Aligning food business strategies and operations with the SDGs for a sustainable post-COVID-19 recovery (own-initiative opinion)

EESC opinion: Aligning food business strategies and operations with the SDGs for a sustainable post-COVID-19 recovery (own-initiative opinion)

Rapporteur's expert for this opinion : Prof. Angelo RICCABONI, Chair of PRIMA Foundation, Chair of SDSN Mediterranean 

Key points

The European Economic and Social Committee (EESC):

  • acknowledges that food businesses across the supply chain (including European farmers and fishers, cooperatives, agri-food companies, retailers and wholesalers and other type of companies) are already working to make progress on sustainability and to offer consumers healthy and sustainable products in line with the European Green Deal. Nevertheless, to get on track to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) more needs to be done;
  • stresses the need for an enabling framework for innovation to support business operators with adequate tools and solutions in their transition towards more sustainable business practices. Barriers for innovation must be eliminated;
  • notes that business operators nowadays often experience sustainability requirements as complex and burdensome rather than as an opportunity, and therefore recommends developing a more easily understandable language (a "Grammar for Sustainability") to change this;
  • identifies the reduction of food losses and food waste, sustainable sourcing, improved packaging and logistic systems, circular and resource-efficient food chains, as well as bioeconomy solutions, as effective entry points towards greater sustainability;
  • emphasises the important role of the consumer in this context. Information and education measures in combination with transparent food labelling practices will empower the consumer to opt for the more sustainable choice. The European Commission (EC) should also introduce measures to support the affordability of healthy and sustainably produced, processed and distributed food;
  • welcomes the EU code of conduct on responsible business and marketing practices. Most involved parties generally consider the development of the voluntary code to be a valuable process that has brought the partners of the food supply chain closer together. The initiative marks a starting point and should continue to serve as a collaborative platform for responsible and sustainable business practices. In particular, the EESC:
    • highlights the limitations of a voluntary approach and calls for the adoption of regulation and legislation to ensure a swift transition to sustainability;
    • recommends that the code of conduct should be stronger when it comes to the social dimension, collective bargaining and social protection. The social partners must be involved;
    • stresses the need for a sound review process for the implementation of the code of conduct on the ground and the need to monitor whether or not the individual commitments and pledges for the aspirational targets are delivered, because experience shows that only what is measured and monitored gets done. Overall, greater involvement of civil society and social dialogue will also be crucial for success;
    • takes note that, so far, it is mainly larger and multinational companies that have signed up to the code of conduct and emphasises the need for an enabling environment, in particular for Small and Medium-sized Enterprises (SMEs), to support and facilitate stronger engagement with the SDG agenda. While larger companies often have their own sustainability departments in place, it seems that SMEs often have only limited resources and capacities to embed sustainability in their businesses;
  • highlights the importance of the swift implementation of the EU directive on unfair trading practices (UTPs) and of other support policies by Member States to foster more sustainable and resilient food systems;
  • welcomes the initiative of the EC to develop a framework legislation for a sustainable EU food system and to integrate sustainability into all food-related policies. There is clearly a need for regulation and a certain level of standardisation and harmonisation to ensure credibility and a level playing field;
  • repeats the request to the EC to ensure policy coherence between the various sector policies (amongst others climate, environment, trade, competition). This would make it easier for food business operators to make sustainable business decisions. The legislative framework should provide a true level playing field;
  • reiterates its recommendation to explore the option of a multi-stakeholder and multi-level European Food Policy Council, which could, among other things, facilitate civil society's involvement in monitoring the Code of conduct;
  • points out that sustainability is based on three main pillars: economic, environmental and social. Due to the different framework conditions, it has to be acknowledged that a "one-size-fits-all"- approach will not work. A framework legislation should therefore allow and facilitate tailor-made solutions e.g. through self-assessment and benchmarking mechanisms;
  • recommends an easily understandable framework based on rules, guidance and incentives. The legislation on sustainable finance (taxonomy), which is currently being developed, must not be overly complex.