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Article appeared in issue 2, 2023

Meeting new needs

Consumers and buyers are demanding higher standards of sustainability, food business consultant with Ifac, Stephanie Walsh tells Irishfood

It is becoming increasingly important for all businesses to consider the impact they have on the planet. In the food and drink sector, sustainability is crucial. Here, Stephanie explores the key initiatives food and drink producers are focusing on to tackle sustainability, and the importance of this issue to food buyers. 

“With competition from more immediate challenges like the rising cost of raw material, packaging and energy costs, sustainability is not always the main priority for producers, but it does remain an important part of business in Ireland. Consumers continue to demand sustainably sourced, produced, and packaged products.

Food and drink producers continue to engage with sustainability initiatives. Ifac’s Food and Agribusiness Report 2022 shows that 88% of businesses are taking climate change action. The report shows that the main initiatives that producers are focusing on are:

•    Managing waste and by-products (72%);

•    Purchasing sustainable packaging, including reducing the use of plastic (56%);

•    Investing in energy-saving initiatives (50%); and

•    Choosing environmentally conscious suppliers (42%).

It is important to be aware of the sustainability priorities of your buyer in key retail multiples, and aligning your actions with their priorities is advantageous. Sustainability is a crucial factor that food buyers must consider in their purchasing decisions. There are several reasons why sustainability is important from a food buyer’s perspective. 

Competitive advantage: The retail grocery market is aggressive, and most grocery retailers have set a range of sustainability targets. This will impact a buyer’s decision-making. For example, Tesco Ireland plans to have 100% of its own brand packaging fully recyclable by 2025. Are you aligning with this target?

Irish produce: Buyers are constantly trying to introduce more Irish produce where possible. Irish products have a lower transport carbon impact, usually giving buyers more autonomy in new product development. Most Irish retailers generate an annual report on the number of Irish products they sell. By sourcing Irish products, buyers can ensure they support local producers and reduce the carbon footprint associated with transportation. 

Consumer demand: As stated previously, consumers are demanding more sustainable products; therefore, buyers need to meet this demand too.

Category-specific criteria: Depending on the category, the sustainability criteria will differ. Fish producers, for example, must meet an MSC standard and certification that is complex to attain, but many retailers will expect it as standard. 

Unique selling point: A product that incorporates sustainable elements can serve as a unique selling point for buyers, setting it apart from other products in the retail market and making it easier for the buyer to sell both internally and externally. This point of differentiation enhances the product's appeal and boosts its marketing potential.

Sustainability is becoming increasingly important for food and drink producers, consumers, and retailers. By having a clear focus on sustainability, food and drinks producers can not only differentiate themselves from their competitors in the short term, but they can also appeal to a growing market of environmentally conscious consumers. Producers can improve efficiency and profitability in the long term. Achieving sustainability requires a focus on environmental, social, and economic sustainability, as well as health and well-being. There are clear green shoots that need nurturing, and by working collectively with an enhanced focus on sustainability, the food and drink industry can create a better future for everyone.


Case study: Goatsbridge Trout Farm

Goatsbridge Trout Farm is a family-run business in Co. Kilkenny. The farm is owned by Mag and Ger Kirwan. Over the past 24 months, Mag and Ger have made a significant investment in their fish farm with a large focus on sustainability. The focus for the business is to become more environmentally, as well as economically, sustainable. The business also worked on social sustainability at a local level to ensure it is an inclusive and good place to work to attract and retain talent.

Through various initiatives, the farm is a more environmentally sustainable operation with better welfare for the fish, better utilisation of oxygen and reduced waste. The next steps in Goatsbridge’s sustainability story are to install solar panels and increase efforts to reduce non-recyclable packaging. In the long-term, Mag and Ger are focused on attaining carbon-neutral status for their award-winning trout. This will further reinforce their comprehensive sustainability strategy. 

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