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Bosses should speak truth to power

In the spirit of this post I will get straight to the point. I have a polite request to make of business leaders in the foodservice sector: make 2023 the year you use your voice and status to make governments take sustainability more seriously.

The reason is simple. Experts in climate science and food system sustainability are largely in agreement that UK government policies to deliver net-zero, nature recovery and other key environmental objectives are hopelessly underpowered. From the net-zero strategy through to the government response to Henry Dimbleby’s food strategy the gap between what experts say is required and current government policy is yawning.

Part of the reason for this is an institutional fear among politicians – particularly, although not exclusively, those on the right – of being seen to place unnecessary burdens on business. Business-friendly regulation is less regulation according to the conventional Whitehall playbook.

For some years I’ve been convinced this is simply not the case. Conversations I have with business leaders suggest that business-friendly regulation is in fact good regulation which creates a level playing field whereby laggards in areas such as health and sustainability don’t stand to profit from their inaction. Good regulation also provides businesses with the certainty they need to invest.

I’ve become even more convinced of this following the response to a recent article I wrote in which food industry experts were asked to offer some predictions for 2023. Here’s a sample of responses to the question ‘what do you want to hear from government(s) in 2023?’ “Mandate the measurement and reporting of food waste”. “Enact more legislation to ensure the polluter pays.” “[Accelerate] leadership, commitment and action […] to cut carbon emissions.”

It’s language you might expect to hear from agitators within the NGO community rather than senior leaders in the foodservice sector, yet the executives involved are from Sodexo, Adnams and KFC respectively.

It’s encouraging that industry leaders have the confidence to express such views in print, but it’s not enough to uproot the political consensus that for businesses red tape is like a red rag to a bull.

On the contrary, politicians are quicker than ever to row back from interventionist policies at the first sign of rebellion, even though the backlash is invariably led by trade bodies who by their nature have to adopt the position of the least progressive members (the recent retreat on junk food promotions is a case in point).

Yet businesses do have the power to advance environmental and social causes when they are prepared to put their heads above the parapet. Tesco is a good example. The grocer’s transformation under former CEO Dave Lewis saw the ex-Unilever boss position it as an advocate of more interventionist policies, perhaps most notably on the subject of food waste. It’s surely no coincidence that the government last year mustered the courage to consult on mandatory food waste reporting (whether it will be brave enough to enact it is a different matter), something Lewis had consistently called for in public fora and that Tesco has for several years published voluntarily.

I’m not advocating that food sector CEOs march on Downing Street with megaphone in hand and a Benny Hill soundtrack on repeat (anti-Brexit campaigner Steve Bray has already cornered that particular market) but I would like to see leaders being more forceful and public in stating a view that I believe is held by a largely silent majority – that governments help businesses when they create a clear, consistent framework for delivering national ambitions such as net-zero.

It’s not rocket science to state that if businesses are to deliver against their net-zero ambitions they will need the state to provide the infrastructure and policies that, for example, support the electrification of the road network; provide incentives for more sustainable farming; or deliver consistent waste collections and recycling.

Consider too the big catering businesses – like Compass and Sodexo – that have put a shift to more plant-based menus at the centre of their net-zero transition. A government prepared to advocate for less and better meat consumption – by incorporating sustainability into dietary guidelines for instance – could help drive market demand. But beyond nutrition, calling for dietary change remains politically toxic. Imagine how that might change if the heads of corporations that buy meat in large volumes told ministers this is the kind of language they are comfortable hearing.

The Labour party under Sir Keir Starmer has launched a charm offensive among company bosses as it seeks to snatch the mantle of ‘the party of business’ from the Conservatives, who will surely retaliate in kind. This puts business leaders in a powerful position leading up to the next general election. Those wanting to see a more assertive government where food and environmental issues are concerned must not let the opportunity go to waste.

*This blog is adapted from an article published by Footprint Media

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