Food Gets Circular: 3 Ways Organizations are Increasing Sustainability in Food


Circular food model

Throughout my series on the circular economy, I’ve focused on ways organizations can increase sustainability when designing, manufacturing, and selling consumer goods.

But “getting circular” with food involves a new set of considerations.

Let me explain.

In the world of consumer goods, circularity relies on three key concepts:

  1. Design products that will last longer, so people will only buy what they need.

  2. Use packaging that consumers can effortlessly repurpose, reuse, or recycle.

  3. Make it easy for people to find a new home (other than a landfill) for an item when they are done using it.

In the food space, however, circularity means cultivating agricultural products in a way that delivers added diversity, takes advantage of upcycling, or gives back to the earth—thus deepening a natural and regenerative cycle.

Circularity on the Rise

Readers of my work know I’m passionate about helping your organization become a circular business, whether you manufacture or sell consumer goods, supply businesses with raw materials or other products, or grow or sell the food we eat.

You and your teams can successfully drive the change our planet desperately needs, and you’ll be joining many other companies committed to the cause.

Today, the Ellen McArthur Foundation’s Circular Commitment partners and signatories include retailers and brands you know well, such as H&M, IKEA, Nestle, and Coke. Even Amazon joined the list in 2020.

Thanks to the burgeoning efforts of these companies—and the watchful eye of millions of eco-minded consumers—it is getting easier and easier to find news and information about the rise of circularity in consumer goods, especially in apparel and electronics.

But circularity in consumer food products? That was something I wanted to start investigating and better understand. And even though I’ve only begun to scratch the surface, here are three key concepts I’d like to share with you.

Concept One: Regenerative Agriculture

One key element in food circularity is regenerative agriculture, which is how forward-thinking organizations such as Nestle, Unilever, and General Mills are transforming food production.

Take the specific example of Knorr, owned by Unilever since 2000. They have been building their regenerative agriculture model over the past ten years.

Today, 95% of the vegetables and herbs Knorr uses worldwide are sourced sustainably, resulting in a 30% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. These reductions were achieved using cover crops, organic fertilizer, sustainable water capture, and other agricultural methods.

In addition, Knorr has announced that they will launch another 50 regenerative agriculture projects by 2026. Now that is some impressive progress.

Concept 2: Upcycling

Upcycling is one of my favorite examples of creating circularity in the food space. Take Netzro, a Minneapolis-based company that partners with breweries and distilleries.

In the past, spent grains from making beer or spirits were destined for landfill or feed, but Netzro captures these grains and turns them into upcycled ingredients such as flour, which can then be bought by retailers, wholesalers, restaurants, and consumers.

Compared with conventionally produced ingredients, upcycling efforts like Netzro’s can cut greenhouse gas emissions by 60%.

Coffee and cacao farmers are upcycling to reduce waste, too. Previously, only the beans from these plants could be commoditized, but now, farmers sell the entire berry. As a result, farmers can harvest their fields faster, reduce the labor needed to process the fruit, and expand their revenue by 20-30%. This upcycling also creates increased stability for coffee and cacao farmers, as well as others in the value chain.

These successes are brought to you by thinking differently about waste. That is, waste is not seen as a problem to dispose of but an opportunity to capitalize on.

Concept Three: Circular Packaging. Again.

When organizations begin their circular efforts, I recommend they do two things: focus on product value and reduce the waste they create. Then, if it’s applicable, I suggest they improve their packaging.

I’ve touched on this theme a time or