At the start of a new decade it seems only fitting to look back on the previous decade and forward to the next. If there is one defining movement of the last ten years, it’s got to be a growing concern for the environment and how we transition to doing business sustainably.
This movement has gained momentum rapidly in the last few years since the release of Blue Planet II in 2017, which inspired millions of consumers around the world to take direct action through the products they choose to buy or the places they choose to eat. Suddenly sustainability has become a widespread consumer choice not just a business ideal.
According to a recent Hardens survey “81% of Gen Z will choose a restaurant based on the menu’s environmental impact.” Responding to this change in consumer demand will be one of the key challenges for the hospitality industry in the coming decade. This article sets out the trends we’ve seen so far and predicts three major trends for the next decade.
So what are the trends we’ve seen so far?
Communicating more complex sustainability stories – over the last decade the general understanding of sustainability has become more sophisticated. Access to information through documentaries like Blue Planet II as well as global content via social media has facilitated this.
Many consumers now understand that simple restocking measures and reducing food miles isn’t necessarily enough for a sustainable product. What is required is a more holistic approach that takes into consideration the combined impact of sustainability factors including greenhouse gas emissions, biodiversity and water usage that don’t always align.
However, the more we understand about the connected nature of environmental impact, the more difficult it becomes to communicate the whole picture and enable consumers to make well-informed decisions, especially on what is already a menu crowded with allergen and other dietary information. In an innovative use of space, Lussmanns sustainable fish restaurant took to using the bathroom walls to communicate their sourcing policy in Harpenden. But there’s no denying the increasing importance of training hospitality staff on sustainability decisions regarding items such as straws.
The war on plastic – If there’s one thing Blue Planet II clearly did, it was declare war on plastic. Everyone is trying to find ways of reducing plastic waste, but the knee-jerk reaction has produced solutions that aren’t necessarily helpful, such as compostable plastics in areas where composting plastic isn’t an option, or removing plastic food packaging that help preserve the food for longer and reduce food waste. It’s important that the hospitality industry takes time to assess the options available and can communicate their choices to customers.
Environmental veganism and the rise of the flexitarian – Google Trends shows how interest in veganism has truly sprung from nowhere in the last few years encouraged by a series of reports showing that meat production (especially beef and lamb) is a significant contributor to greenhouse gas emissions.
EAT-Lancet published in January this year was one of the most widely distributed reports. Analysis from YouGov suggested that in 2019 7% of the population were likely to turn vegan and 35% of those cited environmental concerns as the primary reason for making the change.
Even if they don’t fully turn vegan Sainsbury’s revealed last year that 91% of the UK population are now actively seeking more plant-based diets as “flexitarians”. Plant-based meat alternatives have proliferated rapidly to fill the sudden demand and vegan takeaways grew 388% between 2016 and 2018 according to the British Takeaway campaign.
Despite a massive growth in interest, however, it is still only a relatively small percentage of people who identify as vegan, meaning that many vegan products are now sought out by non-vegans. And by contrast to the takeaways, many of the newly opened vegan restaurants, where diners eat together, are now closing.
Kate Nicholls, Chief Executive of UK Hospitality suggests this could be because exclusively vegan food doesn’t provide the choice the majority of customers are looking for. It could even be that flexitarians reserve their meat eating for when they dine out. Restaurants that have been more successful are those that have launched more appetising plant-based alternatives on what have typically been meat and fish dominated menus. No more are these options labelled the vegetarian or vegan option and it is easy for non-vegans to choose them without even realising.
With increasing variation in dietary choices and allergen requirements, home cooking is becoming increasingly complicated. This creates a bright future for restaurants that rise to the challenge as the inclusive kitchens where friends of all dietary requirements can hang out together.
What does the next decade have in store for us?
The continued rise of the conscious consumer and the environmental diet with a reduction in meat intake from vegan and flexitarian diets is already clear, but there are a few less evident trends that I think will have a radical impact on the next decade.
