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How Blockchain could transform luxury brands

Monday, August 19th, 2019

High-end consumers are increasingly turning to ethically produced products and are willing to pay a premium for these goods. But the luxury industry has a chequered history with sustainability. Dr Navdeep Athwal believes that Blockchain could be the answer that brands are looking for.

Luxury brands have a controversial relationship with sustainability due to a lack of transparency in the supply chain and accusations of animal and worker exploitation. Yet some of the industry’s most significant markets – Millennials and Chinese consumers – are increasingly seeking products that are both sourced sustainably and produced ethically.

Dr Navdeep Athwal, in a paper co-authored with digital agency specialising in the luxury industry Verb Brands, argues that Blockchain, the technology behind Bitcoin, is the solution to providing traceability in the luxury sector.

Blockchain is focused on security and transparency. The technology promises data authenticity through the use of advanced encryption and data validation algorithms. Using this powerful technology could give rise to a new generation of luxury sustainability monitoring, traceability and reporting – the key for brands prioritising transparency.

Each step of a product’s journey from source to store could be logged thereby creating an electronic decentralised ledger. With open access to this information, customers could read about a product’s provenance and verify its green credentials. This technology is also attractive to major brands as it could help to solve the issue of counterfeiting, again by tracking each link in the supply chain.

International diamond retailer, De Beers, already use a similar system called ‘tracr’ to decrease the likelihood that their gems were sourced in conflict-zones.

Dr Athwal added:

“Blockchain might not be the first technology that comes to mind when considering sustainability, however I believe that this technology can improve the visibility of supply chains within the luxury industry, in turn driving forward sustainability”.

Dr Naveep Athwal

Traceability in the luxury supply chain is just one aspect of how embracing the digital revolution could change the industry.

The whitepaper highlights the need for brands to adapt to the ever-changing digital environment and continually evolve to meet customers’ emerging demands. Dubbing this phenomenon Digital Darwinism, the authors of the report spell out a warning to key players in the industry: adapt or perish.  

Further research conducted by Dr Athwal explores sustainable luxury and how Blockchain can be utilised in this context in more detail. Many luxury powerhouses, such as LVMH and Kering, employ sustainability as a key strategic priority and have the ability to implement large-scale change such as using Blockchain to promote transparency.

Dr Athwal commented:

“Luxury shoppers have long been engaging in eco-conscious mindful buying behaviours, and the development of CSR initiatives by luxury organisations like LVMH; owners of Louis Vuitton may well see the adoption for blockchain technology not just to eliminate the problem of counterfeiting, but also to create transparent environmentally friendly supply chains”.


Read the full whitepaper and discover more about Dr Athwal’s research below.
Digital Darwinism; The Evolution of Luxury Fashion 2019
(https://verbbrands.com/digital-darwinism-luxury-fashion/)
Sustainable Luxury Marketing: A Synthesis and Research Agenda (https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/ijmr.12195)
The allure of luxury brands’ social media activities: a uses and gratifications perspective (https://www.emerald.com/insight/content/doi/10.1108/ITP-01-2018-0017/full/html)
 

University of Sheffield and Microsoft collaboration develop tool to help scientists forecast future impact of climate change, population growth and energy use

Wednesday, March 20th, 2019
  • Predictor tool developed by the University of Sheffield will help scientists forecast future impact of climate change, population growth and energy use
  • The Supply Chain Environmental Analysis Tool (SCEnAT) 4.0 uses large scale databases including from the World Bank and NASA Satelillite maps and embedded autonomous learning
  • Policy makers and industry leaders can use the predictor to have a deeper understanding of the implications of investment decisions and policy

A pioneering predictor tool developed by the University of Sheffield will give scientists an alternative way to visualise the world and help to forecast the impact of climate change, population growth and energy use.

The Supply Chain Environmental Analysis Tool (SCEnAT) 4.0 uses large scale databases – including from the World Bank and NASA Satellite maps – numerical, graphic and textual data with embedded autonomous learning.

The new tool will be able to predict the relationship between climate change, political economy, innovation, life expectancy, population growth and energy use, on sustainable development and resources.

The University of Sheffield, in collaboration with Microsoft, has been working for the past eight years to solve the global challenge of depleting resources. The new tool has been pioneered through the University’s Advanced Resource Efficiency Centre (AREC) by Professor Lenny Koh.

