What are footprints for again?

Sensemaking / What are footprints for again?

Andrew Kuyk asks how to manage the tricky relationship between figures and other facts.

17 Sep 2012

Andrew Kuyk asks how to manage the tricky relationship between figures and other facts.

'What gets measured gets managed' is a central dictum of modern business theory – and for obvious reasons. Unless you know how much of something you are using, it is difficult to judge the consequences, or decide how much effort to devote to using less. So, it's no surprise that food manufacturers are using footprints to measure their greenhouse gas emissions, water use, and even the impacts of their operations on biodiversity.

Before we run away with ourselves, let's ask where we're going with all these footprints

But before we run away with ourselves, let's take a moment to ask where we're going with all these footprints. Of course, anyone investing time and money in measurements hopes to learn something – but what will they do with the data? Package it up neatly for consumers? Slot it into procurement questionnaires? Or might they use it to take a fresh look at the fundamentals of their work…?

Take carbon. It's where most businesses first came across footprinting, and it was a fairly self-evident starting point. The direct relation of carbon emissions to both climate change and energy costs made it easy to demonstrate that good environmental practice makes good business sense. It also helps that a tonne of carbon in the atmosphere has roughly the same effect whether it's produced in the UK or China, and can be measured in units familiar to consumers.

It was to help these figures find their use that the Food and Drink Federation worked with the Carbon Trust to pioneer the first recognised global standard for product carbon footprinting: the PAS2050. This work was an integral part of our original Five-fold Environmental Ambition, launched nearly five years ago to set food production on a more sustainable footing.

The standard is now used by global brands such as Coca-Cola, and retailer M&S. But what about consumers? Any food picked off the shelf will vary enormously in carbon emissions according to when, where and how it was produced. For some products this will change according to the price and availability of raw materials and ingredients. Displaying this information accurately on a pack risks being enormously complex and expensive. And that's before you begin to ask how comparable data could be provided for fresh produce, or for food sold by caterers, restaurants and take-aways, where portion size is another complicating factor...

Knowing how many grams of carbon went into making a particular product does not necessarily help consumers understand the significance of their impact, or what they ought to do about it. They may not be aware that they account for about a third of the total footprint over that product's lifecycle – by storing it, cooking it, or simply discarding it as waste. These 'usage' emissions will almost certainly exceed those of the manufacturing process – with the largest share of all coming from the basic ingredients at the farm.

Water is even more difficult to measure, as its impact depends critically on where it comes from and how it might be used. A rain-fed crop will have a different effect on local resources to one irrigated from a bore-hole which might also supply drinking water. Similarly, water used to grow a cash crop for export can hardly be compared to water from the same reserves used to provide sanitation or produce food for local consumption. You can tot up the number of litres involved, but this figure alone will tell us very little about the real world impact on people or ecosystems.

Biodiversity is more difficult still. We don't even have agreement on how to measure it.

So, is it right to expect consumers to make sense of all this at point of purchase? Or should we focus our efforts, instead, on getting it right in our supply chains? If we spend our time on this, rather than adding to the mass of facts and figures already on packs (ingredients, additives, nutrition, origin, use, shelf-life, storage and recycling), we may find we have some space to communicate better about what sustainability really means.

Andrew Kuyk is Director, Sustainability and Competitiveness Division, Food and Drink Federation.

Food and Drink Federation is a Forum for the Future partner.

Photo: istock/thinkstock


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