Hospitality should lead, not lag, in the sustainability stakes

Many of the world’s major industries have comprehended the serious challenges of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals and have taken steps to address their role in achieving these. Some industries, however, have been slower to react than others, including the hospitality sector. This may be attributed to the interesting paradox the hospitality sector now faces.

For hundreds and thousands of years, a bounty of exotic and rare produce has been the cornerstone of impressing rulers and societies elite. The trickle-down effect from this is the essence of hospitality – providing abundant food, drink, entertainment and shelter to guests. This industry, built from a seemingly endless bounty of resources, now has serious issues to confront: environmental sustainability and the food system’s impact on our natural resources. With water, soil and air pollution, major biodiversity loss, and up to 50% of all fruit and vegetables produced wasted, our food system cannot continue on this trajectory.

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The hospitality industry is hopelessly addicted to the current food system and furthermore, the current food system is fatally addicted to fossil fuels.

Our stocks of fossil fuel are not only on the wane, but are also recognised as the major contributor to climate change, water and air pollution. Oil, coal and gas are so intertwined with the current food industry, the agro-industrial industry, it is difficult to see how the industry and society can solve these growing challenges.

Oil is essential in the way food is currently mass produced. Oil is needed for the tractors to plough and harvest millions of acres of land. Oil is the base for the synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides used to produce the foods. Plus, oil is the base for all plastics used to store and transport the produce. Massive amounts of grain and crops are required to supply the industrial feedlots where a large majority of meats are produced, and huge amounts of coal and gas are burnt to power turbines enabling us to our produce refrigeration for transport and storage of the produce.

As humans, our consumptive habits are so extreme, they can be linked to the extinction of up to 60% of all species on the planet, destruction of old-growth rainforests, desertification and salinization of vast tracts of once fertile lands, and even influencing our planet Earths weather patterns. Our insatiable appetite, the lack of connection to our food system and the dangerous habits of taking more than we need may be the end to hospitality as we know it.

If sustainability is the new mission for all industries how does hospitality, an industry largely built on affluence react?

Today’s food professionals can either be environmental advocates or environmental destructors. Their menu choices are the difference between a fairer more sustainable food system benefiting all, or an unsustainable corrupted food system driven by price serving mainly the interests of multinational corporations.

Only a generation ago chefs were the pinnacle of the trade industry craftsman – 4 years of apprenticeship; bakery to butchery, ice-carving to menu design – many long hard and hot hours in a highly competitive arena for the sole purpose of servitude. Chefs were conservationists in their own right, often knowing their suppliers personally and the stories of their produce, customizing menus to fit seasonal changes and even growing produce for some dishes. Commercially, chefs were highly valued for their zero-waste ethos, incorporating trimmings and excess in either specials or sauces, all aware of the negative stigma attached to a heavy kitchen bin, always striving for efficiency.

Have we handicapped today’s chefs with convenience?

Today’s chefs have much less opportunity to innovate, to utilize scraps and excess, with much of the produce now coming part-prepared. Meats are trimmed and portioned to specific sizes and many even cooked off-site, portioned and cryovaced in your choice of sauce. Fruits and vegetables come peeled and sliced and even all the major sauces and stocks, the cornerstone of French cookery, conveniently powdered, frozen or in UHT portions for your benefit. Now the new norm for ordering is mouse clicks on stock images, using the online food ordering programs to streamline distributors accounts. Gone or going are the days of talking directly to a clipboard full of suppliers, now deemed too inefficient for the investor-operators.

This growing disconnect between the food system and the hospitality sector, combined with recent survey figures stating 80% of all staff witnessed food waste in their venues, does not hold us in good stead when we recognise the importance of sustainability for the future of the industry.

Researching the difficulties specifically facing the food service industry, it is apparent there are no recognised training programs aimed at professionals already in the industry wanting to upskill in the areas of environmental awareness and sustainability education. Whereas many other industries have long been developing and managing opportunities to mitigate their environmental impacts, the hospitality sector still trails behind.

Although the domestic household has been singled out for being responsible for the majority of all food wasted, a recent study from in Canada identifies the food service sector and the food production sector as being major culprits in food waste. These findings back up research which identified 80% of all hospitality staff have witnessed some form of food waste occurring at their venue. What may be even more disconcerting is that of the 20% who hadn’t witnessed food waste, a huge 68% was made up of senior management and/or owners and investors. This mismanagement, however, doesn’t stop at food waste. The same study also indicated electricity, water and gas were also wasted, with the culprit being staff behaviour and staff awareness. Many of these waste reduction principles that have traditionally been an essential part of a venue’s success are no longer taught or even recognised by the new generation of hospitality professionals.

For generations, the hospitality sector has evolved to influence or adapt to consumer trends, yet the challenge it now faces is understanding exactly how it fits into the changing climate. Sustainability awareness and education are essential for today’s hospitality professional, not only to help the business lessen its environmental impact, but also help to make a profit in an industry that is largely getting left behind.

Has cheap food and packaging created a false fantasy, a “there’s plenty more where that came from” mentality?

The first step forward is to identify the sustainability performance of a venue. Venue managers need to understand exactly what sustainability means to them and their venue. Understanding the basic cycles of all the inputs and outputs of the business should be fundamental in today’s industry. Starting with the flow of utilities – electricity, gas and water – where, why, how and when?

Can it be reduced? Can it be changed to a renewable resource? Can it be recycled?

How many waste streams are there in the venue and are they managed effectively and efficiently? Can any excess be redirected for reuse or is there a neighbour that can utilize the “waste”?

Waste management will become an integral part of the hospitality sector with some businesses already leading innovation in the revaluing of food waste, coffee grounds, packaging and reusable packing cartons. It is happening slowly, but the sector has a responsibility to be leading by example.

It may be that sustainability is a word that has been overused before the industry has really comprehended what it means to the future of the sector. However, now is the time for the industry to work together as one, to collaborate and share information, to invest back into the consumers and the producers of its products, and to reattach itself to the natural resources that it is so dependant on.

As hospitality professionals, it is all our responsibility to manage the sustainability of not only our business but all the businesses in our input/output cycles. This is essential for the future of our environment and also the longevity of each business.

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