What I learnt about climate change during my placement in the food industry

Roser Preuss (she/her) is an October 2020 Associate who did her first placement at Cotswold Fayre. There she worked on measuring and improving the environmental sustainability of its supply chain.

Roser Preuss blog

My wakeup call to the finite nature of our planet's resources came while racing across the Atlantic ocean on a yacht in 2013. Half way through the crossing our watermaker broke. The only spare watermaker had already been used by another competitor and all our attempts at fixing ours failed. We were in tropical heat, in the doldrums, 20 people onboard and nothing to drink. We paused racing, motored 12 hours to the nearest yacht, which produced as much water as possible for us. There we filled every tank, container, dry bag (emptied of clothes) and bottle aboard. Collectively we decided to continue racing to Rio de Janeiro. Our mindsets changed. We started conserving every drop of water. We used ocean water mixed with fresh water to cook. We collected rain and rationed drinking water. We adapted and a few weeks later made it successfully to the finish.

Seven years on, having worked in supply chain, strategy and tech, in October 2020 I joined On Purpose and started my placement as Sustainability Manager at Cotswold Fayre. Cotswold Fayre is a fine food wholesaler for farm shops, garden centers and convenience stores. It is also a B Corp, a movement of businesses committed to maximising all stakeholder value not just shareholder value. B Corps undergo a rigorous assessment measuring how they impact workers, the planet, customers and communities.

Cotswold Fayre came to On Purpose with the intention of turning its attention upstream to its ca. 350 suppliers and to how it buys products. “What is the environmental impact of our supply chain?” and “How can we improve it?” were the two central questions to my placement. During my placement I measured the impact of our supply chain by asking all of our suppliers to complete an assessment based on the environment section of B Corp’s “B Impact Assessment”. This translated to a score between 0 and 45 points for each supplier and gave us an indication of the overall impact of our supply chain.

From this starting point we can now begin to reduce our environmental impact. We are working one-to-one with suppliers as well as organising educational webinars. Our current approach is to leverage the knowledge in our community of suppliers plus the experience we have accumulated from having been a B Corp since 2015. This is only the starting point, and key for the long term is finding the balance between supporting suppliers to improve versus using our buying power to decrease any harm caused to the environment.

So what did I learn about climate change during the last six months?

1. The biggest threat to combating climate change is the universal feeling of powerlessness and collective apathy. While climate change is a complex, non-linear and daunting problem, we will not solve it by doing nothing. From reading “Future Earth” by Eric Holthaus, I’ve learnt that we have a choice: to be hopeful and take action, or to give up. While we are still alive on this planet we haven’t lost yet - so I will choose to remain hopeful and use my power and voice as a citizen, consumer, employee, friend and family member.

An antidote to apathy and powerlessness is the empowerment that comes with personal action. Cotswold Fayre’s office is powered by green energy and one by one employees have switched their home energy providers to green suppliers too. One colleague refers any new colleague and donates the referral bonus to the company’s charity, the Bala Children’s Centre in Kenya. A few weeks into working at Cotswold Fayre, I wanted to be part of this movement, and changed my home energy provider too.

2. Our planet’s resources are finite. There are nine planetary boundaries within which humanity can continue to develop and thrive for generations to come. We are surpassing some of these planetary boundaries already (using more than the planet can restore), and as Kate Raworth writes in Doughnut Economics: we are doing it without serving the needs of all of humanity.

3. One of the planetary boundaries that we have surpassed is climate change. In line with the Paris Agreement we need to achieve a carbon neutral world by 2050 in order to limit global warming to well below 2 degrees Celsius compared to pre-industrial levels.

As an individual, I calculated my annual carbon footprint using the WWF footprint calculator and started weighing off personal choices like the food I consume, the methods of transportation I use, how my pension is invested and what kind of energy I use to heat and light my home.

As an employee of a food business, I learnt that the food industry produces about a quarter of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. Businesses have a responsibility to measure and reduce their emissions, with the option of offsetting any hard-to-reduce emissions in the interim.

4. There is also an urgent problem with plastic pollution: The Breaking the Plastic Waste report shows that by 2040 we will have 2x more plastic production, 3x more plastic leakage and 4x more plastic stock in the ocean. Current commitments by governments and industry only reduce these predictions by 7%. We need to reduce and substitute (less plastic); recycle, compost or reuse (better plastic); and re-invent the plastics value chain, from design to waste management and recycling (better systems) - and most importantly we need to pull all these levers in a systemic way.

Running out of water in the middle of the Atlantic taught me an appreciation for our planet’s resources and showed me how adaptable we are. Looking back at the above list of learnings, half way through the On Purpose Associate programme, I’m grateful to have embarked on this journey. It has made me stop and open my eyes to important issues and has changed the trajectory of my life in a meaningful and important way.

Photo by SAIRA on Unsplash