10 ways to get everyone to eat sustainably

10 ways to get everyone to eat sustainably


In the past year, Vredeseilanden engaged in a discussion with supermarkets, the food industry and farmers. We established that sustainable entrepreneurship is indeed on the agenda. A lot of interesting initiatives already exist, but for the time being these consist mostly of environmental efforts. Inclusion of producers in the chain – or the fair distribution of benefits and burdens – is addressed much less frequently. However, it is much needed as at this moment farmers in the North and the South are under unbearable pressure.

Supermarkets (which hold more than 70% of the food industry in Belgium and Europe) and food companies (the largest industrial sector in Belgium), being the most powerful links in the food chain, have a crucial responsibility to make headway with more sustainable food systems. All too often nowadays, the initiatives remain small-scale. More efforts are needed to extend the principles of sustainability to the mainstream range.

In the book #SavetheFoodture, we introduce ten future paths to tackle existing bottlenecks in the further sustainability of our food system. Because our ambition is no less than to make sustainable food “the new normal”.

1. Connect, Collaborate, Create and share Value

Collaboration between the different food chain actors is key to the future.

Innovation for sustainability, creating together, exploring new markets, new business models, building relations of trust, mutual transparency and a fair distribution of benefits and burdens. By way of these new business models , products and services that appeal to consumers because of their quality and sustainability – and not only because of the price - can be offered.

2. Achieve complete transparency in the chain

Transparency in the chain is key. Supermarkets and food companies nowadays often have no idea which producer produced (which part of) the product, which price the farmer received for it, or in which working conditions the production took place. If transparency throughout the chain were to increase, sore points would be exposed and only then could be remedied. Supermarkets and food companies can increase transparency by investing in the independent supervision of entire supply chains.

Big companies have the biggest potential to upscale sustainability in the chain

3. Sustainable purchasing policy

Nowadays buyers are mostly praised for the low price of products they bought, and hardly for the sustainability performances of the production process. This can change by incorporating sustainability criteria into the KPI’s of buyers, by screening suppliers based on sustainability criteria, by generic recommendations and trainings on sustainable purchasing for buyers, et cetera.

4. Choice editing

The exclusive selection of only sustainably produced products for the customer – choice editing – is also an important path. This is already implemented in some cases, for example Colruyt and Delhaize which exclusively offer 100% sustainable fish. Supermarkets and food companies like to employ the argument that the choice is up to the customer, but being powerful players in the food chain means they themselves have a communal role to play. Choice editing can also happen indirectly, for example by giving less sustainable producers a less prominent place on the shelves.

5. Sustainability of own-label brands

Own-label brands are on a steady rise. A supermarket that strives to make the production of its own-label brands more sustainable, can truly make a difference in the upscaling of sustainability from the niche to the mainstream range. The prices of the (cheaper) own-label brands won’t necessarily have to shoot up, because with a structural expansion prices can be controlled.

6. Pre-competitive discussion and agreements

When the efforts companies make to increase the sustainability of their range are coupled with higher costs, this means a competitive disadvantage. In that case it is necessary to agree on minimum standards pre-competitively. Internationally, this is already the case for cacao and palm oil and there are also examples domestically, such as the bovine meat index. Much more product categories should follow suit.

7. Enforcement of the Good Trading Practice code

Within the Belgian supply chain consultation, a Good Trading Practice code has been agreed on. While this is a good start, for now the agreements can’t be enforced by parties who feel disadvantaged. To this end, an independent agency, which can take the initiative to set up investigations and which is authorized to impose sanctions, is needed.

8. Establishing a level playing field together with the government

It is necessary to strive for a free market with values, such as respect between trading partners, transparency and integrity. It is up to governments to take up this market regulating role, for example by securing minimum sustainability norms with which products that enter a country or region have to comply, by incorporating more sustainability criteria in the specifications for public tendering, by setting up a mechanism to prevent farmers from having to sell below the cost price, et cetera.

9. Size matters

Big companies have the biggest potential to upscale sustainability in the chain. A distinct ambition of a large party can provoke a lot, and cooperation further enhances this effect. The others will be compelled to follow suit.

10. Informing consumers better

As a consumer, it is not easy to make the ‘right’ choices. Both government and companies have an important role to play in informing civilians-consumers, through packaging, informative publications, shops, campaigns and education. Saartje Boutsen.

Saartje Boutsen is responsible for ‘Public & private policy development’ at Vredeseilanden. Together with colleague Gert Engelen she wrote the book #SavetheFoodture.

As present the book is only available in Dutch. You can download your free copy of the e-book here.