“We are very proud of the long standing relationship between the University of Sheffield AREC and Microsoft,” said Professor Koh, Director of the AREC.

“SCEnAT 4.0 is borne from this ongoing collaboration in the era of Industry 4.0; and the Cloud and AI economy. SCEnAT 4.0 AI capabilities fit strategically with the AI sector Deal announced by the UK Government.

“Globally, AI interests are on the rise especially in the USA, China and Europe, whilst the global revenue from the AI market is projected at circa 90 billion USD in 2025 in tune with the increasing global demand for more sustainable and resource efficient solutions. SCEnAT 4.0 framework and platform are well-positioned for such worldwide scale-up rapidly.”

SCEnAT 4.0 has evolved from the original SCEnAT Cloud based tool, powered by Microsoft Azure, which has helped companies reduce the environmental impact of their supply chains.

The collaboration between the University of Sheffield and Microsoft progressed the tool into SCEnAT+ and SCEnATi – funded by the EU – which has the addition of big data analytics and benchmarking capabilities along with Power BI integration, a Microsoft business analytics service.

Anthony Bitar, Cloud Solution Architect, Microsoft UK, said: “Policy makers and industry leaders can exploit the prediction experiencer from SCEnAT 4.0 to have a deeper understanding of the implications of policy and investment decisions.

“We are excited by how the combination of Microsoft’s Azure cloud and AI services are being used in the SCEnAT 4.0 platform to de-risk and visualise the relationship of economic, environmental and social impact from the way we produce and consume resources.”

Working to reduce food waste in developing countries

Friday, January 18th, 2019

Scientists and engineers in the UK are working to use ideas from advanced space technology to improve the lives of farmers and reduce food waste in developing countries. 

Due to a warmer climate and a lack of technology, expertise and infrastructure, up to 40% of food in developing countries can be wasted, with much of this waste being fresh produce. This is because the farmers are unable to insulate and cool or refrigerate produce after it is harvested – and on the journey between the farm and the consumer, the food can become spoiled.

A research team, led by Dr Sonal Choudhary of the University of Sheffield, is working on utilising the Science and Technology Facilities Council’s (STFC) expertise in space science and cryogenics, thermal engineering and analysing large datasets to improve the efficiency of the cold food supply chain in India and so reduce the amount of waste, both in terms of food and energy. The project is being undertaken as part of STFC’s Food Network+ research programme.

UK expertise in cryogenics, the science of extremely cold temperatures, and of thermal engineering could hold the key to bolstering the food chain by reducing the amount of loss from farm-to-fork and by doing so, helping farmers raise their income.

Dr Choudhary said: “There are a number of practical and logistical challenges for farmers in developing countries. Once they have harvested the fruit or vegetables, how can they keep it fresh before it reaches the consumer? They are often unable to afford refrigerated vehicles, and rely solely on traditional methods such as transporting the produce through open trucks, rickshaws, motorcycles and even bicycles. Given the ambient temperature of 40-45oC in many parts of India, a good thermal insulation along with cryogenics technology could provide us with a viable option to reduce food loss from farm-to-fork and improve the cold chain efficiency.”

Dr Bryan Shaughnessy is head of the Thermal Engineering Group at STFC RAL Space and also a participant in this project. “We design systems to withstand the harsh extremes of temperature in space. By taking the technology and expertise we apply in developing instruments for use in space missions and instead looking at how to apply it in assisting in keeping food cooler in warm climates I believe we have an opportunity here to find fairly low cost solutions to what can be a very expensive problem…”

Dr Choudhary added: “Thanks to the STFC Food Network+ we have the chance to work with experts in cryogenics, thermal engineering and data science, alongside stakeholders from the supply chain to really iron out some of the logistical challenges and get one step closer to making this solution a reality.”

The project has been funded by the STFC Food Network+, which brings together researchers from STFC and different disciplines in the agri-food sector with the aim of solving some of the world’s greatest food sustainability challenges.

The team have utilised participatory workshops and focus groups to predict any challenges in implementing STFC space science and technologies in India, where the gaps in the infrastructure exist, and what interventions are needed at different stages of the food supply chain from farmers to retailers and end consumers.

