Retailers take the lead in sustainability

August 23, 2009

Sustainability is a bit like quality: everyone talks about it but few give a clear definition when it comes to practical and concrete specifications. Just as importantly, leadership is badly needed to transform the talking into effective action.

The future is in our handsAs long as the lawmakers remain slow to bring up the change and the clarity to give clear directions, we will need the leadership of some of the most influential players in consumer markets to get things moving.

Even environmental organizations and sustainability bodies have some difficulties to agree with each other. For example Greenpeace does not seem to think that the guidelines from the Marine Stewardship Council offer solid enough guarantees that products brought to market according to these guidelines truly are sustainable. Clearly, this is an area in continuous evolution and the ideal concept is still in the making.

The consumer themselves are both still under informed as well as overwhelmed by all sorts of contradictory messages to know clearly which choices to make, therefore some decide of what to buy either based on philosophical or on financial reasons.

Similarly, many businesses are trying to find their green way as they can, but there again the lack of a strong regulatory frame and the uncertainty of the return on the green investment do not help them. The result is that, although the awareness about sustainability among businesses has grown substantially over the last few years, many companies have taken rather timid steps so far, limiting their actions to the least costly possible and the most PR and marketing-driven. They claim to go green, they communicate a lot about it, but the progress is slow.

Yet, some companies take more initiative, show leadership and push to make the whole supply chain evolve to sustainable production systems. A very active sector in this area is the retail. Retailers in the UK such as Tesco or Waitrose, in Canada with Loblaw’s and Overwaitea Food Group, and of course especially Wal-Mart in the USA have definitely made their choice. They clearly understand that the future cannot be anything but sustainable and they are demanding that their suppliers now come with products that meet the requirements of tomorrow. Last month Wal-Mart demanded from all their suppliers to “develop comprehensive programs to promote sustainability and transparency – or else contemplate a future without Wal-Mart as a customer” (read article).

Tesco is now indicating the carbon footprint of milk products on the labels (see article “Environmental performance on food labels”); Waitrose, Loblaw’s and Overwaitea are going for sustainable fish products, adopting for example the SeaChoice specifications as their guideline. Wal-Mart stores have already implemented a number of measures to reduce their carbon footprint by reducing the energy consumption, and they have already have made some of their suppliers introduce different product presentation. For example, they were the first to demand laundry detergent to be more concentrated and packed in smaller containers. This saved water, it saved energy used to transport useless water, and it saved plastic used for the jugs and for the pallets on which the product was transported. Today, concentrated laundry detergent in smaller jugs is the standard. Without Wal-Mart pushing for the change, we probably still would use the old product in the old packaging.

Copyright 2009 The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.


Cod farming: difficult start, but bright future

June 18, 2009

Sometimes success stories do not happen at once. This is my feeling about cod farming. Cod products are in good demand, and unfortunately, wild stocks are in serious trouble, which leaves a huge opening in the market.
Farmed Cod - Courtesy of FiskeriforskningSo far, farmed cod producers have not delivered good financial results and opinions diverge according to whom you listen. Culprit seems to be the “market”, but this is generally a very vague and inaccurate explanation.
Feed companies initiated cod farming, as an extension of the feed business, but not as a standout business. Moreover, the volumes that have been planned initially answered to a production driven approach, and not to a market-driven approach. Production was set up for quite significant volumes, without building up a solid sales plan from an already established market position for cod products. If you read my previous articles “Be always market-driven” and “The consumer must be the focus point of value chains“, you can understand why such an approach delivered poor results.
Recently, I was browsing through the web site of one of the farming companies and, although they claim to have set up a value chain, they have not quite done so. Their value chain needs to integrate much more strongly the marketing/customer end, and I think that they need to rebalance their bargaining position with feed suppliers and customers, in order to obtain a fairer distribution of profits. Today, there are people making good money out of cod farming, but the farmers are not.
Cod filletOnce they refocus their marketing mix to the right countries and the right type of customers, which they will have to do with a reduction of production volumes, then they can grow the business with and for the cod market by being in the driver’s seat.
Considering the demand for white fish and the depletion of the supply of the natural competitor (wild cod), cod farming’s future can only be bright. It would not surprise me if, in the future, cod farming could surpass salmon farming in production volumes. But first, one step back.

