Food Supply Chains and Data: Starting Sustainability Conversations

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By Andrea Learned on behalf of Scope 5

As in any other business addressing sustainability concerns, so goes the food business. Water scarcity, carbon emissions and keeping records all play into the big picture and matter, a lot, for smart management decisions.

But compared with other industries, the broader context around those concerns in the global food supply chain holds even greater significance. That particular industry must see far past any single four-walled operational boundaries and instead make decisions in a complex “ecosystem” of facts, figures and conversations. That’s why the smartest food supply chain conversations today begin with data.

Harvesting information

I recently talked with Good Company sustainability consultants Justin Overdevest and Kelly Hoell about how their small- and medium-sized food industry clients manage for operational efficiencies. As they see it, one key in the evolution of these businesses over recent years has been the ability to select customized data points that matter to their specific business model in order to more nimbly gather, manage and report sustainability performance.

“When companies develop their sustainability programs, it is important that they take the time to identify the environmental, social and economic indicators that actually matter for their specific context,” Hoell advised. There are plenty of sustainability frameworks to use, like the Global Reporting Initiative, that have identified hundreds of measurable indicators. Yet, many of those indicators may end up being of little use for small- and medium-sized businesses. With regard to SMEs in the food industry, Hoell and Overdevest have found: “Prioritizing the most relevant indicators from the start, and then adding new indicators as resources allow, is the key to effective management.” Less, done well, is much more powerful than more, done poorly.

One example of dialing into sustainability business specifics would be Good Company’s medium-sized client, Fresherized Foods, makers of Wholly Guacamole. As a company that works with many long-haul distribution companies to send their product to retail markets around the country, Fresherized uses data management tool Scope 5 to examine the efficiency of its various carriers. [Full disclosure, Scope 5 is a client of mine.] After inputting the freight and logistics data into that tool, the company’s sustainability manager analyzed the information to find opportunities for efficiency and cost reduction. The opportunities that emerged were so important that it led the company to create a position just for transportation logistics. That manager now coordinates all distribution and LTL (less than truck load) vendors and logistics leading to fuel, cost and greenhouse gas reductions. Talk about well-selected data indicators…

Packaging complexity

As exemplified by that one example, there can be so many moving parts in farming and the food industry that it might be easier to focus just on the direct indicators and decisions in your own business. But the wisest choice in the vast ecosystem of the food industry is actually to “look up” and notice what else is going on around you. Only then can a business see when there are ways to collaborate with others in the food industry to provide mutual benefit.

On the collaborative front, there are many things one food business experiences that can also affect others in the industry. Those might include subtle changes in weather, longer-term climate change or shifts in workforce over time (the same workers, with the same level of experience, may not be back every year/season). Concerns like greenhouse gas emissions, similarly, have incredibly complex influences to account for and which likely affect most other farms – like the context of location, management regime, and whether fields are rain-fed or irrigated. The point is: These issues come up for everyone, so discovering and sharing information to find better ways of doing things can make a lot of sense.

Once a food business does leverage their data to find their own operational efficiencies, it is then that much easier to understand the power in combining with like-focused companies to better organize or scale. The Sustainable Food Trade Association and the Organicology conference are two Pacific Northwest-based organizations that align and combine efforts of food business owners and operators around data-driven emerging opportunities.

Shipping sustenance sustainably

For all of that to take place, sharing a spreadsheet will simply not do. Not surprisingly, the developing food industry shift from spreadsheet to a tool like Scope 5 is not simply a preference for the few “techie” types who upload the data. Accessible and transparent data, for even the least tech-minded participant, has instead become the name of the game.

As the Good Company team shared, Fresherized Foods presents a helpful example of this, again: One or two people previously had the responsibility to collect and upload the data via the usual spreadsheet, and then email that around. Today, that data is entered on location (three farms in Latin America and one in the United States), right where it is gathered, and then made much more accessible to all those involved, every step of the way.

By using the Scope 5 cloud, in this instance, stakeholders can note the historical patterns and spot anomalies. They can also pull up charts on each emission source to identify and make changes. Data in a cloud makes it easier for anyone to load crucial information, for more team members (farmers to managers) to access it, for more people to see and make decisions more rapidly, to build longer-term wisdom and adjust for real-time issues (like, for instance, droughts). And, those are just a few of the possibilities.

Data-driven conversations

For farmers and the food industry, truly accessible, real-time data can start incredibly productive conversations and uncover operational efficiencies that make a huge difference. The democratization of data — or making this everyone’s responsibility, and not just a “data team’s” — leads to more engagement with employees, supply chain stakeholders and beyond. This means that what matters most to your particular business’s unique operations and goals will more likely be identified and addressed in a timely manner. With the help of data in this fluid form, small- and medium-sized businesses in the food industry can start and continue conversations, and compete more productively with the big guys in a mission most critical.

Image credit: Anoldent via Flickr

Andrea Learned is an author and sustainability-focused thought leadership strategist with a particular expertise in gender and leadership. Named one of Triple Pundit’s 30 CSR Pros to follow, she regularly shares her unique perspective and curates business leadership topics via her Twitter feed and blog, Learned On.

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