Read on for the latest sustainability column from the new issue of Food in Canada.
Gwen’s morning began with a virtual tour of all of her company’s production facilities.
As VP Operations for TechGrow, she was responsible for the firm’s manufacture of plant and plant-based products at its 12 micro-sites. She plugged in her augmented reality headset and connected to the first facility. Martin, the plant manager, met her on the floor.
Their discussion focused mostly on new plans to repurpose the substrate used to grow their green leafy products. It was already being transformed into insulation, but Gwen had asked Martin to look into higher-value applications.
She listened as he shared his news. His team had been working with the local university’s faculty of food engineering and some cutting-edge Dutch technology to weave the substrate fibres into a new biodegradable packaging, already approved by all of Canada’s municipal composting sites. Martin reported that success had been achieved — and that the packaging could be used for TechGrow products, to boot.
Gwen congratulated Martin and asked him to prepare prototypes to share with their internal ambassadors. Finding stories to share with their employees and customer-fans was part of how TechGrow got people excited about pushing the needle on circularity. Gwen wanted this news out there as soon as possible.
As she moved through the 11 other virtual site visits over the course of the morning, Gwen was reminded of the criticism they had received, back in 2021, when TechGrow chose to eschew the economies of scale from building large factories (as so many of their competitors had done), and deploy a dozen micro-sized facilities in key urban centres. But, four years later, TechGrow had won pretty much every award in the business. Their local model was being applauded not just for its circularity and sustainability but for its profitability.
And perhaps more importantly, it had helped kickstart a circular local food production revolution which was changing the way that Canadians shopped and ate, and was starting to drive the waste out of the system.
Leaving the fictional TechGrow behind for a moment, let me introduce you to 30 young and ambitious companies who are disrupting the real food system.
In a few short weeks, these companies will become the latest graduates of R-Purpose MICRO — an intensive accelerator program for new F&B companies that my team and I are proud to lead. They will celebrate their success by pitching to a group of investors, retailers, politicians, government funders and food industry influencers and leaders.
When they pitch, their circularity credentials will be front and centre: how they are leveraging circularity to fast-track their growth, not just through the traditional concepts of waste and packaging, but through the creation of regenerative business cultures, data-driven reporting, reinvented distribution models and more.
Spending time with these firms reminds me that we are poised on the cusp of the biggest revolution to hit the food world in a century. And while it is being accelerated by the pandemic, the fundamental trends that are causing it were there well before we’d ever heard the word COVID.
In its simplest terms, the problem is that we grow stuff, we eat only part of it and we throw the rest away. That is fundamentally unsustainable. We must move to a circular food system, one that keeps as much energy, nutrients and materials cycling through the system as possible for as long as possible. This sounds simple, but it’s not, because it requires us to think differently.
Let me explain. On my desk right now I have a plastic water bottle. Today it works great. But once it gets cracked, or the little button on top breaks, I’ll probably end up recycling it. My brain has been trained to think of this water bottle as an object with one purpose, and when it can no longer fulfil that purpose, then it has no more value. This is called a “Take-Make-Dispose” way of thinking, generally the only way we’ve ever been taught to think.
A circular mindset requires all of us to think differently. Instead of automatically seeing no value in a broken water bottle, I need to ask myself what value it could have. We must ask questions. First — can I fix it? Second — if I can’t fix it, is there anyone else who can? Third — if it can’t be fixed, how can it be repurposed, perhaps to hold my son’s paintbrushes? And finally, when its new purpose has come to an end, this bottle’s materials can be recycled into new products.
Let’s return to Gwen and Martin at TechGrow. This fictional company’s repurposing of substrate into biodegradable packaging, its collaborative distribution models, its micro-production sites, even its internal ambassadors — these are all ideas from real company leaders in the current and previous cohorts of R-Purpose MICRO. These leaders are choosing to create circular businesses from day one and want to do nothing short of disrupt the way we produce and consume food. (And the augmented reality headsets? Well, we had a demo and it’s not just impressive, but far cheaper than we could have imagined!)
The revolution is coming. Gwen and Martin are leading the charge. Will you?
Cher Mereweather, CEO of Provision Coalition Inc., is a food industry sustainability expert based in Canada.
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