Safe or sustainable does not have to be a choice

You are running an office canteen, a hotel buffet, an airport lounge. The world is starting to open up and you want to get your business back on track. In fact, we all want your business to get back on track because the future of the hospitality industry and, more broadly, our economy is relying on companies like yours. Reopening, of course, requires you to take precautions around food preparation and service, ensuring cleanliness and reassuring customers that their food is safe.

But there is a problem.

As a good business you have spent the last five years re-thinking, re-engineering and re-branding to make your food outlet more environmentally friendly. And now, in the post-lockdown world, you are faced with the potential that your beautiful spreads of sustainable serve-yourself meals will be replaced with a sea of plastic-wrapped food and single-use cutlery.

What do you do? Safety or sustainability: which is your priority?

When the coronavirus pandemic hit, the world was in the midst of one of the most significant shifts in public opinion on environmental sustainability that we have ever seen. What was often called the ‘Greta Thunberg effect’ was in fact the culmination of years of advancing climate science, the building of the business case for sustainability, and the growing everyday visibility of climate change impacts, brought to life so powerfully by a teenage activist. For many people, the trigger issue was plastic. Ocean plastics, packaging recyclability and microplastics have not only become topics people care about, but drivers of their purchasing behaviour. The single-use culture that had been building for so many years was at the point of collapse under a wave of support for longer-lasting and reusable solutions to almost everything. And then Covid arrived.

Contrary to pessimism early in the crisis, there has been a remarkable continuation in environmental progress, particularly by corporations that have stuck to, and even extended, their emission-reduction goals. However, in a health crisis like the one we are living through, there must be limits to our commitment. Public health must come first. Disposable masks and gloves, single-use delivery containers, the widespread use of chemicals: these are the measures that have to be taken in an emergency.

And so the crisis continues today, but the context has changed. We are no longer in rapid-response mode; we are starting to build a new normal and have more time to consider what that should look like. This emerging world will require new and imaginative solutions to help us slowly let go of our pandemic-induced reliance on unsustainable tools and find new ways to live and operate in the longer-term. Safe or sustainable does not have to be a choice. We must resist the urge to return to almost-forgotten bad habits of disposability. We have to be creative.

So what to do in our canteen? How can we serve food in a way that is hygienic, reassuring to the customer, and yet does not resort back to single-use plastic?  I was speaking recently with someone whose business is already showing us an answer. For their corporate canteen buffet the easy solution was clear: portion out food onto disposable plates and cover them with cling-film. But this business was more innovative.

The buffet has now been replaced with a ‘final prep’ food setup. Customers are served by a chef in protective gear who, when an order is made, will undertake the final stages of cooking that individual dish there and then. This could be anything from tossing in a wok to heating in a microwave, ensuring that the food is piping hot and safely handled, all in the view of the customer. Keeping a full staff means dishes and cutlery are regularly cleaned and sterilised and the whole process is done with no more plastic or waste than in the past.

As economic pressures mount, business across all industries will be under pressure to make choices that prioritise safety and the bottom line over sustainability. It is critical that they do not succumb to this false binary. Businesses need to be clear: we care about keeping people safe, we care about the environment, and we will not compromise on either.

Giles Gibbons is the Founder and CEO of Good Business –  a transformative strategy, behaviour change and sustainability consultancy. If you enjoyed this post, check out our  recent podcast with Giles.

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