“We have met with farmers, retailers, academics, government officials and other invested parties to try to really understand the issues the sector faces and to come up with ways to meet those challenges. Early studies have shown that it is certainly possible to increase farmers’ livelihood by decreasing food loss from farm-to-fork,” Dr Choudhary said, “Now we need to demonstrate how this could be achieved at a low budget utilising STFC space science and technologies.”

The team is made up of both academia and industry, with representatives from the Sheffield University Management School (SUMS), Hull University Business School (HUBS), STFC’s RAL Space and commercial cryogenics firm Cryox.

University of Sheffield to lead €4 million research project exploring a more sustainable future

Thursday, January 10th, 2019

ReTraCE: Realising the Transition towards the Circular Economy

ReTraCE: Realising the Transition towards the Circular Economy

The University of Sheffield will lead a €4 million research project and train a new cohort of thought leaders to drive the transition towards a more sustainable mode of production and consumption in Europe over the coming decades.

Realising the Transition to the Circular Economy (ReTraCE) is a research project funded by Horizon 2020 EU’s Marie Skłodowska-Curie Innovative Training Networks and will support the implementation of the European Commission’s Circular Economy strategy.

A circular economy is an alternative to a traditional linear economy (make, use, dispose) in which we keep resources for as long as possible, extract the maximum value from them whilst in use, then recover and regenerate products and materials at the end of their useful life.

The project will bring together world-leading experts from a wide set of beneficiaries and partners to achieve breakthroughs in understanding how the transition towards a circular economy can be realised – both within existing organisations and industries as well as through innovative and sustainable business models.

Professor Andrea Genovese, from the University of Sheffield’s Management School and Principal Investigator of the ReTraCE initiative, said:

“This project will directly facilitate the implementation of the recently adopted ambitious Circular Economy strategy of the European Commission, which is closely linked to Sustainable Development Goals – the blueprint to achieve a better and more sustainable future for all.

Looking beyond the current take-make-dispose extractive industrial model, a circular economy is an alternative to a traditional linear economy. It aims to redefine growth, focusing on positive society-wide benefits, where products are kept in use for as long as possible, with value recovery and regeneration at the end of their useful life.”

The consortium of ten beneficiaries is led by the University of Sheffield and includes seven academic and three non-academic groups: The University of Kassel (Germany), Parthenope University of Naples (Italy), Olympia Electronics S.A (Greece), Tata Steel (UK), University of Kent (UK), ABIS – Academy of Business in Society (Belgium), Dalarna University (Sweden), Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University (Netherlands), and SEERC – The South-East European Research Centre (Greece).

The network will design and deliver world-class multidisciplinary training to 15 early stage researchers, offering them an extended and valuable program of international exchanges and secondments through a wide network of partner organisations – from public, private and third sector.

The multi-disciplinary project will draw upon research that will advance the current understanding of the circular economy from economic, environmental and social perspectives, providing policy insights and implications for practice.

It is envisaged that, by the end of the project, early stage researchers will be employable by research institutions, public sector bodies and within a wide range of manufacturing and service industries which will require new professional profiles for realising the transition towards the circular economy.

Call for applications

The project has a call for applications for 15 Early Stage Researcher positions funded by the EU H2020-MSCA-ITN-2018 scheme. Find out more about the project on their Twitter and Facebook pages.

 

Implementing Sustainable Development Goal #8 in the Republic of Azerbaijan

Monday, May 21st, 2018

 

  • Professor Colin Williams has been appointed as Advisor to the government of the Republic of Azerbaijan to implement Sustainable Development Goal 8 (SDG8)
  • On 21 May, Williams presented his preliminary findings to a conference in Azerbaijan hosted by the Deputy Prime Minister
  • SDG8 promotes sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, productive employment, and decent work for all

 

Colin Williams, Professor of Public Policy at Sheffield University Management School, has been appointed as Advisor to the government of the Republic of Azerbaijan. He will be overseeing the implementation of Sustainable Development Goal 8 (SDG8).

The United Nations organisation responsible for SDG8 – the International Labour Organisation (ILO), has appointed Williams to oversee its successful implementation in the Republic of Azerbaijan. SDG8 seeks to promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, productive employment, and decent work for all.

