Sustainable Change: Using soft power to drive strong impact
Canadian Agri-Food Sustainability Initiative
Soft power, or the power of influence refers to the “ability to attract and co-opt, rather than coerce…to shape the preferences of others through appeal and attraction”. It creates win-wins. While soft power gets things done in a way that makes people feel good them, hard power results in feelings of resentment and mistrust.
Unfortunately, soft power is mostly absent from the food industry. Coercion and strong-arming—the tenets of hard power—are the daily reality in this industry. From farmers to retail, we exert pressure on other parts of the supply chain to get what we want. We flex our muscles rather than our brains.
I see the impact of this hard power approach every day. Producers and manufacturers are distrustful of retailers. Farmers are wary of processors. Food service and retail are uneasy around distributors and manufacturers.
Over the course of my over 20-year career in food, I’ve not been afraid to call out what I see as failings. I also don’t hesitate to champion organizations that use the power of influence to create better outcomes for all. I would like to highlight two of them in this column.
The first is the Canadian Agri-food Sustainability Initiative (CASI). This group of leaders from across the food system have been working for four years to harmonize the way companies share their data and report their sustainability performance. Food and beverage companies spend an inordinate amount of time completing reporting processes that vary from one supplier, distributor, region or retailer to another. Getting useful data from two or three levels down in the supply chain can be a headache. Further, the quality of the data is often dubious.
CASI is seeking to create a single reporting system for everyone to use. Of course, soft power has to be at the heart of this project. No amount of coercion will get farmers, processors, manufacturers, distributors, retailers and food service representatives to openly share their needs, challenges and best practices. This is only possible by influencing through “appeal and attraction”. The solution that is being developed (yes, I’ve had a sneak peek) is powerful, disruptive and will make a real difference across the food system.
Sobeys and Loblaws
As I mentioned above, retailers are not averse to using hard power to get what they want from their supply chain. However, when it comes to sustainability, it is clear soft power has an increasingly important role to play.
Both Sobeys and Loblaws have or are running programs to engage their suppliers in developing their own sustainability and circularity plans to ensure food waste, water, energy and greenhouse gases emissions are tackled upstream in the supply chain itself, and before the products arrive on the shelf.
Coercion wouldn’t work here. By influencing suppliers with a win-win that helps them promote efficiency, cost reduction and brand elevation, both retailers are demonstrating that it is possible to do good and make money—everyone can agree that would be a positive outcome.
In conclusion, I would like to invite all of you to reflect on how the soft power of influence is your best ally in creating a more sustainable food system in this country.
Cher Mereweather, CEO of Provision Coalition, Inc., is a food industry sustainability expert based in Canada.
This article was originally published in the June 2021 issue of Food in Canada.