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The Challenge to Sustainability

This past week, I had the privilege of spending a day with industry leaders in the foodservice space, a meeting of the minds that was both informative and challenging. The room buzzed with input from all corners of the sector, ranging from leading brands like Bank of America, Wells Fargo, and Duke University, to distribution leaders like Compass Group, to manufacturing and supplier partners like KCooper Brands, Restaurantware, LLC, Hungry Giant Waste Systems, and others.

The day was not just about sharing ideas but also about realizing the gaps in the foodservice industry, particularly in the understanding and application of sustainability. And at the core of the sustainability challenges in the foodservice industry lies a single, pivotal element: people.

People are the challenge to sustainability.

People, with their differing perspectives, varying expertise, and often conflicting priorities, are the linchpin in this complex machinery. The issue is multifaceted—it ranges from inconsistent understandings and applications of the term "sustainability," to the juggling act of balancing cost, efficiency, and performance. These human-centric hurdles present themselves in many forms, from the boardroom to the supply chain—each individual's unique approach can either propel the industry forward or hold it back. This critical factor of human influence and interaction plays a decisive role in shaping the sustainability initiatives and overall efficiency of the foodservice landscape.

From my perspective, here's three areas of critical importance that have become barriers to sustainability.

Inconsistent Interpretation of "Sustainability"

The concept of "sustainability" in the foodservice industry is not uniformly understood or applied, leading to significant variance in its execution. This inconsistency stems from differing interpretations and priorities among stakeholders. For instance, while one person might prioritize carbon footprint reduction, another may focus on sustainable sourcing or waste management. This divergence not only complicates the conversation around sustainability but also impacts the implementation of effective practices. 

Our approach at KCooper Brands has been to distill these complexities into more tangible, measurable outcomes, such as demonstrable reductions in carbon footprint across the entire supply chain, which resonate more clearly with our customer partners.

Clashing Priorities and Competing Interests

The complex nature of the foodservice industry often leads to conflicting priorities among people. Organizations grapple with balancing cost, efficiency, performance, and sustainability, frequently finding these elements at odds with one another. This clash can lead to sustainability initiatives being sidelined, particularly in the absence of robust leadership support. 

At KCooper Brands, our focus on integrating the entire supply chain into our product development allows us to offer solutions where sustainability does not have to be sacrificed for cost or efficiency, aligning these competing interests into complementary ones.

Gaps in Knowledge and Understanding

Perhaps the most significant challenge is the prevalent knowledge gaps within the industry. A lack of awareness or understanding about sustainability practices can severely hinder progress. Distributors and manufacturers, aware of these gaps, may even exploit them for commercial advantage. During our interactions, it became apparent that providing education and insights to our clients was crucial. 

Based on our approach at KCooper Brands, I offered guidance on key aspects such as efficient raw material selection, optimizing production processes to reduce waste, and enhancing supply chain efficiencies.

The Path Forward: Education and Collaboration

To overcome these barriers to sustainability, it's critical to foster a culture of continuous learning and collaboration within the industry. Educating stakeholders about the different aspects of sustainability, from raw material sourcing to product disposal, and encouraging transparent communication can bridge knowledge gaps. Collaboration, both within organizations and with external partners, can help us all align differing priorities and foster a shared vision for sustainable practices.

Addressing the human barrier to sustainability in the foodservice industry requires a strategic approach that integrates three key components: simplifying the subject, using data to tell a story, and tailoring the story to the recipient.

1. Simplify the Subject

The complexity of sustainability and supply chain issues can be overwhelming. To effectively educate and engage stakeholders, it's crucial to simplify these subjects. This simplification involves breaking down complex concepts into understandable and relatable terms. 

For example, instead of diving into the technicalities of carbon footprint calculations, at KCooper Brands we illustrate the impact of sustainability practices on everyday operations and long-term costs. By presenting information in a straightforward, easily digestible format, we make the subject more accessible, encouraging stakeholders to take actionable steps towards sustainability.

2. Use Data to Tell a Story

Data is a powerful tool in changing perceptions and driving decisions. However, raw data alone can be dry and difficult to interpret. The key is to transform this data into a compelling narrative. This involves selecting relevant data points and weaving them into a story that resonates with the audience. 

Instead of just presenting figures on waste reduction, at KCooper Brands we explain how these reductions translate into cost savings and environmental impact over time. By telling a story, we make the data more engaging and persuasive, allowing stakeholders to see the tangible benefits of sustainable practices and how one decision today can literally impact generations.

3. Tailor the Story to the Recipient

Different stakeholders have different priorities and concerns. Because of this, the way we present our sustainability stories must be tailored to the specific interests and needs of the audience. For C-suite executives, the focus might be on long-term profitability and brand reputation. For procurement managers, the emphasis might be on cost-efficiency and supply chain reliability.

By customizing the sustainability story we tell to suit our audience's priorities, our team at KCooper Brands ensures our message is not only heard but also acted upon. This tailored approach cultivates a deeper understanding and encourages stakeholders to become active participants in sustainability initiatives.

Education and Collaboration as a Unified Strategy

Integrating these three components creates a unified strategy for education and collaboration. Simplifying the subject makes it more approachable, using data to tell a story makes it more compelling, and tailoring the story ensures it is relevant and impactful. This strategy not only bridges knowledge gaps but also aligns stakeholders' priorities towards a common goal. It fosters a culture of continuous learning and collaboration, essential for driving sustainable practices in the foodservice distribution industry. 

Through this approach, I believe we can transform the foodservice industry's challenges into opportunities for innovation and progress.


Nate Calvert

Nate Calvert is the VP of Marketing at KCooper Brands, overseeing our brand development and brand presence while promoting institutional effectiveness across our family of brands.


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