Drawing upon his expertise in supporting the transition from the informal to the formal economy, Williams is working closely with the Ministry of Labour and Social Protection as well as the Ministry of Economy and Ministry of Taxes.

Professor Williams states “I am keen to implement a holistic approach towards creating decent work, by formalising the informal economy. I developed this strategy in the context of the European Union. This pursues a strategic, integrated and coordinated approach based on the full range of measures available”.

Suggested initiatives include:

  • designing and implementing deterrents to working in the informal economy
  • introducing incentives to make work in the formal economy easier and more beneficial (e.g. modernising access to social insurance and medical insurance, introducing unemployment benefits, mortgages, etc.)
  • building the social contract between citizens and the government using education and awareness raising initiatives

 

On 21 May, Williams presented his preliminary findings to a conference in Azerbaijan hosted by the Deputy Prime Minister. The conference marked the first visit by a Director General of the ILO to Azerbaijan. The event was also attended by government Ministers from Russia, Belarus, Afghanistan, Turkey, Kazakhstan, Lithuania and Uzbekistan, also interested to discuss how to implement both SDG8 and to formalise their informal economies.

Taking flight: International summer placement inspires Stephanie

Tuesday, September 19th, 2017

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Whether it’s for a summer or a whole year, our students are all encouraged to engage in practical work experience while at Sheffield. BA International Business Management student Stephanie Taviner has just completed an 11-week placement in Uganda, ahead of spending her next year of study in Hong Kong. She is having a truly global Sheffield experience!

She spoke to the University of Sheffield Placements Team about her experience, which she’s delighted to share with other students considering an international placement.

As they partner with the International Citizen Service, where the government funds volunteers to travel and support organisations, Stephanie found and applied for her summer placement through Balloon Ventures’ website. Balloon Ventures is a social enterprise which enables micro-finance in Ghana, Uganda and Kenya, helping entrepreneurs and start-ups to grow their businesses.

Ahead of the placement, Stephanie had to go through a comprehensive application process including an online form and an assessment day). She explained: “Questions mostly focused on why I wanted to join the programme. After I was accepted, I was asked to raise a minimum of £800, which fundraises for the project. All other expenses are paid for such as flights, visas and vaccinations I was also given a weekly stipend.”

After arriving in Totoro, Uganda, Stephanie settled in and got to grips with her responsibilities which were mostly shaped around managing four micro-businesses and one start-up entrepreneur, upholding the objective of facilitating growth and development on their business ideas, consequently alleviating them from poverty. She also worked in a team to empower local entrepreneurs and monitored Balloon Ventures’ impact on entrepreneurs and the community. She described her typical day: “My group would attend meetings with entrepreneurs in order to prepare for their pitching document. Additionally, we trained them about marketing, strategy, and their finances such as record keeping, profit analysis and cash flows in order for their business to succeed. Moreover, I was chair for the socials committee whereby I planned weekly social events for the team.

“I lived with a host family, sharing a room with a Ugandan counterpart. This gave me a cross-cultural experience as I learnt a lot about their lifestyles and made me feel part of the community.”

Washing Clothes Host Family Sipi Falls Uganda Veronica - hardware

Stephanie cites teamwork and analytical skills as being core to her success – both of which have been developed through her first year on BA International Business Management. Discussing how the summer placement has influenced her career aspirations, she said: “My placement has confirmed that I would like to go into a career of development, specifically supporting businesses abroad. Having this experience has made me feel that working in the third sector is where I would like to start my career after doing a masters in International Development.

“This placement has been a two-way process. I have learnt a lot about cultural experiences, living overseas and being part of a new community – meanwhile I have passed on business knowledge which will support my entrepreneurs for the future so they can have a sustainable and profitable business.”

Click here to visit the Management Gateway, where students can explore placement and internship opportunities.

Comment: Fact Check – would banning zero-hours contracts harm more people than it would help? By Prof Jason Heyes

Wednesday, July 19th, 2017

“So while Matthew’s report is clear that many workers value the flexibility that zero-hours contracts offer them, and that banning such contracts altogether would harm more people than it would help, it is important that we continue to ensure that employers do not use these contracts to exploit people.”
– Theresa May, speaking at the launch of a report by Matthew Taylor on working practices in the UK on July 11.

