As consumers become ever more aware of how their choices impact the planet, the need for sustainable working practices within the food and drink industry has never been greater.
According to research by Deloitte1, consumers are finding more innovative ways to spend less by adopting more sustainable lifestyles and choosing goods that will last longer. Revealed among the top five ‘most important environmentally sustainable or ethical practices’ of those surveyed were ‘reducing carbon footprint’, ‘reducing waste during the manufacturing process’ and ‘producing sustainable packaging and products’. In fact, 40% of consumers said they chose brands with environmentally sustainable practices and values, up 6% from 2021.
For the food and drink industry, embracing sustainable working practices is key; consumers today expect transparency from farm to fork. For individual businesses, meeting these needs are both simultaneously essential and challenging. Against a backdrop of rising global energy consumption, the International Energy Agency (IEA)’s World Energy Outlook 2020 (WEO-2020) concluded that decisions over the next decade will play a critical role in determining the pathway to 20502; its following report, WEO-20213, stated the need for governments to step up support in key technology areas and innovation.
Food & Drink Wales, bold ambitions
In Wales, this is already the case and the country has set its sights high to achieve the highest levels of environmental sustainability. The Environment (Wales) Act 2016 requires the Welsh Government to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases in Wales to net zero by 2050; Net Zero Wales Carbon Budget 2 (2021-25) is the next step in its story. The Plan commits to make more progress in the next ten years than it has in the last thirty by laying the foundations for longer term and systemic change.
In 2021, the Welsh Government launched a strategic vision for the future: A Vision for the Food & Drink Industry lays out objectives to become one of the most sustainable nations in the world by supporting a food and drink industry with a global reputation for excellence and sustainability, together with one of the most environmentally and socially responsible supply chains in the world.
It may strike some as a bold vision for this increasingly confident nation on the world stage. However, initiatives have long been underway: between 2014 and 2020 the Welsh Government reached its ambitious target of growing the industry’s value to over £7bn and aims to grow this to £8.5bn by 2025.
This ambition is underpinned by research which shows the word ‘Welsh’ denotes high standards of quality, ethics and artisanship. There is also a growing awareness globally of the Welsh brand and demand for its goods. In 2021, its food and drink exports reached a record high of £641m, a 16.1% year-on-year growth, making it the only country in the UK to exceed pre-Covid export levels.5
The Welsh Government is committed to building on this success. Its Export Action Plan for Wales, launched in 2020, sets out a framework to continue to build a strong, vibrant and sustainable export sector to strengthen the economy, create opportunities for people in Wales and build on its positive reputation for sustainability within the food and drink industry. This means that as well as being economically robust, Wales is committed to being sustainable in every sense by championing the values of decarbonisation, environmental sustainability and Fair Work by encouraging seasonality and supporting the procurement of Welsh food grown locally.
Wales is already home to global food and drink brands that are celebrated for their quality credentials. In the last two years there were 452 Great Taste Award winners from Wales and scooping the prestigious Great Taste Golden Fork trophy for Wales, in September 2022, was Bay Coffee Roasters from Ceredigion for its coffee beans produced using 100% environmentally friendly energy.
By partnering with industry across a range of sectors with initiatives that help food and drink businesses win awards and achieve accreditation, with sustainability at the core, the Welsh Government is continuing to build its country’s reputation for excellence and the benefits are already filtering through local communities. Today there are 18 items from Wales holding the coveted Geographical Indication (GI) mark. By 2025, there are plans to accelerate this number even further.
Included in the Welsh Government’s Net Zero vision is a Decarbonisation Action Plan for the food and drink manufacturing industry, underpinned by research into the carbon impact of food chain and supply systems and identifying new technologies to reduce that impact. Net Zero Wales is looking at improving carbon footprints by encouraging businesses to work with new technologies to reach higher levels of automation.
Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC) in Flintshire is one such partnership as part of a network of research and innovation centres helping local manufacturers improve productivity, performance and quality. The Centre helps businesses develop sustainable concepts by using low-carbon technologies that ultimately make manufacturing greener and cleaner. These include digitising reusable packaging, a project led by PragmatIC Semiconductor, a world leader in flexible electronics whose manufacturing model, FlexLogIC, has a footprint 100 times smaller than conventional silicon processing.
Automation is a key area of development. “Over the next six months, we’ll probably be five years ahead from where we otherwise might have been. We’re going to be hosting an automated packing line, so the idea is we become an exemplar SME factory where others can come and see what we’re doing. We’ll get experience of running an automated line with four robots, for example – our first foray into automation,” says Steve West, Managing Director of The Pudding Compartment, which manufacturers premium puddings and desserts.
Another partner is Food Innovation Wales which provides technical and commercial support across a range of sectors and organisations from start-ups to established national businesses. One of its initiatives, Project HELIX, is connecting with companies to forensically analyse each step of their manufacturing process, identifying ways of introducing efficiencies across process controls, site design and systems development. It’s about giving food and drink manufacturers the opportunity to benefit from best practice and industry intelligence. Since its launch in 2016, Project HELIX has had a £235 million impact on the Welsh food and drink industry, has assisted around 400 business start-ups and has generated and developed 1,587 new food and drink products.
“From a sustainability perspective, it’s a key part of our role here within Food Innovation Wales,” says Paul Roberts, Food Technology Centre, a facility which supports food businesses across multiple areas that are key to business growth. “We add value to food products and have various projects on reducing waste, so we go out onto factory floors and see how we can assist in reducing the waste process. Shelf life is another one we help with, to reduce waste for landfill.”
There is also AberInnovation, which opened in 2019 and offers world-leading facilities and expertise within the biotechnology, agri-tech and food and drink sectors. “The whole facility is designed to allow collaboration between innovative companies and the academics based at Aberystwyth University,” says John Draper from AberInnovation which helps support businesses in de-risking their R&D activities and improving productivity in a sustainable way.
And launching in 2025 is the Welsh Government’s Sustainable Farming Scheme which will create a framework for future agricultural policy and support, by rewarding farmers who produce food in a sustainable way and in harmony with the environment. Actions rewarded will include adapting to changes in the environment or market and helping to make the best use of resources by becoming more energy efficient.
As the world gets on board with Net Zero, sustainability is a long-term vision that’s firmly rooted in Wales. By supporting businesses to consider the long-term impact of every decision, these partnerships are shaping a country where food and drink producers and manufacturers can grow and innovate together, bringing Wales to the world and the world to Wales, in the most sustainable way possible.
1. Deloitte, March 2022 How consumers are embracing sustainability.
2. International Energy Agency (IEA) World Energy Outlook 2020.
3. International Energy Agency (IEA) World Energy Outlook 2021.
4. Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS), June 2019 UK becomes first major economy to pass net zero emissions law.
5. Food & Drink Federation, May 2022 UK Food and drink regional exports report.