Gwen began her day with a glance at the calendar.
The morning would begin with a virtual tour of all the company’s production facilities.
As VP Operations for TechGrow, she was responsible for the company’s production of plant and plant-based products over its 12 micro-sites.
She plugged in her augmented reality headset and connected to the first facility.
Martin, the plant manager, met her on the floor.
Their discussion focused mostly on new plans to repurpose the substrate used to grow their green leafy products.
It was already being transformed into insulation materials for construction, but Gwen had been pushing Martin to see if he could come up with a higher value application.
She listened as he explained how his team had worked with the local university’s faculty of food engineering and some cutting-edge Dutch technology, to weave the substrate fibers into a new biodegradable packaging for their product that was approved by all of Canada’s municipal composting sites.
Gwen was impressed. Turning the substrate into the packaging was ingenious. Making it compatible with the still unharmonized municipal processing infrastructure was an even bigger win.
She congratulated Martin and asked him to prepare prototypes that could be shared with their internal ambassadors. Finding stories to share with their employees and customer-fans was part of how TechGrow got people excited about pushing the needle on circularity. It was a key part of Gwen’s job description, and this was a story she wanted out there as soon as possible.
Thanking Martin, she moved through the eleven other virtual site visits over the course of the morning. As she moved from one to another, she was reminded of the criticism they had received, back in 2021, when TechGrow chose to eschew the economies of scale from building large factories (as so many of their competitors had done), and deploy a dozen micro-sized facilities in key urban centers and a collaborative distribution model.
But, four years later, TechGrow had won pretty much every award in the business. Their local model was being applauded not just for its circularity and sustainability but for its profitability and there was a long line of people queuing up to take her job (which she considered a good indicator of success!).
And perhaps more importantly, they had helped kickstart a circular local food production revolution which was changing the way that Canadians shopped and ate and was starting to drive the waste out of the system.
Let’s leave Gwen and Martin and the fictional TechGrow behind for a moment, while I tell you about 30 young and ambitious companies who are disrupting the real, rather than the fictional food system.
In a few short weeks, these companies will become the latest cohort to graduate from R-Purpose MICRO – an intensive accelerator program for new F&B companies that my team and I are proud to lead. They will celebrate their success by pitching to a group of investors, retailers, politicians, government funders and food industry influencers and leaders.
And when they pitch, their circularity credentials will be front and centre: how they are leveraging circularity to fast-track their growth, not just through the traditional concepts of waste and packaging, but through the creation of regenerative business cultures, data-driven reporting, reinvented distribution models and more.
Spending time with these firms reminds me that we are poised at the cusp of the biggest revolution to hit the world of food in a century.
And while it is being accelerated by the pandemic, the fundamental trends that are causing it were there well before we had ever heard of the word COVID.
In its simplest terms, the problem is that we grow stuff, we eat only part of it and the rest we throw away. And that fundamentally is unsustainable and doesn’t work.
The revolution is about moving to a circular food system, one that keeps as much energy, nutrients and materials cycling through the system for as long as possible.
And while that might sound relatively simple, it’s not. Because it requires us to think differently.
Let me explain….
On my desk right now I have a plastic water bottle. Today it works great. But once it gets cracked, or the little button I have to push to get the water out breaks, it will no longer work properly.
I’ll probably end up throwing it away.
My brain has been trained to think of this water bottle as an object with one purpose, and when it can no longer fulfil that purpose, then it has no more value and needs to be thrown away.
This is called a “Take-Make-Dispose” way of thinking. And it’s what all of us do, all of the time, because it’s the only way we’ve ever been taught to think.
A circular mindset requires me (requires all of us) to think differently.
Instead of seeing that now leaky water bottle as broken and therefore having no value, I need to ask myself what value it can have.
And that starts with a series of questions.
First - can I actually fix it? Is there a little spring that needs replacing, or can I cover a crack with a piece of duct tape?
Second - if I can’t fix it, is there anyone else who can?
Third, if I can’t fix it and no-one else can either, can I repurpose the water bottle to be a container for my son’s paintbrushes and give it another life somewhere else in my home?
And finally, when even its purpose as a paintbrush holder has come to its natural end, how can I recycle the elements that make up this plastic water bottle so that they can be reused in another product?
It’s a different way of thinking.
Let’s return to Gwen and Martin and the fictional TechGrow story for a moment.
The repurposing of substrate into biodegradable packaging, the collaborative distribution models, the micro-production sites, even the internal ambassadors are not science fiction, but real ideas taken from real companies from this and previous cohorts of R-Purpose MICRO.
Companies that are choosing to create circular businesses from day one and who want to do nothing short of disrupt the way we produce and consume food.
And the augmented reality headsets? Well, we had a demo and it’s not just impressive, but far cheaper than we could have imagined…!
The revolution is coming. Gwen and Martin are going to have front-row seats. Will you?
Cher Mereweather, CEO of Provision Coalition Inc., is a Food Industry Sustainability Expert based in Canada
View the original Food in Canada Sustainable Change Column on Page 30 here