How manufacturers are increasing sustainability in the food industry
4/5/2024 Sustainability & carbon-neutrality Article

How manufacturers are increasing sustainability in the food industry

Two out of three consumers value sustainability in the supermarket – even in times of crisis. Ecological aspects are the main focus here. What is the food industry doing to satisfy consumer demand for environmentally and climate-friendly products? And what potential still needs to be exploited?

Shopping net with vegetables, fruit, and other food Consumers want sustainability in their shopping bags. The industry has many options to meet their needs.

Organic sausage, fair trade coffee, carbon neutral cheese – there is probably no other industry where products are advertised as sustainable as in the food retail sector. This makes it even more disappointing for consumers when a claim later turns out to be greenwashing. What measures really lead to sustainability in the food industry? The short answer: it’s complicated.

The 3 aspects of sustainability

This is mainly due to the fact that “sustainability” is a simple term for a complex, very broad subject area. The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) cover a total of 17 points. The ESG classification for corporate sustainability criteria is somewhat clearer. It is divided into three key areas:

  • Environment: Environmental impact caused by the activities of a company
  • Social: Social aspects, such as relationships with employees, customers, or suppliers
  • Governance: Ethical principles, integrity, or transparency in corporate management

In addition to their ecological footprint, companies also must consider other aspects. However, environmental aspects are particularly important to consumers when making purchases. One challenge for players in the food industry is that they are forced to grow – after all, the world’s population is constantly growing and the demand for food is growing with it. This means that the industry cannot reduce its direct consumption of resources. This makes it even more important to reduce indirect consumption and the environmental and climate impact of production. This includes above all

  • Electrical energy
  • Heating and cooling energy
  • Water consumption
  • Utilization of land and water
  • CO2 emissions

Examples of sustainability in the food industry

Operational excellence (Opex) is a measure that should be a matter of course for every manufacturing company. By continuously improving all processes in the value chain in terms of efficiency and effectiveness, not only costs but also resource consumption can be reduced. Classic methods are Kanban, Kaizen and Six Sigma.

Today, however, Opex is primarily driven by digitalization. With Industry 4.0, the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) and digital twins, operators can increase the productivity and efficiency of their systems and avoid rejects and downtime.

Artificial intelligence (AI) is no longer just used by food manufacturers for advertising gimmicks such as new flavors. Machine learning can be used for quality control, for example, to detect defects and structural production problems at an early stage. Production also becomes more sustainable when food waste is reduced, for example by predicting demand more accurately and enabling supply chains to react quickly to fluctuations.

Food processing in particular consumes a lot of energy: mainly electrical energy for mechanical processes, but also heat and cold. Measures to increase energy efficiency help to improve the balance, for example through the use of waste heat or motors with high efficiency classes. More and more manufacturers are also focusing on energy generation: green energy is generated with PV systems on the hall roof or a CHP power plant. Biogas generation can be particularly worthwhile in the food industry, as residual materials from production can be recycled in a meaningful way.

Other areas of the industry consume less electrical energy, but all the more process heat, for example in breweries or when distilling spirits. In the future, hydrogen could replace the fossil fuels currently used for this purpose. As in other energy-intensive industries, the necessary temperatures can be achieved without generating CO2 emissions.

More specific measures to increase sustainability in the food supply are smart farming and vertical farming. Smart Farming or Agriculture 4.0 brings IT and digitalization to fields and farms. Automation, machine learning for field robots, networked vehicles and sensor technology for stables and meadows are already increasing efficiency in the cultivation of staple foods and in animal husbandry, which has had a particularly large environmental impact to date. Vertical farming is not only intended to increase efficiency by arranging production facilities for plant and animal products in multi-story buildings. The ability to increase yields without developing additional natural areas also reduces the consumption of resources. Closed water cycles protect bodies of water, while controlled environmental conditions reduce the use of biocides and fertilizers.

Laboratory meat, which is already being produced by various suppliers in countries such as Israel, the USA and Singapore, has been transferred from future technology to the present. Also known as cultured meat or in-vitro meat, it refers to meat for human consumption that is not produced from plants but by cultivating animal tissue. As the necessary starting cells are removed painlessly, animal suffering is avoided. Proponents argue that the consumption of water, land and feed as well as the emission of greenhouse gases are also massively reduced.

Doing good and talking about it

The food industry must become more sustainable – not least due to consumer expectations, which are growing across all generations. The examples show that there are numerous opportunities along the entire value chain to reduce the impact of food on the environment and climate. Companies that exploit this potential are welcome to advertise it - credibly and robustly.



Marius Schaub

Marius Schaub