Blog: Dean BestCIES - closing thoughts

Dean Best | 20 June 2008

After sitting in a bar of Germans cheering on their football team last night (yes, I am a bitter Englishman), it was a relief to return to the orderly calm of the CIES World Food Business Summit in Munich this morning (20 June).

As just-food has reported this week, the conference has provided a fascinating snapshot of the work food manufacturers and retailers are doing in the complex field of sustainability.

However, many of the more thought-provoking views on the issue have come from outside the industry. Aviation giant Airbus implored the food industry to work harder on sustainability before it becomes seen as a contributor to problems like climate change. Advertising group BBDO warned that the old communication strategies (and by old, the firm meant just a few years ago) are no longer relevant in an era of Facebook and iPhones. Food suppliers and manufacturers would have received plenty of food for thought.

That’s not to say that the industry is not making significant strides on sustainability. The likes of UK retailer Waitrose and French food group Danone have developed innovative strategies on issues like sourcing and improving nutrition in the developing world.

It is these more innovative ideas that have really grabbed the attention this week.

However, as we all know, innovation costs money. And in the global economic downturn in which we are all operating, how easy will it be for you to keep investing in sustainability? And will consumers still be switched on to such issues when they are watching the pounds in their purse?

As the conference draws to a close, there could, on reflection, have been more debate here on how important corporate and social responsibility and embracing the sustainability agenda is – right now – in this more uncertain economic climate.

This is pertinent given the pressure publicly-listed companies are under to meet short-term targets on profit. The up-front costs and longer-term mindset needed on issues like carbon emissions do not fit well with this pressure.

There was, however, one glimpse into the minds of the audience here on that very point. Delegates, throughout the event, had been asked to vote on a series of questions on sustainability in between presentations.

One question this morning asked how an economic downturn would affect a company’s sustainability strategy. Just shy of half – 48.4% – said their investment “would be reduced but core areas would be maintained”.

Plenty of food for thought, indeed.


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