Launching a new cereal or fizzy drink is no longer just about coming up with a winning product that will win over the consumer.
Now companies have to sit down and think about the different ways new products affect the environment. Carbon emissions, waste disposal, water consumption and energy use all come into the product development equation.
Richard Marshall, who runs an MSc in food science at London Metropolitan University, said such things were not an issue 10 years ago but today companies have to consider them. And it is not just about pleasing consumers.
Marshall said legislation on waste and ever increasing energy costs mean that it is an economic necessity to consider sustainability.
Does this mean that jobs boards are now crammed with ads for sustainability experts in the food industry?
It is certainly increasingly common to see business titles like “sustainability manager” or “environmental coordinator” at the big food companies. But such posts are few in number and are especially rare at the SME level.
Experts may be called in from consultancies to provide the necessary skills or someone may be employed on a short term basis but employing a full time sustainability expert is financially unrealistic for most smaller companies.
Instead there is great demand for people that can offer expertise in sustainability as part of a broader portfolio of industry skills.
Sustainability is relevant across quality assurance, food safety, energy/water/waste management and R & D. Expertise in environmental policy and practice can be beneficial to people working across these areas.
Marshall said: “People who have training in the principles of the food industry as well as sustainability have a real opportunity to make a difference, both to business efficiency and to the problems of climate change.”
So what are sustainability skills and where can they be picked up? Marshall said the most fundamental point is that good analytical skills are needed as a lot of sustainability work involves studying and measuring inputs and outputs and then identifying opportunities for improvement.
But there are practical skills and knowledge to be obtained as well. Familiarity with environmental standards like the ISO 14001 and knowledge of carbon footprinting are key elements.
Marshall said food quality and safety professionals may find their skills crossover neatly into sustainability. Creating, monitoring and updating HACCP reports has a lot in common with environmental auditing.
Gaining specialist training can still be hugely beneficial to get to grips with the finer points of carbon footprinting and standards like ISO 14001. Marshall said that in the UK there is little on offer at University level but there are courses on sustainability run by the likes of Campden-BRI and the National Skills Academy for Food and Drink.
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