If you’re looking for the impact of the sustainability movement on the food supply chain, look no further than retail giant Walmart. Last year, the mega-retailer pledged to dramatically boost the locally grown produce it purchases from small and medium farmers in the U.S. and abroad. The goal includes tripling local sourcing globally and doubling the local produce purchased in the U.S., with 10% of U.S. produce sales expected to come from local farmers by 2015.

Wal-Mart’s initiative is partly an effort to improve its corporate image by reducing its environmental footprint, and partly in response to rising consumer interest in local food production.

This trend is manifested in developments such as the proliferation of farmers markets and the spread of the ‘locavore’ movement calling for consumption of locally grown foods. Even restaurateurs are taking note, with chefs polled by the National Restaurant Association naming locally sourced meats, seafood and produce as one of the hot trends on restaurant menus in 2011.

Demand for local food production is being driven by factors including a lower carbon footprint related to a shorter driving distance to market, the economic advantages of local food production for individual communities, and the environmental benefits of maintaining and protecting the biodiversity of local farmland. As this trend becomes more mainstream, retailers, restaurants and suppliers need to adapt to consumers’ changing needs.

Complex Issue

While one of the main arguments for local sourcing involves food miles, lower mileage is not the only consideration in calculating carbon savings. Take the example of mineral water production from a local natural spring, where glass bottles are used and returned to the plant by the customer. This can reap large carbon savings, especially where the customer is located near the manufacturer.

The point is illustrated in the chart above. Based on an SGS study, the combination of local delivery and bottle reuse achieves the largest reduction in carbon footprint. Although the main beneficial carbon impact comes from collecting and reusing the bottles – not from eliminating long-distance transportation - the rate of reuse will be higher where the customer is closer to the production site, so the two indicators are linked.

Another example of the complexity of the issue involves local versus organic fruit. Locally produced fruit is generally considered preferable to organic varieties that have been transported halfway around the world because of the presumed increase in emissions from international sourcing. But local sourcing is only more sustainable if it is produced in season without the carbon footprint of off-season fruit storage or greenhouse production. This is highly relevant to juice producers attempting to reduce their carbon footprint, for example. A ‘buy local only’ approach also has serious social implications for food consumers, producers and suppliers as well. In developing countries, for example, insisting on local sourcing can translate into fewer jobs for food production. Local food producers also need to pay attention to sustainable production issues such as the welfare and humane treatment of animals, reduction of pesticide use, and fair labor practices for their employees.

How Can SGS Help?

SGS sustainability experts can provide assistance to organizations at all steps of the food supply chain, including assessing the most significant impacts by analyzing the product life cycle and/ or supply chain impacts. Carbon footprint analysis can be a good starting point to increasing the long-term sustainability of a business, ensuring competitive advantage, protecting your brand, and preparing for a rise in sustainable product and raw materials initiatives, standards and even regulations. SGS experts can also help define a local procurement strategy and develop training and awareness programs for buyers and suppliers.

Learn more about how SGS can help you with carbon footprint and green procurement by contacting our ecodesign team.

Bethany Murray
Sustainability Consultant
Global Sustainability Services

t: +44 203 008 7876
Website: www.sgs.com/foodsafety

About SGS

The SGS Group is the global leader and innovator in inspection, verification, testing and certification services. Founded in 1878, SGS is recognized as the global benchmark in quality and integrity. With 64,000 employees, SGS operates a network of over 1,250 offices and laboratories around the world.