Zero-hours contracts allow employers to hire workers ad hoc without guaranteeing them a minimum number of hours a week. There were 905,000 people on zero-hours contract between October to December 2016, but they remain controversial. The Labour Party has promised to ban them, but the government remains committed to keeping the rules that allow this kind of casual employment.

In her comments, the prime minister was referring to a section in the Taylor Report on zero-hours contracts, which states: “To ban zero-hours contracts in their totality would negatively impact many more people than it helped.”

The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy confirmed to The Conversation that this statement was based on a Labour Force Survey published in March 2017 – also mentioned in the Taylor Report – which found that “68% of those on zero-hours contracts do not want more hours”.

Scant evidence

Apart from this 68% figure, the Taylor Report provides few other clues to the assumptions underpinning the claim. Yet how many would prefer to work the same number of hours but with contracts that offered them greater certainty? If employers were required to provide a guaranteed minimum number of hours, what impact would that have on overall employment and the employment opportunities open to workers with different circumstances? These questions have received insufficient attention.

One in seven care workers were employed on zero-hours contracts in 2016. via shutterstock.com

The Taylor Report mentions that almost a fifth of people on zero-hours contracts are in full-time education. A ban on zero-hours contracts might make it more difficult for some of these individuals to combine paid work and studying, but we do not know what percentage would simply seek a more regular part-time job.

A similar issue arises in relation to those with caring responsibilities: for some, zero-hours contracts might provide a good means of fitting work around care commitments, but what percentage would prefer a contract that offered greater certainty? Evidence relating to these issues is lacking.

How to measure cost and benefits

The lack of detailed, regularly collected and nationally representative data about the consequences of zero-hours contracts for workers, and employers, limits our ability to debate the pros and cons of a complete ban. Respondents to the Labour Force Survey are asked whether they are employed on a zero-hours contract, but are not asked about the consequences for their well-being, job satisfaction and quality of life. The Understanding Society Survey, which does examine issues such as well-being and quality of life, does not explicitly ask respondents whether they are employed on a zero-hours contract.

The costs and benefits associated with zero-hours contracts potentially extend beyond those who are employed under such contracts. For workers with families, the uncertainty associated with zero-hours contracts may have implications for the well-being and standard of living of all household members. These wider consequences would presumably need to be taken into account in any assessment of whether a ban would harm more people than it would benefit.

To fully assess the claim we would also need to define what we mean by negative and positive impacts. And to consider whether the nature and scale of harmful and beneficial effects resulting from a ban might vary between different groups. For example, might the potential “harm” to a student resulting from a loss of flexibility be outweighed by the potential benefit – in terms of increased financial security and reduced anxiety – to an older individual from having a more reliable income? And might that potential benefit be considered even greater if that individual has children?

Even if it were true that a ban on zero-hours contracts would hurt more people than it would help, that would not necessarily be sufficient grounds for retaining zero-hours contracts. We would also need to consider the nature and consequences of the gains and losses in order to assess the overall impact on society.

Verdict

In the absence of evidence that would enable us to more accurately assess the potential positive and negative impacts of a ban on zero-hours contracts, the claim that a ban would hurt many more people than it would help surely amounts to speculation rather than hard fact.

Review

Keith Bender, SIRE chair in economics, University of Aberdeen

Overall, I agree with the verdict. There is little data in the Taylor Report to support the government’s claim. The key question when looking at costs and benefits is “compared to what?” The 68% figure mentioned in the report can be contrasted with further data from the March 2017 report from the Office for National Statistics showing that over 90% of those not on zero-hours contracts do not want more hours – a sizeable difference.

The graph below shows that zero-hours workers are much more likely to want an additional job, a replacement job with more hours or more hours on the current job. It may be that a zero-hours jobs are better than no job, but in terms of hours, these ONS statistics suggest that they do not compare favourably with other types of contracts.

I agree with the author that more research needs to be done in this area to draw any conclusions. Key to that will be understanding the “voluntariness” of zero-hours contracts – understanding who wants them because of desired flexibility and who are forced into them because of a lack of other types of contracts.

