Doing the right thing – and benefitting the business

Posted: 30 March 2020 | | No comments yet

Food Industry Consultant, Lesley Thompson, summarises this year’s NSF International Conference, which outlined ways to create and maintain a healthy business culture.

doing the right thing

The theme of this year’s NSF International conference, held at the British Library in London, reflects the growing movement across business, government and some parts of our community, to turn away from deterrence as the main tool to enforce compliance with rules. Instead, fairness, openness, encouragement and trust are being used as tools to encourage individuals to act responsibly.   

There has been a tendency in some businesses to regard compliance as an overhead. There is, however, growing evidence that suggests companies that ‘do the right thing’ by their customers, suppliers and regulators, benefit in many ways, including financially, and, perhaps most importantly, through business resilience and reputation.

“Compliance is an outcome of a healthy culture,” according to Ruth Steinholtz of Areteworks, who spoke at the conference. She defines poor cultures as showing the features of bureaucracy, short-term focus, hierarchy, blame, silo mentality, all of which can lead to high employee disengagement, bad behaviours, poor performance and even criminal behaviour.

The theme of developing and maintaining healthy business cultures in the food industry is very topical at the moment and within this ‘doing the right thing’ can be expressed in several ways. The event was held shortly before the Covid-19 shut down and this was, of course, rightly the focus of many operations and food safety executives at the event. The advent of this coronavirus has thrown into sharp relief the urgent need to government, business leaders, media and individuals to act responsibly in the interest of others and the country.

In this COVID-19 crisis, it appears that the majority of employees trust their business leaders more than government and the media to give the clear, accurate and timely information about how to keep themselves and others safe and to act responsibly in their interests. So, doing the right thing right now for business means showing leadership and effective and regular communication with their staff.

Building trust has always been an important facet of consumer-facing business. Through the 20 years that Edelman, the global communications organisation, has produced its Trust Barometer – an annual survey of 10,000 respondents across 10 markets – the priority issues for people have shifted from celebrity CEOs, through the need for trust in innovation, and in 2019 to competence and ethics.

Michele O’Neill, Edelman’s Global Strategy Director, explained during the conference that people worry about the quality of information they receive and the amount of false information, especially on social media. By and large government leaders are distrusted, while trust in scientists is high – even more so now in the midst of this coronavirus outbreak. Worryingly, no company is seen as both competent and ethical, although it may have some of these features. However, business performs better on these axes than media, NGOs and especially, government.

A total of 64 percent of consumer purchasers now see themselves as ‘belief-driven buyers’, ie they will choose, switch or avoid brands based on their stand on societal issues.

Sean Rickard, the well-known agri-food economist, argues that the right response in the UK is for our supply system to produce distinctive food products with specific attributes, not only taste and value, but also credence attributes including provenance, safety and sustainability, within a globally competitive, affordable, industrialised production system.

For the food industry as a whole, there is a huge and passionate debate going on between experts about the right path for the future. Do we create a world competitive food industry or develop farming as a land management industry and import more food? Is this really the stark choice?

The speakers agreed that more strategic and sustainable partner relationships between all parts of the supply chain are needed for the future success of the food industry. By working together, suppliers and retailers can create more value in products and better fit them to what specific categories of consumer require.

Andrew Fearne, Professor of Value Chain Management at Norwich Business School, believes that the more fairness a supplier perceives in the relationship with the customer (the organisation and the buyer), the more likely they are to go the extra mile to help deliver to the end consumer.

The regulators too are shifting their strategy away from enforcement and more towards education and engagement. During her presentation, Maria Jennings, Director for Regulatory Compliance at the UK Food Standards Agency, explained that they have changed the name of their current initiative from ‘Regulating our Future’ to ‘Achieving Business Compliance’ to reflect this.

There are many sides to ‘doing the right thing’ and much food for thought for our business leaders. Perhaps this coronavirus crisis will teach us all a lot more about what doing the right thing means.

About the author

With extensive experience in brand, marketing strategy and research/feasibility project work over the last 10 years, Lesley Thompson has developed in-depth knowledge of international food assurance, food safety, risk and supply chain issues. Lesley authors, edits and ghost writes white papers on these and related topics, as well as organising conferences.