This is the most overlooked piece in companies’ sustainability strategies

This is the most overlooked piece in companies’ sustainability strategies

Intuit’s global sustainability lead Charlie Reed says our current food system is failing us, and it’s time for global business leaders to act.

BY Charlie Reed

Greenhouse gas emissions generated by our global food system surpass the sum of emissions from all the world’s cars, trains, and airplanes combined. The complexities within globalized food supply chains, which foods we produce, how, when, and where we produce them, and how they reach the world’s billions of eaters are nuanced facets of our food system in dire need of decarbonization.

Compounding the environmental shortcomings of our food system further, a staggering one-third of all food is wasted on a global scale. In the United States, the statistics are more severe; 40% of all food ultimately goes to waste, equating to 130 billion uneaten meals each year, according to Feeding America.

The same food system is also responsible for tremendous health disparities, from growing rates of diet-related chronic illness to malnutrition and hunger, that exacerbate pre-existing inequalities in systemically under-resourced communities. Globally, the World Food Programme estimates that 783 million people are currently facing chronic hunger, and in the United States alone, more than 34 million people are actively facing food insecurity.

Our food waste habit is harmful not only to the environment but also to our pocketbooks. The U.S. pays a $444 billion annual bill for food that goes uneaten, not to mention the climate and social costs that we’re adding to our collective tab. It’s imperative that we address this issue before it’s too late, and corporate climate strategies must take the food system into account.

The business impact of food waste

Businesses feel these impacts, too, of course. For instance, according to the USDA, American restaurants spend about $162 billion annually in food waste costs, many of them small businesses.

Businesses of all sizes, not just food and agricultural companies, have a crucial role in building a more sustainable and less wasteful food system and an opportunity to meaningfully engage their employees, customers, and future employees and customers in their efforts.

Generations entering and beginning to lead the workforce—talent that businesses need to operate—care about climate change. Sustainability continues to be an issue at the top of the minds of Gen Z and Millennial employees who are pushing their employers to take action on important issues. Ninety percent of both groups are taking steps to reduce their environmental impact, according to a 2023 study by Deloitte. Their deep concern about climate change influences their decision-making from the food they eat to the companies they work for.

Corporations can lead in this arena using creative, forward-thinking approaches to sustainability that address the needs of their customers, partners, and employees.

Factoring food waste into sustainability targets

Operational sustainability targets must factor food into emissions calculations and company-wide efforts to reduce environmental harm. When food ends up in landfills rather than being eaten or composted, it emits methane gas during decomposition.

It’s important to note that food waste can take place at multiple junctures throughout the food system. On a typical 100-year scale, methane is understood to be 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide. However, when we consider that methane only exists in the atmosphere for 15 years, the impact is much more aggressive, having a global warming potential 81 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Given its potency and our narrowing window of opportunity for meaningful, transformative climate action, Project Drawdown consistently deems reducing food waste one of the top three most impactful solutions. It was recognized as a key priority coming out of COP28.


Corporate innovation can fix food system shortcomings

Corporate cafeterias, team events, and conferences offer excellent venues for prioritizing sustainability, be it through procuring seasonal, local ingredients, making plant-forward meals commonplace, or ensuring extra food is donated or, at the very least, adequately composted. Of course, minimizing food waste also minimizes financial waste, offering an additional benefit to companies willing to embrace it.

When leaders consider putting together food waste initiatives, partnering with organizations can significantly help reduce food waste and address related social and environmental issues. Many forward-looking leaders are stepping up across industries, offering inspiring opportunities to engage and find the collaboration, donation, or operational shift that is authentic and impactful for their company.

Corporations can also partner with countless impressive nonprofit organizations working worldwide to accelerate positive change in the food system, such as The Farmlink Project, a nonprofit that redirects soon-to-be-wasted produce from landfills to food banks.

However, before starting any initiative or partnership, leaders need to ask themselves questions to ensure the success of their efforts. These could include asking how the initiative will address the root causes of food waste, measure impact, and engage partners and stakeholders involved in the production, distribution, and consumption of food.

By asking these questions and developing a well-thought-out program, leaders can create effective partnerships and initiatives that make a tangible impact on climate change. Our current food system is failing us, and it’s time for global business leaders to act. Corporate climate strategies provide a prime opportunity to spark change and transform the way we eat for true social and environmental well-being.




Charlie Reed is the Global Sustainability Lead at Intuit. 

Fast Company