A recipe for post-Covid success: food and drink sector and the circular economy

2 June 2021


Alison McRae, senior director at Glasgow Chamber of Commerce which hosts Circular Glasgow

First published in the Scottish Sunday Express, May 30th 2021

A bitter taste was left in the mouth of businesses from every sector during 2020, and as one of the worst affected in the UK, the food and drink industry has found itself forced to innovate, adapt and re-evaluate, where possible, in a bid to survive.

We have witnessed restaurants which were once sit in only move to takeaway, while pubs across the city have been offering alcohol drink collections. Another noticeable shift we have seen is food and drink businesses taking the time to look at their supply chains and waste journey. The implementation of circular business models could serve up some huge successes for those in the food and drink sector. If initiated effectively, such models are known to increase profits, reduce costs and tap into new markets. Ultimately, it is good for business.

The circular economy presents a fundamental economic model shift, which means rethinking and transforming full value chains to create waste-less and restorative systems which will benefit the planet. Fundamentally, we need to change how we manage resources and produce and consume products, creating a circular economy where we make effective use of the resources we already have.

There is $4.5 trillion worth of business value estimated to be untapped in circular business systems, and at a time when every sector is moving towards post-Covid recovery and the ‘new normal’ is still being figured out, there is no time like the present for companies to capitalise on this moment of evolution and help reduce the speed of climate change.

The climate emergency is a global problem, and despite the Covid-19 pandemic, attitudes and behaviours around rectifying the issue have only become more affirmed, giving rise to environmentally friendly companies, products and markets which hold major spending power.

923 million tonnes of food is wasted every year as a result of the current linear ‘take-make-waste’ economy. This culture, developed through changing lifestyles, consumer behaviours and over-production due to increasing populations, is harming our planet.

This is a fact that consumers are acutely aware of. And they know they have a part to play in offsetting the climate emergency.

Consciousness around sustainability has heightened over the past few years, and it is reported the pandemic has enhanced this as shoppers reduce the regularity, and the amount of time they spend food shopping*, while also beginning to consider ways to create longevity from what they do buy.

Even more so, consumers are aware of the responsibility of the companies and brands which they use and are willing to make changes in their buying-habits to ensure they make a more environmentally friendly choice.

The food and drink sector has suffered because of Covid-19, and the move to embed circular principles into a business may seem unachievable after such a tumultuous time. However, business survival and embedding circular practices into a business are not mutually exclusive.

The team at Circular Glasgow in Glasgow Chamber of Commerce advise businesses on their journey to circularity. We have seen organisations flourish by adopting circular principles through evaluation of business models and design, resources, tech usage and B2B collaboration.

Shifting thinking towards circular principles now, while businesses are adapting to change and rethinking models, will present a competitive advantage through solutions that are absolutely going to be required as we move to net zero by 2050.

The use of technology and the adaption of business models during Covid has underlined that flexibility is possible if it is needed – and wanted – and as we move forward, we will once again see how tightly bound these are to progress.

The food and drink sector has a community feel as it stands, however, working together and collaborating to find a better way to function as an industry would transform this ‘community’ into a partnership delivering results which support one another and its customers.

Ultimately, redesigning systems, practices, processes, and fully committing to the philosophy behind the change will allow for innovative solutions and a more circular economy within the food and drink industry.

More than a third of the world’s land is dedicated to food production, never mind the percentage used by supermarkets, restaurants and warehouses – this industry isn’t going anywhere. But beliefs, behaviours and attitudes will continue to develop, and it is essential that to be successful, businesses within the sector not only keep up with consumer demands, but also play their part in ensuring business success does not come at the cost of our planet.

Change may be hard to swallow, but with the extent of business opportunity and commercial benefit of circular practices only starting to be fully realised, this recipe is sure to be one for success.