Sustainable Summits organiser Organic Monitor re-branded to Ecovia Intelligence in March 2017. OWN contributing editor Warren Beaumont asked Ecovia founder Amarjit Sahota about the change, progress in industry sustainability and industry issues.

OWN: How long have the Sustainable Food Summits been running for and how have they expanded?

AS: We launched the first edition of the Sustainable Foods Summit in Amsterdam in June 2009. The initial summits looked at the role of organic in encouraging sustainability in the food industry. Since the first few editions, the summit has evolved to cover other eco-labels (Fairtrade, Rainforest Alliance, Non-GMO, etc.) as well as wider sustainability issues. The summit expanded to North America in January 2011, and then to Latin America (2014) and now to the Asia-Pacific in 2017.

OWN: Why choose Singapore for the first Asian food summit?

AS: We selected Singapore as it is strategically located in the heart of South-East Asia. The Asian region is showing large strides in economic development, with consumer purchasing power and living standards rising. However, sustainability is not yet on the agenda for most Asian food companies and consumers. Some of the major environmental and social issues the planet faces are based in Asia e.g. palm oil and rainforest deforestation, non-sustainable seafood sourcing, biodiversity loss, food insecurity and poverty, and social inequality. By hosting this summit in Asia (Singapore), we want to discuss these issues and propose practical solutions.

OWN: You changed the name to Ecovia in March

AS: The decision to re-brand was not an easy one. Our organisation started as a research and consulting company that focused on global organic and related product industries. Our specialisation had broadened over the last 15 years to cover natural personal care products, dairy alternatives, fairtrade products, natural ingredients, ethical textiles, health foods, etc. We felt that the previous name did not fully represent the industries we were covering, as well as our services portfolio. We, therefore, took the decision to re-brand under Ecovia Intelligence.

OWN: Regarding progress in sustainability, what about resistance in the market?

AS: There was resistance until about five years ago. There is a growing realisation that ‘carrying on’ as normal is no longer an option for businesses. Companies are taking greater accountability in extracting and utilising resources, marketing their products, as well as the way they treat stakeholders. In some countries, it is becoming compulsory for publicly-listed companies to prepare sustainability reports. There is greater pressure from the media, NGOs, and consumers for companies to become more sustainable.

What varies however, is how companies approach sustainability. Large companies, like Nestle and Unilever, have set ambitious targets to reduce their environmental footprints and create social impacts. In the natural and organic food industry, it is more about doing ‘the right thing’. Companies like Organic Valley, Cliff Bar, and Stonyfield invest in reducing their packaging impacts, helping farmers/growers, and undertaking philanthropic activities.

OWN: What is the level of engagement and discussion from food companies?

AS: We are seeing a major change. There is greater engagement and more communication. At the Sustainable Food Summits, we bring diverse stakeholders together. For instance, a company like Anheuser-Busch (international brewery), Givaudan (flavourings firm) will share a platform with Sambazon (acai berry-based products) and Whole Foods Market to discuss sustainability issues they face. These companies are tackling environmental and social issues differently; however, they face similar issues.

OWN: Can you name three major sustainability achievements that the summits have addressed and seen positive change in?

AS: We have hosted almost 20 editions of the Sustainable Foods Summit so it is difficult to pinpoint a few. Some of the major developments have been:

  • Encouraging third-party sustainability standards (like organic and fairtrade). Organisations that have presented and/or attended the summits, frequently say they see an increase in adoption rates of their standards after the summit.
  • Combating food waste. We have covered this topic a few times at the summit. Each time, we have raised awareness and discussed various approaches to reduce food waste at grower, producer and consumer level. We have seen mobile apps developed by organisations after coming to the summit.
  • Connecting food companies with raw material suppliers. A major challenge in the organic and sustainable food industry is supply shortages. By bringing together food companies, ingredient firms and retailers, many new business partnerships have been formed.

OWN: What about the proliferation of eco-labels generally including fake ones

AS: The growing number of eco-labels in the food industry is a major concern. There are currently over 200 eco-labels that represent some environmental, ethical and/or sustainable attribute. The concern is that consumers will switch off, not understanding what these green logos/symbols mean. Consumers are seeking ethical/sustainable products; however, they do not always want multiple logos and symbols on product packs. It remains to be seen if there will be more proliferation or some degree of convergence in eco-labels.

OWN: Looking at third-party certifications and audits; more companies state that they are sustainable or fair without them; what do you think is the solution?

AS: For organic, it is straight forward as companies cannot make an organic claim unless they are using certified organic ingredients. It is more complex for other schemes. For instance, Fairtrade International (FLO) mainly has fairtrade certification for southern hemisphere crops, such as bananas, cocoa, coffee, etc. Companies cannot make a fairtrade claim for milk, wheat or potatoes; some companies therefore say their products are ‘fairly traded’ as they say they are giving a fair price to their growers.

The same is true for eco-labels like Rainforest Alliance and UTZ Certified as they cover a limited number of crops/products.

It becomes more complex when you look at labels like carbon neutral, water footprints, and zero waste. There are no widely accepted third-party standards for such and many such labels are self-designated.

What is the solution? Expect to see more third-party standards, as well as more in-house sustainability schemes. Unfortunately, proliferation is likely to continue on both fronts!