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3 Signs the Fast Food Industry Should Invest in Sustainable Sourcing

Posted by Olga Bitsakis

Jul 1, 2016 11:30:00 AM

Fast food shareholder meeting on sustainability

The definition of "good" food has historically revolved around a single consideration: taste. As long as your food had the right flavors in the right proportions, facets of the fast food dining experience like the ambience or menu pricing were somewhat flexible. But the internet has been changing the face of the fast food industry for years now, most notably in marketing, so the fact that it's shaking the very bedrock of what "good" food means should come as no surprise.

While digital outreach and engagement has undoubtedly helped with cementing QSR brand identity and marketing, it's also given procurement professionals unprecedented insights into the wants and habits of their consumers. The signs are loud and clear: sustainability reigns supreme.

It's Strong Enough to Define

Typically, smaller brands follow the lead of larger ones, letting companies with larger coffers make those first missteps so that they don't have to, only following suit once popularity is well established. Sustainability is such a huge positive in consumer perception that it's subverting that playbook, and new upstarts are hinging their brand identity on the concept. Tied with the movement towards specialty diets — clean eating, gluten-free, paleo and so on — new names like Amy's Vegetarian Drive Thru in California and Ray Allen's locally-sourced Grown Restaurant in Miami are marching to the beat of their own sustainable drum. The fact that businesses in this genre are not only thriving, but expanding, is a testament to the power that thoughtful sourcing has in terms of market share.

It Can't Be Ignored

With the web literally at their fingertips, consumers have been enthusiastically educating themselves on how, exactly, a cow transforms into the burgers they enjoy, or how poultry lives before it's destined for a nugget box. With that knowledge comes both preferences and choices, and terms that were once isolated in B2B circles to differentiate premium ingredients are now common parlance — cage freehumanely raised, hormone free.

If the employees of a chain can only manage a blank stare when consumers come calling with questions, that's a brand that's missing out on a prime opportunity to connect with and secure the loyalty of a free-thinking, highly influential market segment. If, on the other hand, those same employees can verify that the food they're serving is humanely raised or locally sourced, they project authority and trustworthiness —  typically an uphill journey in the battle for consumer hearts and buying habits in the crowded QSR market.

It's Worth the Investment

In an article for QSR, Brendan O’Brien admits that, while the cost to swap traditional ingredients for sustainable ones may result in higher invoices, the added expense is ultimately worth it. As an added bonus, the once-wide gap in cost between conventional produce and organic produce has been shrinking by as much as 40% over the last 10 years. As more brands sign on to sustainable practices and products, expect that number to dip even lower, thanks to the not-inconsiderable weight of industry trend demands. The tricky part will be securing the volume necessary to meet those demands.

Sustainable farming and livestock production often eschews the high-output, low-ethic methods used to turn out conventional products in the numbers needed to satisfy the "big names" in the fast food industry, week after week. That looming scarcity is one of the most pressing reasons to start your sustainable sourcing now, rather than later: You'll get a jump on the competition and your contracts will secure excess products before theirs have a chance to. 

Sustainability in the fast food industry will not always be a comfortable fit, but it's one that must be "tried on" before it’s too late. If you linger on exploring and implementing a sustainable strategy, you'll end up looking like less of a trailblazer and more of a wagon-jumper — a position no forward-thinking QSR brand wants to find itself in. Beyond consumer confidence, investing in and embracing sustainable practices is good leadership in your market sector, and a step in the right direction for making your company eco-friendly and ethical in operations, from procurement on through to the plate.

How Quick-Service Restaurants Can Find Balance

Written by: Olga Bitsakis

Topics: Food Service, Trends, Sustainability, QSR