Are you currently running, or is it your goal to run a sustainable food business? Do you get excited thinking about cutting back on waste, partnering with fair trade vendors, and sourcing local food? If so, you’re not alone. A large number of business owners have prioritized sustainability in the last decade and that number is still growing.

While aiming for a sustainable business is admirable, it’s important to have a well-defined set of sustainability goals. Running a truly sustainable business is hard, and if you make the wrong decisions or overlook a third-party’s unsustainable practices, you could end up destroying your reputation.

To align your business with the true definition of a sustainable food business, there are five non-negotiable factors to embrace.

  1. Follow food standards

There are numerous sets of food technology standards that should be followed by every food business. These standards exist to support food manufacturers and others in the food industry to produce quality and consistent products.

Some of the standards apply specifically to sustainability. For example, SIST EM ISO 34101-1:2020 defines requirements for sustainable and traceable cocoa, which involves post-harvest processes like fermentation, drying, and storage.

Whether you’re looking for sustainability standards or quality improvement standards, it’s worth taking a look to see which ones are applicable to your business.

If you’re going to run a sustainable food business, you won’t become successful unless you also produce high-quality products and/or services for your customers. You’ll need to focus on quality and consistency, and your sustainable practices will help you grow further.

  1. Local support

Whenever possible, get local support for your business, even if it’s just sourcing spices from a local farm stand. Make every effort to align with other local businesses whenever possible. By doing this, you’ll cut out the middleman, which will automatically eliminate waste and emissions, like gas and packaging. Food sustainability at the local level is critical for societies to function independently long-term. 

  1. Verify every third-party sustainability claim

While your business might be on par with sustainability standards, that doesn’t mean your third-party vendors are living up to those same standards. Before incorporating other products and services into your company, verify all sustainability claims. You can’t afford to get tangled up with a company making false claims.

You’d be surprised how many false claims of sustainability are being peddled in the marketplace. For example, compostable utensils are not compostable. While the fine print says they need to be composted at an industrial facility, actual experiments have shown some brands don’t biodegrade even after 60-90 days of being composted in high heat.

It would be embarrassing to partner with a company making claims that are easily proven false by your customers.

  1. Research sustainable certifications

Partnering with a business who claims to have the “National Food Sustainability” certification sounds good, but that’s a made-up certification. There are few recognized sustainability certifications and label claims that mean something. It’s critical to get familiar with all of the certifications and label claims, so you know exactly how your third-party vendors are certified.

Some sustainability certifications won’t make a difference to your business. For example, if you’re committed to dealing with food that is never sprayed with any kind of pesticide, then a “Protected Harvest” certification is a sign not to get involved. This certification only bans certain pesticides and GMOs and aims to reduce the impact of pesticides used.

  1. Listen to your customers

Your best feedback will always come from upset customers. If you’re trying to run a sustainable business, you need to be aware that your company will be under a microscope and every move you make will be analyzed by your customers. If you let them down, they’ll let you know.

In 2018, research performed by the International Food Information Council Foundation revealed that 59% of consumers find sustainability important. That means at least 59% of your customers have the potential to boycott your business if you don’t meet their expectations.

If your customers are upset that you’re doing business with a company known to produce too much waste or that uses unsustainable practices, listen to those customers. They will help you get back on track.

Sustainable food is hard work

There’s nothing easy about running a sustainable food business. However, it gets easier once you get the right vendors, sustainable partners, and have a way to vet new products and ingredients. Even though it’s hard work, running a sustainable food business is a service to the community and is a doorway for creating and strengthening your local food system.