There were two notable refrains at the 2017 Sustainology Summit: First, sustainability done right is intrinsically profitable—and must be in order to be viable from a business perspective. Second, considering the escalating climate crisis and diminishing natural resources globally, sustainable thinking is imperative for the survival of both individuals and corporations. Big food has perhaps arrived at what Viktor Friedberg, co-founder of Seed 2 Growth, called ”the food industry’s Kodak moment.” That is, the moment where you, a member of Kodak’s board, hear of digital photography for the first time: What course do you take?
This year’s summit, the first under the new name Sustainology, provided a forum for thought-leaders and change-makers to look at possible new paths, to explore creative solutions and discuss further action.
”The study [of sustainability] is one of the most important things today,” said Michael M. Roberts, Global Head of Corporate Banking and Lending, Citigroup, in his introductory remarks. ”That is the idea of this conference; to create that knowledge space. To bring together the sharpest minds from Sweden and the United States, to put you all in a room together, whether you are in academics or in business, entrepreneurs, all sorts of people making it a wonderful event with a great diversity of views.”
The conference was generously hosted by Citigroup in the company’s global headquarters in TriBeCa and chaired by Nina Ekelund, Executive Director of the Haga Initiative. During the first half of the day, participants were treated to a wide range of takes on sustainability and technology as pertaining to food, with a number of innovators giving eight-minute presentations on their ideas, Thomas McQuillan of Baldor Foods quipped this was ”speed-dating for sustainability.” After a delicious lunch which offered contemporary takes on classical Swedish dishes, there were five interactive workshops, held in tandem, where participants could further immerse themselves in topics such as Building Food Tech Bridges Between USA and Europe, Doing Good is Good Business, and Sensory Marketing—Awaken Your Senses.
Many of the trends that are changing every aspect of life and the business sector, such as data collection and AI, are of course shaping the future of food as well. But there are also problems and solutions unique to this incredibly pervasive and all-encompassing field. Every aspect was examined, from supply chain to plate, touching on the hypothetical as well as the concrete. Urban farming, hydroponics, micro greens grown in basements, new ways of thinking about everything from transportation of groceries, to improved health through super foods, to what we do with food scraps. Because there is no life without nourishment, or as one might put it, everybody eats.
In an increasingly urban and global world, where it isn’t unusual for the items on one plate to come from China, Chile, and California, it is time to rethink the production chain (and location). That can mean urban farming where, as Tobias Peggs, Co-founder and CEO of Square Roots, said ”the farmer can pick your lunch in the morning and deliver it to you at your desk by bicycle;” Or, ”one source, one community,” the Absolut Company’s philosophy as outlined by Anna Schreil, VP Operations at Absolut, where all suppliers from grain, to bottles, to caps, are local and the company feeds byproducts to local livestock to close the circle.
Fredrika Gullfot, Founder of Simris Alg, demonstrated another innovate example of how sustainability can be greatly enhanced by shortening the production chain. The company sells omega-3 supplements derived from algae, rather than from fish oil, thereby eliminating the loss of enormous amounts of byproducts.
Packaging & Transportation
One way of cutting fuel and emissions is off-hours deliveries. Jeffrey Wojtowicz, Senior Research Engineer at the Volvo-funded Center for Infrastructure, Transportation and the Environment (CITE) at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute described the NYC off-hours delivery program, started in 2007, through which about 50 receivers get their goods between 7 pm and 6 am, thereby reducing congestion, idling, and excessive trips around the block. This simple change saved 40 percent in environmental emissions.
Reducing packaging is another cost- and energy-saver. Andreas Jeppson, Managing Director of Ecolean, gave a presentation on his company’s groundbreaking lightweight soft packaging which not just cuts transportation costs and associated emissions, but also minimizes food waste by maximizing ”squeezability.”
”I tell every millennial I see that the food industry is the future because it is primed for change,” said Björn Öste, Founder and CEO of Good Idea, a functional drink that lowers blood sugar after a meal, thus reducing the risk of diabetes in the consumer.
The Summit offered several perspectives on food as an essential tool for wellness, whether in the form of designer super foods, like Good Idea, or a return to simple, whole ingredients. Robert Brummer, Professor of Gastroenterology and Clinical Nutrition at Örebro University, called for a shift to a ”wellness paradigm,” as an alternative to ”the illness paradigm.” The former being an approach whereby we eat to prevent disorders later in life, rather than focusing on our immediate well-being once a disorder is already present.
Most things currently in landfills are reusable, as Thomas McQuillan, Director of Food Service Sales and Sustainability at Baldor Specialty Foods, pointed out.
McQuillan spoke of sustainability as maximization of one’s assets. He has helped his company arrive at zero waste when it comes to in-store food production by such measures as saving carrot scraps for reuse in carrot cakes and using other vegetable scraps to create a flavor-enhancing vegetable powder for cooking. In doing so he has demonstrated how the simple act of cutting waste can yield enormous results when it comes to both cost-effectiveness and environmental impacts.