and to support local economies. These approaches, however, are not easily scalable.

One alternative to the pioneering small farm and community projects is to support the incremental sustainability improvements of big business. When large companies make commitments to do things better they have huge impact. When Sysco, for example, established an integrated pest management program for frozen and canned produce, in just the first year of the program they eliminated the use of 300,000 pounds of active ingredients of pesticides on more than 500,000 acres.

The reason that incremental improvements like Sysco’s IPM program don’t cascade through the industry at a faster rate is that the very structure of our economy resists systemic change—particularly the necessity of all publicly traded companies to grow quarterly numbers.

Because of structural resistance to change within the economy, the third common approach of activists is to attack mainstream businesses, although anti-corporate campaigns have some effects they don’t want. On the one hand, they can create an environment in which businesses face increased reputational risk and need to demonstrate responsibility. Such an environment can stimulate positive innovation. On the other hand, many campaigns attack the very brands that are leaders in sustainability and thereby provide signals to others that the risk of being criticized for not doing better is so high that it’s safer to do nothing. Campaigns also make companies very skittish about being transparent.

Fortunately, the food industry is undergoing transformative change despite the many barriers. Most brand manufacturers are making commitments to sustainable sourcing, and they are operationalizing these commitments in supply chains around the world, frequently finding needed expertise from non-governmental organizations like the World Wildlife Fund and The Nature Conservancy. As buyers in different companies implement sustainable sourcing commitments, they learn to listen to farmers, crafting together a pathway to mainstream sustainability.

We can see the glass half full — lots of progress — or we can see it half empty — hard slogging to actually stop deforestation or make sure that farms are healthy. Both attitudes are right.

Where do you see the sustainable food movement in 5 years or 10 years?

The last 10 years have seen extraordinary change, and the question is no longer, “Will sustainability go mainstream?” but rather, “How do we make mainstream sustainability more efficient and scale more rapidly?” Over the next five or 10 years, we will see agreement on just what sustainability means. We will create alignment among the many “asks” from manufacturers and retail. We will integrate the triple bottom line into one bottom line so that financial success requires environmental and social responsibility.

The path to this desired future is rocky and twisting. All organizations make mistakes and hit roadblocks. The key is to learn across functions, develop effective teams, and collaborate with players across the system, beyond each individual’s comfort zone.