The ConversationThe Conversation is is checking claims made by public figures and prominent in public debates. Statements are checked by an academic with expertise in the area. A second academic expert then reviews an anonymous copy of the article. Please get in touch if you spot a claim you would like us to check by emailing us at uk-factcheck@theconversation.com. Please include the statement you would like us to check, the date it was made, and a link if possible.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Establishing pathways to resource efficiency and sustainability: Joining academia and industry

Monday, July 3rd, 2017

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Prof Lenny Koh, chair in operations management, recently co-hosted an event at the European Parliament, Brussels. Alongside John Procter, MEP for Yorkshire and Humber (European Conservatives and Reformists Group), she brought industry and academia together to showcase the research excellence and impact of the Sheffield-based Advanced Research Efficiency Centre (AREC).

Focusing on environmental sustainability, resource production and consumption efficiency, Lenny aimed to maximise the centre’s global outreach and gave an informative introduction to the Supply Chain Environmental Analysis Tool – Intelligence (SCEnATi), part of AREC’s research output.

SCEnATi is a tool used by leading organisations to map their supply chain and identify improvement opportunities in terms of economic, environmental and social factors by relying on the tool’s businesses intelligence capability integrated within the hybrid lifecycle analysis methodology.  Lenny emphasized the importance of global stakeholder collaboration using the examples of mobile phone manufacturing, use and after-life disposal, and changes to the motor industry.

Other panel members also presented their vision for greener supply chains and how researchers and industry can work closer together. They included Prof Panos Ketikidis (International Faculty of the University of Sheffield in Thessaloniki, Greece), Jay Sterling Gregg (European Energy Research Alliance), Philippe Micheaux Naudet (Association of Cities and Regions for Sustainable Resource Management) and Maria Rincon-Lievana (Circular Economy Action Plan).

A number of key points emerged from the following discussion, including the importance of interdisciplinary innovation to a greener economy, greening public procurement, investors and innovators collaborating on advancing science, energy storage and security, and the importance of the circular economy.

British Academy/Leverhulme grant success for SUMS

Thursday, March 23rd, 2017

From extinction accounting, to credit unions and developing welfare – the Management School’s successful British Academy/Leverhulme small research grant wins demonstrate the breadth of our expertise.

These two-year grants, awarded to researcher for stand-out projects in the humanities and social sciences, shape the British Academy’s most popular scheme. SUMS’s 2017 successes are as follows:

Prof Jill Atkins: Engaging business on the state of nature

Jill, a chair in financial accounting, has been awarded a substantial grant to explore the possibility of an extinction accounting framework. Implementation of this would mean that businesses could report on responsible investments – a transformational change that will prevent the extinction of critically endangered species identified on the IUCN Red List.

She said: “Extinction isn’t only an issue for naturalists, scientists and ecologists – businesses, investors and accountants also have a vital role to play. Biodiversity can’t be preserved without the cooperation of global companies, the responsible investment community, and corporate integrated reporting.”

Jill will be conducting the research with Warren Maroun from the University of the Witwatersrand.

Prof Bill Lee: Understanding English credit unions through an international comparison

Credit unions (CUs) are financial co-operatives owned by their members. By encouraging members to save regularly before borrowing, CUs promote thrift and self-help and recycle funds within a population that shares a common bond, helping to promote the financial health of that community.

Legal and regulation changes mean that CUs have been subject to a great deal of change – Bill’s research uses case studies to investigate whether English CUs are abandoning policies that build trust from their membership while implementing risk management policies, and the potential consequences of doing so.

Bill wants to explore whether a comparative study with CUs in New Zealand, which are at a similar stage of development, will unveil alternative strategies which may be pursued.

Dr Anna Topakas, Dr Kamal Birdi and Dr Sam Farley: Understanding how to build bridges for delivering welfare in the community

Public sector organisations, such as the police, councils and housing services, are under pressure to improve service delivery. However, highly publicised cases of poor standard of service are often attributed to failure to coordinate, share information and collaborate effectively between agencies and services.

They are recognising the need to build collaborative spaces, partnerships and networks which can provide a range of benefits. Anna, Kamal and Sam aim to explore the role of work-related factors and individual staff attitudes connected with these inter-organisational initiatives, evaluating them on employee and organisational outcomes.

The project will build a richer understanding of employee factors in this context, make recommendations to enhance collaboration, and provide a proposal for better-informed interagency collaborative platforms.