Trust and transparency – One of the key aspects emerging as we learn more and more about the natural ecosystem and our own impact on it, is the complexity of it. This in turn creates a need for systems we can trust. Greenwashing, first coined in the 1980s, does nothing to help us achieve a more sustainable future and will no longer wash with consumers. Finding a scalable means of verifying sustainability claims, will be a focus of the next decade.
Already we have multiple independent accreditation schemes, but making these financially viable for smaller producers and enabling automatic verification for consumers via apps that show provenance will be the next step. Menu QR codes are already providing diners with a tailored version of the menu specific to their dietary requirements but this could grow to include digital information about the supply chain and nutritional value. Tried and Supplied has recently sourced suppliers for a new opening café in Camden, Glass Coffee, that will be providing supply chain information to its customers via a QR code.
Blockchain has been discussed as a means of verifying the source and production methods of food and drink as well as its safety en-route to the consumer, but it is currently prohibitively expensive and we need to be sure that the inputs are correct. For restaurants today, sourcing locally is a good way of ensuring transparency and reducing the length and complexity of the supply chain. Chefs can build long-term relationships with suppliers and visit them directly to see production with their own eyes.
Will we be able to achieve diversity alongside our drive for sustainability? – One of the reasons we are seeing a dramatic reduction in biodiversity is that global supply chains encourage areas to specialise as well as genetically optimise species such as the Cavendish banana. Even perceived solutions, like planting more trees, could have detrimental effects if done badly.
As HRH the Prince of Wales put it recently in Country Life: “I hope we will resist the temptation to return to the bad old days of blanket afforestation, using a single species of tree to cover vast acres with dark, forbidding forests. We need to think very carefully indeed about the mix of species we plant and be clear about the full range of benefits we should be seeking. For instance, our native trees have a wide range of biodiversity attached to them. Over 300 insect species are associated with oak trees. The horse chestnut, lovely though it is, has only four. And the invasive, non-native rhododendron has none.”
The challenge for the next decade will be achieving diversity at scale and chefs will play an important role in this through the development of bespoke growing plans like Pale Green Dot. The closer chefs can work with farmers to inform and drive demand for more unusual varieties, the easier it will be for farmers to adopt regenerative farming methods like agroforestry and companion cropping.
Currently over-simplified media messages are driving consumer diets rather than the collaborative effort of experts who understand food production best and can show consumers how to eat. The scary thing about our hyper-connected world is that we now have the ability to change our behaviour at scale and very rapidly without time for consideration. The role of a chef has never been so critical as it is now.
Zero waste and the circular economy – Blue Planet II has put the spotlight on plastic waste, in particular, and caused considerable investment to be focused on finding solutions or alternatives to plastic waste, but it isn’t the only area where people are looking to reduce waste. WRAP has launched a major food waste campaign, and although it still shows as a relatively tiny percentage of interest on Google Trends compared to other topics such as veganism or organic food it has grown 750% since 2004.
Consumers have realised that they aren’t the end-user, but just a part of the chain in a circular economy and that they have a responsibility as businesses do to eliminate waste and put whatever they can back into the system. They are prepared to use reusable takeaway boxes and restaurants like No. 1 Pimlico Road can now proudly serve wonky vegetables on their menu.
This is a complete change of philosophy that is now emerging and the most exciting trend is that it has reached even financial investors in the form of impact investing. This change, along with movements like B corp, has the potential to completely alter the structure of business putting sustainability at the core of the business supported by profit. Companies like The Vegetarian Express and Toast Ale are B corps, which means they have a legal requirement at board level to consider the environment, employees and society equally to shareholder value when making decisions.
For restaurants and caterers to succeed in the next decade, they will need to be able to offer a transparent supply chain, clearly communicate their choices regarding sustainability, and offer inclusive menus for a greater variety of diets. As sustainable living and eating becomes a central part of our thinking, I hope this decade will offer chefs both recognition and reward, not only as creative cooks, but also as the environmental stewards and educators they are becoming through dedication to their work and movements like the Chef’s Manifesto.
By Domini Hogg
Domini Hogg is founder of Tried and Supplied, a platform designed to help food buyers and restaurateurs find the very best sustainable and local British suppliers. She is also a blogger and podcaster at Saucy Dressings