Creating a sustainable food supply chain

Creating a sustainable food supply chain

Sustainable food supply is a complex issue – where does it come from? what is the nutritional content? These are two of the questions that are often on people’s mind.

As part of our long-term procurement strategy we are looking to ‘up our game’ in terms of how we develop purchasing category strategies. Food is one of the first categories in which we will be applying this thinking. Sustainability is an important part of the new category strategy template and will provide a structured way to think through what we can achieve, particularly linked to our SustainAbilities goals.

Sourcing sustainable catering options

Providing catering services to our clients is an important and growing aspect of what we do. Spend in the food category has doubled in the last 2 years and many of our clients have a range of different demands – healthy food, good value, variety, local sourcing etc. Effective sourcing of suitable ‘baskets’ of product is key to delivering a balanced quality and profitable service that exceeds client requirements.

Category strategy

Creating a sustainable food supply chainCategory strategy is concerned with developing the approach that will be taken to procuring products and services in a particular category (or area) of spend. Developing the strategy includes understanding what the market can provide, who the major suppliers are, what the drivers of market pricing are and the requirements of the business. After analysing these factors the approach to market can be developed.

For example, will we look for one large tier 1 supplier? A small number of suppliers? Or a range of SMEs? What can we realistically include in the specification? What pricing model should we be looking for? What risks are present? Exploring these factors improves the quality of the tendering processes.

Sustainability in category strategy

We have created a template to help us rigorously think through what elements of sustainability should be included in the final category strategy. The process has the following steps:

  • Create a high level map of the supply chain and identify sustainability risks and opportunities associated with each step
  • Categorise each risk or opportunity as high/low impact and easy/hard to address
  • Determine which issues should be included in the category strategy
  • Assess the market’s ability to provide sustainable solutions
  • Create a plan.

Though it can initially look daunting, in practice applying the template is quite simple and takes about 1-2 hours depending on how complex the category is!

Food and sustainability

There are a broad range of sustainability issues associated with food production and supply chain. These include:

  • Land stewardship – considering the impact of farming practices on the health and diversity of the local ecosystems
  • Animal husbandry – are animals are well cared for and treated humanely?
  • Labour conditions
  • Ensuring fair payment for products
  • The logistics of transport at all stages
  • Water use and energy consumption in both farming and food processing
  • Greenhouse gas emissions from all stages of production
  • Packaging at intermediate and final stages
  • Waste and pollution in both farming practices and food production
  • Applicable standards (regulatory and voluntarily) e.g. Fairtrade, Red Tractor, Soil Alliance, Government Buying Standards.

What will we be looking for in our food category strategy?

Broadly our approach falls under two headings:

  • Factors that we will mandate the supplier provides – such as compliance with standards
  • Factors where we will ask the suppliers to tell us what they can do.

Simplistically the factors that are within the direct gift to address will be mandated, things that are embedded more deeply in the supply chain – such as labour standards on farms – are not directly within the tier 1 supplier’s gift to control. In these instances we will ask how they ensure that their suppliers (and supplier’s suppliers) address the sustainability issues that we have raised.

What next?

We are at an early stage of this piece of work and we will update the blog when we can tell you how things are working out.

dan-firth Dan Firth is the Sustainable Procurement Manager for Interserve Support Services and facilitates the cross-divisional Sustainable Procurement Working Group. He has wide experience of implementing sustainable procurement in both the public and private sectors, and running a social enterprise
Thomas Garlick - Senior Buyer for Interserve Support Services Thomas Garlick is a Senior Buyer for Interserve Support Services, responsible for the strategic review and transformation of the wholesale food procurement category. He has broad direct and indirect category management experience with a background in fast moving consumer goods procurement and supply chain.


Dan Firth

Dan Firth is the Sustainable Procurement Manager for Interserve Support Services and facilitates the cross-divisional Sustainable Procurement Working Group. He has wide experience of implementing sustainable procurement in both the public and private sectors, and running a social enterprise.

  • Isla

    Hi, I’m really interested to hear about this project. How is sustainable food supply chain going?

    • Dan

      Hi Isla … Since publishing the blog we have re-let our food supply contract. The contract reflects the issues described here and we now have a much stronger position in terms of the sustainability of our food supply chain. Where possible we have included compliance with appropriate standards (such as MSC fish, RSPO palm oil etc) in the contract. We will be working closely with our supplier to further improve some of the challenging aspects where we want to go further.

      We are also working with the Supply Chain Sustainability School on the development on an elearning module for the FM food supply chain.

      Best Regards