In the following article, we look at sustainability through a food industry lens, dissecting what it means to businesses, and analysing the steps brands need to take to improve their sustainability in an industry that contributes significantly to world carbon emissions. 

Every industry is talking about it. From textiles to timber, sustainability is a key planning point in boardrooms all around the globe. But there is a sticking point – sustainability represents different things to different sectors. So, with that in mind, what exactly does sustainability mean in the context of agri-food to manufacturers, suppliers, retailers and food service providers? 

What is sustainability in the food industry? 

In food industry terms, sustainability covers the reduction of food waste and carbon emissions, better farming practices – both agricultural and livestock, packaging, recycling and transportation. It can be incorporated into and optimised for nearly every facet of the food supply chain. But implementing positive sustainability practices can feel like a massive challenge when the food and drink industry is currently viewed as contributing to climate issues rather than backing initiatives to tackle them.  

The sustainability stats 

It’s estimated that around 25% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions are attributable to crop production. Plant and animal production use as much as 70% of the world’s freshwater resources - and this is only one part of the supply chain. Food purchasing and procurement are also integral to the wider environmental impact of the food industry. 

"Plant and animal production use as much as 70% of the world’s freshwater resources" 

Sustainability also covers human and economic health. So, being aware of the exploitative and unsafe working conditions in certain areas of the global agricultural and food production system are also factors here.  

The current situation 

In short, it would be fair to say that according to the UN current food production practices are not sustainable. But by making a concerted effort to incorporate sustainability into food production, purchasing and distribution, this opinion could change. Plus, there are direct, material benefits for the businesses that do implement sustainable principles.  

What are the benefits of sustainable food production? 

Let’s consider the benefits of sustainable food production under the UN’s suggested pillars of sustainability: environmental, social, and economic wellbeing. 

Environmental benefits 



More responsible antibiotic usage in food-producing animals 

Less risk to animal and human health 

Switch to organic fertilisers 

Reduce carbon emissions, improve air quality and preserve biodiversity 

Efficient irrigation 

Minimise water pollution and conserve natural water resources 

Responsible water management techniques 

Minimise water pollution 

Crop rotation 

Reduce the usage of land-based pollutants such as fertilisers and pesticides 

Increased efficiency of livestock supply chain 

Limited future GHG emissions growth 

Together these lead to a more sustainable agriculture and livestock system and are hopefully achievable without a huge financial outlay.  .

Social benefits 



Better working conditions and fairer labour practices 

Economic uplift 

Industry training programmes 

Better job opportunities  

Support for smaller-scale farmers

Stronger community-supported supply chain 

Economic benefits

Individual actions such as reducing waste, employing a more efficient logistics system and lowering resource demand all have the same benefits. They reduce costs, enhance profitability in the supply chain and deliver better food security.

There are opportunities to develop and implement new technologies too - building a food supply chain that’s more resilient to challenges such as natural disasters and geopolitical unrest.  

Building brand loyalty 

Finally, there’s the matter of the consumer – and the power that they wield. A recent Deloitte study underlines just how committed consumers are to making sustainable changes in their lives both at home and with their spending habits - 76% have recycled or composted household waste in the last twelve months, 55% have opted to repair an existing item rather than replace it with something new, and most tellingly one in three have stopped purchasing certain brands due to ethical and sustainability concerns.  

"one in three have stopped purchasing certain brands due to ethical and sustainability concerns"

Consumers want the brands they invest in to lead with transparency, so they can make more deliberate sustainability choices. Businesses that do not put sustainability first and revisit consumer expectations through a sustainability lens, rethinking their segmentation and aligning their offering accordingly, could very well find themselves suffering financially.  

Here are three easy wins that will resonate with consumers: 

1. Reconsider the impact of existing products and services  

2. Embed a circular model, so reductions can be achieved in resource usage, energy consumption and waste generation  

3. Invest in sustainable NPD that meets consumer demand

The Evolution of Traceability in Food and Drink

Sustainable food production & ethics 

Both consumers, employees and investors care about the ethics of the businesses they support, work for and invest in. So, more companies are starting to recognise that good ethics and sustainability go hand in hand. Businesses seizing the opportunities here and acting now will stay ahead of the competition, while also maintaining that all important market share.  