Reducing the environmental impact of a loaf of bread: SUMS leads interdisciplinary project

Tuesday, February 28th, 2017

With an estimated 12 million loaves sold in the UK every day, bread remains a staple of the British diet. In a groundbreaking study researchers from the University of Sheffield have now calculated the environmental impact of a loaf of bread and which part of its production contributes the most greenhouse gas.

The group of interdisciplinary researchers from the University’s Grantham Centre for Sustainable Futures, including three experts from Sheffield University Management School (SUMS), analysed the complete process from growing and harvesting the wheat; milling the grain; producing the flour; baking the bread and the production of the final product, ready to be sold by retailers.

The findings, published in the journal Nature Plants, show ammonium nitrate fertiliser used in wheat cultivation contributes almost half (43 per cent) of the greenhouse gas emissions – dwarfing all other processes in the supply chain.

Dr Liam Goucher, N8 Agrifood Research Fellow from the University of Sheffield who carried out the study and is based at SUMS, said: “Consumers are usually unaware of the environmental impacts embodied in the products they purchase – particularly in the case of food, where the main concerns are usually over health or animal welfare. There is perhaps awareness of pollution caused by plastic packaging, but many people will be surprised at the wider environmental impacts revealed in this study.

“We found in every loaf there is embodied global warming resulting from the fertiliser applied to farmers’ fields to increase their wheat harvest. This arises from the large amount of energy needed to make the fertilizer and from nitrous oxide gas released when it is degraded in the soil.”

How to produce sufficient healthy and affordable food for the world’s growing and more demanding population, whilst protecting the environment is one of the biggest challenges of the 21st century. It is estimated that up to 60 per cent of agricultural crops are now grown with the use of fertilisers. Although they can dramatically boast the growth of plants and vegetables – assisting the growing demand of food yields – fertilisers consist of substances and chemicals such as methane, carbon dioxide, ammonia and nitrogen. The emissions from these substances in synthetic fertilisers contribute to greenhouse gases.

Professor Peter Horton FRS, Chief Research Advisor to the Grantham Centre for Sustainable Futures at the University of Sheffield and corresponding author of the paper, said: “Our findings bring into focus a key part of the food security challenge – resolving the major conflicts embedded in the agri-food system, whose primary purpose is to make money not to provide sustainable global food security.

“High agricultural productivity – necessary for profit for farmers, agri-businesses and food retailers, whilst also keeping prices low for consumers – currently requires high levels of application of relatively cheap fertilisers.”

He added: “With over 100 million tonnes of fertiliser used globally each year to support agricultural production this is a massive problem, but environmental impact is not costed within the system and so there are currently no real incentives to reduce our reliance on fertiliser.

“How to achieve sustainable global food security is not only a technical question but a political economic one, and requires interdisciplinary research of the kind we do here at Sheffield.”

The study was made possible by a pioneering collaboration with the agricultural and food manufacturing sector developed by Richard Bruce, a co-author of the paper and Business Engagement Lead for the Grantham Centre for Sustainable Futures at the University of Sheffield.

The data analysed in the study was processed using an advanced life-cycle assessment tool – SCEnAT – developed by Professor Lenny Koh, Director of the Advanced Resource Efficiency Centre at the University’s Management School and co-author of the paper.

“This tool handles large and complex data sets and yielding data on the environmental impact, including greenhouse gas emissions of all the stages in the supply chain,” said Professor Koh. “The tool identifies the processes that yield the most impact – the hotspots. The findings raise a very important issue – whose responsibility is it to bring about the implementation of these interventions: the fertiliser manufacturer, the farmer, the retailer or the consumer?

“There is a growing recognition for a range of industrial processes of the notion of extended producer responsibility – the producer being responsible for downstream impact, expanded to the idea of shared producer and consumer responsibility. The consumer is key, whether being persuaded to pay more for a greener product or by applying pressure for a change in practice.”

The paper also highlights the solutions available which could potentially reduce these impacts in the future.

Co-author Professor Duncan Cameron, Co-director of the P3 Centre for Translational Plant and Soil Science explains: “The fertiliser problem is solvable – through improved agronomic practices”.

“These harness the best of organic farming combined with new technologies to better monitor the nutritional status of soils and plants and to recycle waste and with the promise of new wheat varieties able to utilise soil nitrogen more efficiently”.

Click here to read the paper in full.