Since the world was introduced to the first meal kit over a decade ago, the industry has matured in size and familiarity, but it also has endured notable criticism surrounding packaging and its perceived impact on the environment. Leading sustainability for a meal kit company, I am acutely aware of our weak points and an advocate for the benefits.
Let me be the first say that as an industry, there is ongoing work to do to make meal kits the most sustainable food option. I have seen significant progress to this end — both in my company and the industry at large — from iterating on packaging needs to rethinking how to sustainably control temperature during transport.
As head of sustainability at HelloFresh US, it is my charge to advance this standard. I also have observed firsthand how technology-driven innovation is disrupting the traditional grocery supply chain, opening new doors to reducing food waste and helping the world to think differently about how we source food.
To channel that disruption for good — and to positively affect the environment — the meal kit industry must hold itself accountable to do better. To keep disrupting in pursuit of a more sustainable supply chain, we must continue making improvements to be part of the solution for a sustainable food industry.
Here are the greatest areas for growth — and opportunity — I see for the meal kit sector:
Packaging innovation must continue to challenge the status quo
If there is one consistent critique against this industry, it is that meal kits developed a reputation for excess packaging. Providing consumers with the exact amount of ingredients for a recipe contributes to less food waste in the home — but tough critics point to pre-portioned ingredient packaging as wasteful.
In truth, as with any e-commerce company, packaging in the early days of the meal kit industry was more deserving of this criticism and far less thoughtful than it is today. New industries often have unintended consequences while they seek to disrupt entrenched challenges of others. As an industry gains momentum and critical mass, it needs to address things that can become problematic at scale. For meal kits, packaging waste was one of those unintended consequences.
Research continues to examine the whole life cycle of meal kits to understand the environmental impacts as it relates to packaging and food waste.
Meal kits live where technology meets the traditional food system.
HelloFresh benchmarks in comparison to supermarkets, where consumers typically get their groceries. Consider the grocery shopper and meal-kit customer who cook the same recipe. Retail shoppers do not see the packaging waste at each step of the supply chain before food arrives on shelves — many steps meal kits skip altogether as a streamlined direct-to-consumer model. Still, we must hold our industry to a high standard for sustainable packaging.
Since the industry's inception, meal kits have made strides towards reducing the overall amount of packaging, tracking what is used to the item level and exploring more sustainable and recyclable packaging. HelloFresh also has engaged to fight key problems related to packaging in the environment. Through a partnership with Plastic Bank, the company's Green Chef brand collects and recycles ocean-bound plastic commensurate with every ounce of plastic in a customer’s box.
At HelloFresh, we established a three-pronged packaging commitment: avoid, reduce and innovate. In the U.S., our teams have continued to minimize overall packaging and plastic. They also have introduced insulating liners that are curbside recyclable and provided consumer education on our website with step-by-step instructions. The responsibility lies with individual companies across the entire food system to invest dollars and resources against research and development to innovate on sustainable packaging methods.
Creating a new supply chain is key to reducing food waste
Meal kits live where technology meets the traditional food system. The logistical challenges this industry has solved for — particularly with respect to food waste and availability — are very different from how supermarkets stock and sell food. Technology has disrupted so many legacy industries. Why not the grocery model?
The ReFED Insights Engine, a data and solutions hub for food loss and waste, reports 35 percent of all food goes unsold or uneaten, with at least 24 percent of the food supply ending up as waste. Reducing that by just 50 percent could create $73 billion in annual net financial benefit for the country, reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 75 million metric tons and rescue food equivalent to 4 billion meals for people in need each year.
Changing the way people eat takes more than improving how meals are prepared, just as reducing home food waste goes beyond pre-portioning ingredients to avoid unintended spoilage. It means creating a new supply chain and ensuring the sustainability of that model.
Meal kits predict order volume with high accuracy, leveraging advanced analytics, machine learning and predictive tools. This consumer demand-driven pull model brings a new level of sophistication and efficiency to the supply chain, resulting in dramatic food waste reductions.
Contrast that with the push model popularized in retail — stocking a variety of items to "push" to customers in standard volumes. This strategy frequently results in excess food waste both for retailers and in our homes. Can we not make the outcome of enjoying a delicious meal a more sustainable process?
The direct-to-consumer business model is a sustainable evolution of the food system, targeting the functional output of a delicious, nutritious meal with laser-like precision.
Employing a tech-based, high-efficiency approach to procurement is how HelloFresh limits food waste in its facilities to less than 1 percent of purchased ingredients. While it sounds like a simple enough job, the reality is that it’s much more difficult to do this at scale than anyone anticipated. Meal kits must continue to disrupt the established way of doing business.
Sustainability in the modern food economy
The direct-to-consumer business model is a sustainable evolution of the food system, targeting the functional output of a delicious, nutritious meal with laser-like precision. The pandemic has only accelerated the adoption of e-commerce food shopping. Homebound consumers put a premium on fresh food delivered to their doorstep — 92 percent of consumers plan to continue online grocery shopping.
Yet the issue of food waste in the home remains, especially given that minimum volumes sold by retailers are often more than consumers need. Meal kits are recognized among the top two solutions for minimizing food waste in ReFED’s Roadmap to 2030: Reducing U.S. Food Waste by 50 percent.
Other players in the post-pandemic food environment can learn from how our industry leverages supply chain technology, predictive analytics and machine learning. Regardless of the channel, technology will be key to optimizing supply chains, managing inventory and building a more sustainable food system.
The bottom line
For its part, the meal kit industry still has work to do to make this business model the most sustainable it can be.
Systems that monitor, measure and reduce transport packaging from suppliers — and to end customers — should be table stakes. HelloFresh must refine its technology to fight food waste in customers’ kitchens and in its own fulfillment centers. And as any good corporate citizen, the company must continue to reduce its carbon footprint from operations beyond the (notable) food waste benefits.
All this work is happening every day. For progress and shortcomings alike, HelloFresh must set a standard for sustainability that suits the food system we all want to create — not the one we must leave behind.