By implementing sustainable food supply chain management, businesses can heighten consumer and employee engagement while knowing that their business isn’t negatively impacting the planet. This sustainable farm-to-fork approach gives an ethical business boost, enhancing brand reputation, introducing new revenue streams and ensuring business continuity.  

How can food procurement be more sustainable? 

With so many factors playing into what constitutes a sustainable food supply chain, there’s a great deal of data that needs to be processed by businesses reaching for greater sustainability in their food procurement.  

Take these three steps to make sure your food procurement processes are more sustainable: 

1. Gauge consumer demand through accurate forecasting to reduce food 

2. Gauge consumer demand through accurate forecasting to reduce food waste 

3. Apply sustainability and environmental impact audits to encourage supplier adoption 

Keeping sustainability front and centre in procurement decisions has a knock-on effect. Using digital supply chain technologies, businesses can streamline their livestock procurement process, managing yields and forecast future stock demand to reduce waste.

Businesses remaining aligned with in-house policies and procedures should also ensure that working relationships are mutually profitable and beneficial. 

Sustainable food production methods 

So far, we’ve provided a broad outline of what sustainable food production is - but now it’s time to delve into this in greater detail. Here are some of the primary points to consider.  

1. Protecting natural resources

2. Sustainable farming, harvesting & procurement

3. Packing production & consumption

4. Waste management

5. Monitoring factory & supplier energy consumption

Protecting natural resources 

 In the context of agri-food sustainability, this is using appropriate fertilisers with integrated pest management to improve yields, protect soil, encourage biodiversity and prevent water pollution.  

 Natural systems are often intertwined, so each intervention can have many benefits. Eg.  



Soil erosion prevention 

Soil fertility 
Cleaner freshwater systems 
Less water needed for crop irrigation 
Greater energy efficiency 

Sustainable farming, harvesting and procurement 

Livestock farming and crop harvesting are both key to sustainable food production – and are areas where industry can make a significant difference. This can range from choosing crop varieties for better yields to implementing sustainable fishing practices. Governments are increasingly turning to legislation to promote sustainability in this area, but effective regulations and enforcement are not present everywhere. 

 Packaging production and consumption 

The entire packaging supply chain contributes to the net sustainability of a final product. From raw materials to manufacturing, use and disposal, data must be gathered and analysed. It can be a balancing act. Certain packaging can appeal to consumers, contributing to sales, but resources still need to be used wisely to keep waste and pollution under control. That means considering packaging specifications and metrics such as recyclability. Once items are bought and consumed, sustainable packaging can be recycled so it has even more of a positive impact. 

Waste management 

Waste management and the need to make it more sustainable remains a recurring theme in the agri-food supply chain. 

Consider these problems and their solutions and see if you can apply them to your sustainability practices.  


Sustainable solution 

Poor wastewater management introduces the risk of water pollution 

Practise water recycling  

Food waste disposed of in landfill produces greenhouse gases 

Composting and other sustainable processing solutions 

 Monitoring factory & supplier energy consumption 

The agri-food supply chain – from raising crops and transporting livestock to delivering end products to supermarket shelves – obviously requires energy. So, energy conservation, and conserving what you can as a business from non-renewable and renewable resources matters, is a key priority.  

 The solution lies in scalable, data-driven energy consumption policies across the supply chain, from manufacturers to retailers and service providers. 

 By addressing all these issues, we can work towards creating a more equitable and responsible system that benefits both people and the planet. 

Effective CSR with Foods Connected 

Sustainability is a crucial element in any food-related business’ CSR profile. While you can control what happens in your own business, you need the ability to evaluate your supply chain and its sustainability. Ultimately, you will be seen as co-responsible for your supply chain’s positive or negative impacts - not just your in-house practices. 

 With so many factors to consider when trying to make sustainable choices, Foods Connected simplifies what can seem like a near-impossible task: leveraging massive amounts of data spanning multiple indicators to further your CSR objectives.  

Request a demo of the Foods Connected platform today, or contact our team to talk about your CSR and sustainability goals. If you'd like to learn more about how effective food security can help build sustainable, more resilient food systems, watch our webinar on the subject below.

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