Copyright 2009 The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.


If we are what we eat, what will we eat in the future?

June 9, 2009

The past 50 years have seen, at least in the Western world, the development of the consumption society. The emphasis has been on consuming always more, by having an apparently unlimited quantity of increasingly cheaper consumption goods available. This trend happened in the agriculture and food sectors just as well, and followed a rather simple patter, actually. Mass consumption has been coupled to mass production, thanks to intensification, technical and technological progress and, last but not least, marketing.

Junk foodTechnical progress improved yields and productivity, while marketing was aimed at creating more, and new, needs. Our food has become standardized, industrialized, and processed in a wide variety of forms. As the emphasis moved to lifestyle and convenience, which came along with the rise of mass distribution, cheap energy and suburbia, we lost the connection between ourselves, the origin of our food and nature. Food became just things you buy at the supermarket, already packed in plastic and cardboard.

Now, we have come to the realization that this high production of waste, be it packaging material, be it blemished product that do not look good anymore while still perfectly edible, be it the overproduction of manure and its minerals, or be it the massive use of antibiotics and pesticides is not sustainable. Of course, much progress has already done to reduce this waste and there is a growing trend towards organic and traceable, but at this stage it not clear yet whether this is a true change in our behavior or whether it has more to do with a social status and marketing issue.

However, what the current situation might be, the fact that we understand that we cannot keep on intensifying and wasting the way we did, will inevitably bring a more fundamental change in how we consume in the future.

Some people predict such changes as the astronaut diet made out of pills, the use of a computer to tell us what and how much of it we should eat based on our activity level, or the tissue culture to replace meat, and many other scenarios. Will any of those ever happen? Who knows?

Personally, I believe that food as a very strong psychological connotation. We associate food with experiences and, although there are differences between cultures, that emotional bond will stay.

Clearly, the consumption society with all its excesses is coming to its end, and maybe the current economic crisis, which also originated in the excess of having it all at any cost, could very well be the turning point.

The next evolution is probably going to be a balanced approach between consumption, which we need to some extent, and the necessity of preserving what keeps us alive. There will be different graduations of this balance between geographic regions, but sustainability is the only way forward, as I mentioned in my previous article (Sustainability: as natural as balance).

Intensification is showing its limitations, waste of manure and of packaging are also hitting a wall, energy is getting more expensive and makes the production and the transport of food more expensive, too. This will reshape how we want to consume our food, how and where it is produced, how it is presented to us.

Cattle feedlotWe still are in a society where some people get obese by eating lots of food as quickly as they can, while they have less physical activity than the previous generations, thanks to automation. That food is produced on intensive farms and feedlots where the animals grow and fatten as quickly as possible, as they eat lots of food, while not having much physical activity. Similarly, in our society meat producers use hormones to boost growth and carcass quality, while body builders and sport professionals use steroids and growth hormone to boost their performance. Interesting similarities, don’t you think? We are indeed what we eat.

So, in a conservation society, should we expect the farms to be led by the need to preserve? This almost sounds like the farms we had at the beginning of the twentieth century. I think that there will be some of it, but the efficiency of production as well as the efficiency of preserving the environment will be much better, thanks to new technologies. We will have high yields, and at the same time, we will have highly efficient systems to use water, to recycle waste and preserve the fertility of our soils and the balance of our oceans.

Copyright 2009 The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.


The PR and the reality about earth-friendly production

June 6, 2009

On Earth Day, Meat & Livestock Australia unveiled its campaign about the eart-friendly character of their production (see the article).

