Lessons Food Brands Should Take Away From Greenwashing Complaints at COP26

November 9, 2021 by Leah Wolfe
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Companies and governments alike came together at COP26 to address the climate crisis – but the event was widely criticized as symbolic, with participants merely hoping to score political points while frustration mounts over empty pledges and a lack of comprehensive action. Greta Thunberg, climate activist and founder of the youth climate action organization Fridays for Future, called it a “greenwashing festival”. 

Modern consumers are holding companies to account for greenwashing, and lawsuits regarding false food and environmental claims are rapidly increasing. Agriculture and the global food system are enormous emitters of GHGs, and companies from Tesco to Burberry have announced sustainability commitments directly tied to regenerative agriculture in their supply systems. These kinds of pledges will only stand up to consumer scrutiny if they’re partnered with concrete steps to enhance the value chain without sacrificing ecosystems or farmer livelihoods. 

This is the space that innovators are attempting to fill to protect our planet while creating value for consumers and the companies they buy from. We’re looking back at our Regenerative Supply at Scale innovation series, where leaders in the industry spoke about their strategies for tangible action, ensuring transparency, and weaving long-term regenerative agriculture solutions into their supply systems.

Long-term Investment in Regenerative Producers

Investing in regenerative producers to help them overcome barriers to regenerative agriculture helps create a secure, and future-oriented relationship between farmer and buyer.

“When it comes to carbon neutrality and reducing greenhouse gases, grass-based dairy farming is nature’s original and best way to capture carbon and improve soil fertility and water quality. My whole mission as a cheesemonger has been to try to be a cheerleader for supporting this kind of agriculture. It just so happens that making cheese is the way that the farms we work with have decided to attack this question and participate in a regenerative economy.” 

— Anne Saxelby, Saxelby Cheesemongers

“Danone’s Cost Plus Model program contracts are typically five years or longer. That allows the farmers to get out of a ‘next quarter, next year’ discussion and get into a ‘next decade, next generation’ discussion. It allows them to look deeper at how their own activities can impact GHGs and move more toward a regenerative model.”

— Tina Owens, Danone

Outcomes-driven Regeneration

Ensuring economic benefits for producers and consumers and harnessing the power of data is key for scaling a food system that works for everyone.

“Everything that we do in the space needs to drive action and outcomes. Outcomes like carbon reduction, carbon sequestration, water related outcomes, and equally important the economic piece of it. It has to make financial, economic sense for the farmer as well. Everything that we do really needs to be about meeting the farmer where they are and doing things that work for the farmer at the local level.”

— Gurneesh Bhandal, Cargill,

“When you invest in regenerative systems, there’s a strong economic case for farmers. We just did a two year study with the Soil Health Institute looking at the economics of soil health management systems with a hundred farmers in nine states in the corn belt. We found that 97% of them felt like they were more resilient than the previous system. 67% of them had yield improvements which leads to lower cost.”

— Ryan Sirolli, Cargill,

Creating Markets for Products, Not the Other Way Around

Creating markets based on farmer knowledge instead of asking them to conform to market trends encourages regenerative practices.

“One of our farmers in Uganda has been growing a food forest, not because it’s hip and regenerative agriculture is “in”, but because it makes sense for his business in terms of improving soil health, product diversification and generating multiple revenue streams. One of the things that we’ve been thinking about a lot is how can we as a business innovate with impact in mind rather than trendy terms or ingredients.”

— Lisa Curtis, Kuli Kuli

“Regeneration to me is the concept of land revitalization. It’s not just thinking about farmland differently from an inputs and an outcomes perspective, but thinking about the communities that are around that farmland and bringing, not just biological diversity, but economic and social outcomes. What kind of on-farm, value-added activities need to happen to make sure we’re breaking the commodity cycle?”

— Naveen Sikka, TerViva

“If consumers are going to care, we need to make data driven decisions, make our impact easy to understand and share that with our partners. And we need to do that now. So we’re investing heavy on understanding everything from end to end–from seed all the way to finished food and what that means to the environment.”

— Tyler Lorenzen, Puris

Strong Relationships with Producers

Building strong relationships with farmers and listening to producers who are deeply invested in the long-term health of their land and communities, are critical in moving away from an extractive perspective and toward an inclusive one.

“Ethical sourcing for us is doing the right thing for the consumer by bringing products of integrity, made of nutrient dense ingredients to market. From the farmer’s perspective, it’s creating demand for all the different crops that crop rotation and a regenerative environment creates. Within that regenerative program, quinoa gets rotationally cropped with Lupini beans. So we have to create a market for Lupini beans, we have to provide and guarantee that market for farmers to engage in the regenerative organic program.”

— Sarela Herrada, SIMPLi

“If we’re shifting into the paradigm of regenerative, it’s a much more receptive type of action. It’s a process that involves a lot of listening. It’s a process that involves a lot of sensitivity to the ecosystem, to the people, to the place. Ultimately I think what we’re exploring with the regenerative paradigm of business and sourcing is ‘how are we uplifting and creating potential within communities and within ecosystems?’”

— Tucker Garrison, Imlak’esh Organics

Rethinking Scalability

Rethinking scale, regionality, and distribution systems are all key to making sure you don’t take one step forward and two steps back when it comes to investing in regenerative production.

“There’s lots of great ideas out there, for instance – carbon negative, but that might only make sense for a certain area. You don’t want be shipping that across the world because then it loses all the viability of that regenerative system. By investing in something that’s local, you can attach your company to that ecosystem or that community. If the inputs are sourced locally, you can actually make an impact. For a lot of packaging right now, we don’t know where any of those inputs are coming from and that’s concerning for many reasons.”

— Jay Ashworth, Associated Labels & Packaging 

“I think scale has to be rethought in a lot of ways. When we think of scale, the question is really “how cheaply can you make it at a large scale?” I don’t like to use the term recycling because a bag of chips is never gonna become another bag of chips. It’s gonna become a dog Frisbee or a deck board. It’s not circular. 

If I took a handful of glitter and blew it all over, and asked you nicely, ‘Can you pick up all those pieces and bring them back to me?’ How much of that would I get back? That’s the entropy that’s in the current problem, and you don’t solve entropy with more entropy. When you think of scale, you have to able to do things efficiently at a smaller scale.”

— Kelly Williams, Futamura

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