Is it time for technology to give something back? The latest Mintel figures show consumers across the UK are eating with their hearts as well as their heads. Some £8.2bn was spent on ethical food and drink last year, with sales forecast to reach £8.6bn this year before growing 17% to reach £9.6bn by 2023. That’s huge for what some still consider to be a niche market.
However, while the appetite for ethical food and drink is growing, cost perceptions can be a significant barrier for operators and consumers. This is where technology comes in, helping to restore harmony between industry and environment, and where experience is telling us: it’s good to talk.
Mintel found seven in 10 adults say making ethical food choices is harder when finance is a factor and confusion is rife about what an ethical choice really is. Suppliers have been advised to make it clearer on packaging when a food source is making more of the planet’s resources for less – take those wonky veg that have popped up across the supermarkets over the past couple of years. Using produce that would previously have been discarded to sell to consumers at a discounted price adds up for everyone. Labelling must make that clear to encourage uptake.
Free-range is also a concept dear to the UK, long considered a nation of animal lovers. Indeed, Mintel found 45% of us rank animal welfare as our prime concern and the number one reason to opt for food with an ethical certification. Fairtrade comes a close second among the general population, with environmental concerns higher up the agenda for the under-35s.
So how can hospitality help? For operators, one of the quicker wins has been the shift in mindset to ‘whole-product’ usage. Not only utilising the perennial favourite, chicken breast fillets, for example, but pushing diners to embrace other cuts of meat and coming up with innovative ways to make them attractive. Is one of the dishes on the menu particularly sustainable or based on ethical practice? Tell your customers so. To my mind, communication is key if ethical food choices are to win the war on waste.
To offset any increase in costs associated with more sustainable and ethical ingredients, operators are implementing technology that reduces costs in the restaurant, such as kitchen task automation to make better use of the chefs’ time, and front-of-house solutions, such as waiter paging and app-based integrated order and pay systems, that take some of the pressure off waiting staff and restaurant resources.
It’s an interesting thought. Modern technology – something many believe got us into the sustainability mire in the first place by increasing demands on the environment as it enabled humans to farm at a greater capacity than ever before – is now helping to relieve some of the pressure.
With some thought and clever application, technology can be harnessed for good in today’s restaurant sector to help restore the delicate balance between people and the environment.
Eloise Sheppard is managing director at Call Systems Technology and Restaurant magazine's guest technology editor