All businesses have to consider their bottom line; unless they can make a profit, they cease to exist. In some cases, this can mean that workers who provide raw materials, such as food items or textiles, are exploited. In other situations, the western world’s consumers demand particular fruits or vegetables all year round, regardless of the transport costs and environmental impact of moving products many thousands of miles.
Many manufacturers and retailers now choose to alleviate at least some of these problems by subscribing to ethical fair trade practices, which ensures that the producers and farmers who supply the raw materials receive a fair price for their products and that the workers are not exploited. More information on this is available from http://www.fairtrade.org.uk/en/what-is-fairtrade.
It is easy to identify food products which use fair trade ingredients, with the distinctive logo incorporated into the printed labels. Some consumers deliberately choose such labelled items, so that they know they are “doing their bit” to support fair trade in the developing countries.
A more difficult dilemma is the growing consumer demand for out-of-season fruits and vegetables, regardless of the implications for the environment of the transportation of such items. It is possible to argue that the benefits to the farmers and other food producers of having a larger market outweigh the adverse environmental issues.
A few restaurants have taken the stance that their unique selling point is that they supply only food that uses local, in-season ingredients. This can sometimes be difficult to sustain and certainly tests the ingenuity and creativity of the chefs, but is undoubtedly to be admired on ethical grounds.
There are also concerns about the effect of widespread use of pesticides on growing food crops, so that there is an increasing demand for organic foodstuffs that can guarantee to be completely free of such chemicals. Some controversy exists about whether organic foods have any higher nutritional value than non-organic foods, but it seems sound advice to wash all fruit and vegetables under cold running water before eating or cooking.
Some possible solutions
Transport is not the only aspect that affects the environmental impact of food products. The food industry has to comply with an enormous range of conditions and standards in the manufacturing processes, hygiene and health and safety issues and packaging and labelling. Keeping abreast with (sometimes frequently changing) requirements can be very difficult.
One way of avoiding waste for in the food industry is to have an in-house label printer, so that there are no stockpiles of labels that soon become out of date and are therefore redundant. More information on the most suitable type of label printer for different businesses is available from quicklabel, depending on whether the need is for short run label printing, or runs of many thousands. This means the business can select environmentally friendly inks and paper or other labelling materials.
Another consideration is the amount of packaging that is used. There has been a trend in recent months to have less packaging, therefore less environmental impact because fewer trees are needed for the paper or cardboard and there is less waste when the packaging is discarded. Whereas many products used to have a whole cardboard box, with all the relevant information, barcodes, product labels and logos, nutritional details and sell-by/use-by dates, with a plastic covered inside container, these have often been replaced by a cardboard outer sleeve that is less than half the size of a full box. This is obviously cheaper for the food manufacturer to use as well, so there is a benefit to looking at the most effective packaging for different products.
A further increasing trend is to make more use of recyclable materials for packaging. Most local authorities have recycling targets, so that they provide special bins for plastics, paper, cardboard and tin for their customers, to encourage good practice in this area. There are collection points for glass jars and bottle in many supermarkets, as well as in local authority facilities. Food manufacturers can gain “brownie points” by using recyclable packaging where possible.
Finally, one of the biggest complications for anyone involved in the food industry – whether producing, transporting, catering or selling - is avoiding wasted or damaged goods. A system for rotating foods so that the shortest dated are used first is a basic requirement and must be instilled into every employee. Close monitoring of quantities and demand is also essential. It might be better to run out of a particular product than to have large quantities of it thrown out if it becomes out of date. This requires very careful management, including factors that might affect seasonal demand.
No-one said it was easy, but anticipating where problems might occur and taking steps to avoid them, together with sound management practices, can go a long way to helping a food business be both “green” and ethical.
About the Author
Jane Woodcroft has been a customer service manager at QuickLabel Systems for several years. She has a wide experience of advising customers on every aspect of their label printing requirements in many different industries.
Outside of her job, Jane enjoys “dabbling with paints” and has had a couple of exhibitions of her work.