Waste, olive oil and the environment
Posted on June 6, 2013
This article was first published in The Guardian
Moves to ban olive oil jugs in restaurants have been ridiculed but beyond the bureaucracy lies a serious environmental and sustainability issue
The latest European Commission controversy arose from an attempt to impose Europe-wide regulations on how olive oil is served in restaurants.
Apart from what this all says about the EU, what does it tell us about “sustainable business”?
The idea of this regulation was that olive oil could no longer be served in restaurants in refillable bottles. Rather it would be served in single use containers that would be discarded after use. The regulation was proposed and pushed by the olive oil producers in the three main producer countries – Spain, Italy and Greece.
The producers introduced two arguments: (i) consumers in restaurants deserve to know which olive oil they are being served and (ii) according to Juan Corbalán, lobbyist for the Spanish olive oil producers, “It’s not safe” for bottles to be used again and again.
Both arguments are highly questionable. However, what has received less attention has been the environmental cost and sustainability impact of having olive oil individually packaged in disposable containers. First of all, the proportion of olive oil going to waste would increase dramatically. Secondly there would be a spectacular increase in the amount of packaging material. The European Commission has prided itself on its environmental credentials so it is unclear why it would conceive regulations such as these that have a significant environmental cost for consumer benefits which are, at best, minor or questionable.
From the producers’ perspective, such a regulation has clear benefits. Increased wastage of olive oil clearly increases producers’ sales potential. Margins are also likely to be higher on individually packaged oil containers than on the sort of bulk containers that many restaurants currently use.
And herein lies the rub and the major challenge for building a sustainable business. As long as increased consumption – and increased waste – continue to be profitable routes for most businesses, all other attempts at sustainability will amount to little more than window dressing.
There are many models that one can think of where businesses could make money in ways other than relying on continuous consumption or waste. However, they require a fundamental re-think and re-engineering of whole business models. Few executive teams seem to have either the appetite or the courage to embark on such a radical re-think. Until that happens we will continue to get companies and industries pushing for regulation that increases waste and unsustainable practices while trying to dress them up in questionable arguments.
The EU olive oil plan has been shelved, for now. Sadly, it will likely re-appear on some quiet Friday afternoon. Businesses that push these sorts of wasteful ways of growing their business can have no credibility as sustainable businesses no matter how much “eco” and “organic” labels they add to their products and packaging.