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It’s been just over 10 years since the government first started talking about sustainability and how sustainability should be applied to the sourcing of food and its production.

At that time, I was asked to give a talk to a group of university caterers on how they could implement sustainability in their kitchens and how they should approach their supply chain.

Contrary to my belief at that time, sustainability has gone from strength to strength in all sectors with some of the top restaurants in the UK leading the way. I have also been pleasantly surprised at how some schools have started to grow their own produce demonstrating the farm to fork philosophy. So not surprisingly, we are often asked to implement a sustainable supply chain.

However the word sustainability is often misunderstood and is one of the most abused words in use today. For many, sustainability is just a means of satisfying a higher authority directive, or a way to generate more consumer sales.

Last week, I was in a restaurant in the heart of Essex and was surprised to see the words “local fish” on the menu. Naturally I asked where the fish came from and the answer was, it was from a local supplier. The fact that it may have come all the way from Norway was of no relevance to the restaurant.

If we go back to basics, sustainability is about “maintaining the conditions under which humans and nature can co-exist in productive harmony, ensuring a social, economic and environmental balance”.

The Social element is all about supporting disadvantaged groups, ethical trading, representative workforces and fair trade. The Economic element is about growth, employment, local produce, suppliers, SME’s and economies of scale. Finally, the Environmental element is all about water consumption, being carbon neutral, recycling, waste and whole life costs.

Now thinking about the above, you will see that it is possible to sustain one element at the expense of another. For example, would you buy sugar from British Sugar and sustain the UK economy or would you take the social view and buy from overseas sources and satisfy the social fair trade agenda?

In the local fish example above, we could argue that we are sustaining the depleted UK fish stocks by buying from Norway or even pangasius fish from Vietnam and supporting their social economy, but then what about food miles and the environment?

There are many examples of sustaining one thing at the expense of another.

So every time I am asked about implementing a sustainability solution, I respond, “What do you want to sustain?”

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