A few of the Nutritics team recently crossed the Atlantic and exhibited at the National Restaurant Association Show in Chicago. We speak to Elbha Purcell, Director of Knowledge Labs, Nutritics’ expert sustainability consultancy arm, to garner her findings from the show. 

Note: This article first appeared on Propel’s ‘Friday Opinion’ newsletter (26th May 2023). 

I’ve had a whirlwind few days. Fresh from launching our brand new sustainability consultancy arm, Knowledge Labs, the Nutritics team headed to Chicago for the National Restaurant Association Show. This was my first visit, and let me tell you, it is enormous!

The show brings together more buyers, suppliers and manufacturers than any other hospitality sector event in the world, and is attended by tens of thousands of professionals from across the industry. We were amongst 2,160 manufacturers and suppliers showcasing their products and services, and one of more than 800 companies making their debut at the show. 

The US is slow to catch on to sustainability 

We spoke to hundreds of operators about how Nutritics helps hospitality businesses in the UK to calculate and understand their environmental impact, and it was startling just how little awareness there was around sustainability in general, let alone the opportunities which exist for restaurant brands that act with purpose. From ‘mom and pop’ establishments to multinational giants, most operators still view sustainability as a ‘nice to have’, rather than a key tenet of their business.  

Four key stakeholders driving the sustainability agenda

As Director of Knowledge Labs, my job is to work collaboratively with operators to develop food-related sustainability, compliance and wellbeing strategies, and help them on their ESG journey, whatever stage they’re at. And while most US operators appeared to be behind the curve on sustainability, it was immediately apparent when speaking with more purpose-minded operators that the stakeholder groups driving their sustainability agenda are the very same ones influencing the work we do with our partners in the UK – consumers, employees, regulators or investors. 

Some operators we met realised that younger, environmentally-conscious consumers are increasingly likely to prioritise brands they believe are trying to have a positive impact on the planet, and felt that businesses which fail to act risk getting left behind, becoming irrelevant to an entire generation. These brands also realised that this trend is likely to be reflected in recruitment. In the US, the proportion of hospitality workers under-25 is three-times higher than the national average, and strong green credentials can be a way to not just attract talent, but to retain existing teams.

Improved access to capital is now a well-established rationale in the UK for developing sustainability strategies, but this only seemed to be a priority for a handful of operators we met. Europe accounted for around 85% of all global ESG fund assets in 2022, but Wall Street ESG funds still total a massive $286bn, presenting a significant opportunity to savvy CFOs, who realise that cutting Scope 3 emissions is a great way to demonstrate proven environmental performance in their ESG Reports, while also getting ahead of the curve on the Securities and Exchange Commission’s proposed Scope 3 emission disclosure regulation. 

UK leads the way on sustainability

After talking to operators about sustainability for four days, the difference between UK and US markets is stark. There’s no organisation with the clout of UKHospitality championing the cause, and no equivalent to the Zero Carbon Forum where operators can share knowledge and best practice. Change will eventually come, most likely driven by brands like KFC, McDonald’s and Burger King, where the link between responsibility and profit in their UK businesses will become clear. However, until then, there’s a real opportunity for operators with a great offering and a strong purpose platform to offer a clear point-of-difference to consumers, employees and investors, and crack America.

Elbha Purcell is Director of Knowledge Labs, Nutritics’ expert sustainability consultancy arm

If you’re looking for advice on improving sustainability in your business, get in touch with the Knowledge Labs from Nutritics team today