One can wonder if this concept is more about PR and rethoric than it is about true higher standards. Hopefully it is, but since there is quite a bit of space in the production areas, planting a few trees and leaving areas for wildlife habitat does not really seem like a particularly challenging task. Unless the impact on the environment can be monitored and tangible results can be shown over time, this could just be no more than a marketing approach to ask a few pennies for their meat without changing the cost structure. The market will decide.

Copyright 2009 The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.


The consumer must be the focus point of value chains

May 27, 2009

The shopping cart: your ultimate target!Regardless which link in the value chain you represent, it is essential to always consider the “big picture”. In this picture, a key element is the end of the chain: the consumer.

As the final user, the consumer will always drive the activities and the profitability of the whole value chain. Although the interaction is left over to the retail sector, the consumer’s quality requirements will trickle down along all the links of the chain. If I take the example of meat for instance, what the consumer wants will have implications all the way back to genetics, and breeding companies know how critical it is for their survival to be able to anticipate these needs, as choices have to be made several years in advance. If you are a breeder, your end product is the consumer product, not just the animal that you produce. If you are a feed company, you do not simply produce feed for the farmer, you are an important element in the acceptance (or rejection) of your direct customer’s product. Your feed becomes eventually the consumer’s choice.

Understanding the consumer is what makes successful value chains, and there is very little acceptable concession from that statement. Many companies fail because they do not listen or understand the consumer market. Pretending to do so, with help from new product development, sleek communication or fancy marketing concepts may help for a while, but it will not stand the test of the consumer. This is why commodities always sell at market price: they do not represent anything to the consumer; therefore, the only differentiation with your competitor’s commodity is the price.

Your product will flow towards the consumer market, and your information must originate from there as well. When building a value chain, always spend time understanding the final link, because it is the strongest and most powerful link!

Copyright 2009 The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.


Value chains are a great way to develop a niche

May 21, 2009

In the food production world, just like in other business sectors, there are been two major successful strategies.
One is to produce a non-differentiated commodity at the lowest cost possible. The number of units compensates what is lost in margin per unit.
The other is to produce a limited and controlled volume, and to market it to people who will pay a premium for it as they see an added value in the product.
So far, nothing too revolutionary here.
Generally, other strategies seem to have failed, either because the niche started to expand too much and was losing its specificity. The product becomes something of a better commodity, but not a specialty anymore. More players start to enter the niche and very quickly, the margin per unit drops and so does profitability. The deathblow generally comes when people start to try to counter this decreasing margin by cutting costs in the wrong places, quality being the most obvious.
The mass commodity producers, who try to create an artificial differentiation, by creating an illusion of specialty, cause another type of failure. This marketing tactics usually fails because the difference is mostly an illusion and the customers realize that quickly.

Value chains are very useful for smaller producers who want to market a good superior product.
Often, they are local producers with limited resources. They know how to produce well, but they miss the marketing arm or the industrial arm of the value chain that they are in.
On the other hand, also at the local level, there are other businesses that have the other links of the chain, but that have no production of their own.
When these players join forces and truly collaborate to offer to the right type of customers the type of product that is right for them, the value chain can become very successful. In a previous article, there is a presentation of the Angus Beef story, which also started in such a way.
In order to be successful, a value chain needs a number of basic elements.
The product must indeed differentiate itself by recognizable and superior physical characteristics. Over time the mystique will be created, but do not expect to sell hot air for very long.
The partners need to indeed be partners and play together. This is a critical part of such a joint venture. The worst thing that can happen is a lack of commitment, or worse one of the partners trying to force his own agenda before the common interest. The most successful partnerships come from a balance of power between the parties involved, and also by the necessity of interdependence, as they all should miss – and not be able to easily replace – the other parts of the puzzle.
Another key element is the will to pursue, as very often, and mostly in the early stages, the progress will meet many setbacks. This discipline needs to be applied and someone must fill this role, to constantly enforce the quality specifications and all agreements that are need and made to make the value chain succeed.

Copyright 2009 The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.