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FOOD & BEVERAGE

by EOS Intelligence EOS Intelligence No Comments

Upcycling: a New Trend in the Food Industry

Upcycling, a growing trend in the food industry, uses surplus food and food by-products to produce products such as dietary supplements, beauty products, nutraceuticals, or animal feed. Food businesses are looking at upcycling as one of the strategies to reduce the amount of food waste they generate. However, they face continued challenges around unmarketable ingredients, process costs, and consumer acceptance. To ensure success of this niche sector, fostering partnerships to collect food by-products, collaborating with government institutions for technical know-how along with initiatives that promote upcycled food waste products could go a long way.

Burgeoning need for upcycling food waste

UN estimates that nearly 33% of the food produced globally each year is either lost (in the form of any edible food that goes uneaten, crops left in the field, food that gets spoiled in transportation or does not make it to the stores) or wasted (food discarded by retailers due to color or appearance, food left on the plate at restaurants, and scraps from food preparation at home). This accounts for 1.3 billion tons of food worth approximately US$1 trillion, enough to feed 3.5 billion people.

Moreover, food wastage contributes to 10% of global greenhouse gas emissions and is a huge burden on the environment and natural resources. As more and more food waste ends up in landfills, it produces methane, considered to be eight times more harmful than carbon, thus contributing more to global warming than automobile emissions.

Upcycling is one way that can help mitigate the ill effects of food waste, to a certain extent. Upcycling uses food by-products, produce with visual imperfections (produce often unattractive to sell due to color or appearance), food scraps, and surplus food to make new products. It is forecast that, in 2022, the market size for products made from food waste will be approximately US$53 billion and is expected to reach US$83 billion by 2032, growing at a CAGR of 4.6%.

Upcycling – A New Trend in the Food Industry by EOS Intelligence

Repurposing food waste into value-added products

Driven by sustainability, repurposing food waste offers a plethora of opportunities for start-ups and other players to make value-added products such as beverages, food products, dietary supplements, nutraceuticals, animal feed, cosmetics, and personal care products. Companies are coming up with innovative solutions to convert food by-products and surplus produce into something reusable and resalable.

Upcycled food

In 2021, Nestle Australia launched a carbonated soft drink called “Nescafe Nativ Cascara”, which uses cascara, the husk of the coffee berry fruit which is discarded in coffee production. Another interesting upcycling initiative taken by Nestle Japan is “Cacao Fruit KitKat” which uses the white pulp surrounding the cacao beans (70% of the cacao fruit is wasted and only the beans are used to produce chocolate). Moreover, in June 2022, Barry Callebaut, a Belgian-Swiss chocolate manufacturer, also launched whole fruit chocolate made from 100% pure cacao fruit.

Taking a step ahead, companies are also investing to set up research centers and business verticals that focus entirely on food waste upcycling. Nestle invested approximately US$4 million and expanded its R&D center in Singapore to focus on upcycling food waste and plant-based innovation. Another American-Irish agricultural corporation, Dole, is partnering with the Singapore Economic Development Board and has formed “Dole Specialty Ingredients”, a new business arm that uses food waste to produce specialty ingredients such as enzymes, seed oils, fruit extracts, etc.

Bakery industry is another sector that holds significant potential for upcycled food waste products. For instance, ReGrained, a food technology company, based in the USA, is using leftover spent grain from brewing beer and turns it into nutritious flour called ReGrained Supergrain+, which is then used to produce snacks bars. The company also sells this flour to other food producers. Another US-based food company Renewal Mill, uses byproducts of plant-based milk to develop high fiber, gluten-free flours which are used in cookie mixes.

Food waste is also used in beverage processing. WTRMLN WTR, a food processing firm based in the USA, uses watermelons that are discarded due to aesthetic reasons and upcycle them to make flavored water. WTRMLN WTR is currently available at 35,000 retail stores across the USA. Another UK-based brewing company, Toast Ale, uses surplus bread from bakeries to brew beer. To date, the company has salvaged approximately 2.6 million surplus bread slices that would have otherwise gone to waste.

Several companies also upcycle the not-so-appealing fruit or vegetables to produce food products such as sweet and savory snacks, condiments, etc. For instance, Barnana, a US-based banana snack company, uses bruised bananas and produces snacks such as dehydrated banana bites, plantain chips, and crisps. The company has used roughly 50 million metric tons of not-so-good-looking bananas and plantains since its inception in 2013. Rubies in the Rubble, a UK-based company, produces condiments such as plant-based mayo, apple relish, and spicy tomato relish from imperfect produce rejected due to size and aesthetics.

While most of the applications for upcycled food waste ingredients have been in baking, beverages, and snacks, other interesting applications are also emerging. For instance, Scraps, a start-up based in New York, USA, uses excess or bruised basil leaves and odd-shaped peppers to make frozen pizzas. Unilever uses ice cream, not used in the primary production process, and mixes it with chocolate sauce and white chocolate chips to create a new flavor called “Cremissimo”. White Moustache, a US-based yogurt company, makes probiotic tonics from whey, a by-product of yogurt. Austria-based Kern Tec, a fruit seed producer and processor, uses the pits of cherry, apricot, and plum, and transforms them into protein powders and oils.

Beyond food

Food waste can also be used to make products beyond food. Wastelink, a food upcycling start-up based in India, collects food waste from 300+ distributors and factories across India and converts it into nutritional-rich feed for animals. Over the past two years, the company has upcycled over 5,000 metric tons of food waste. Wastelink raised over US$1.2 million in seed funding in June 2022.

Food by-products are also finding its acceptance in the textile industry. Orange Fibre, a sustainable textile company based in Italy, has partnered with Lenzing Group, a producer of wood-based specialty fibers, to produce Lyocell fiber made from orange juice and wood pulp.

Japan-based PEEL Lab started in 2021, is another innovative start-up that upcycles plant and fruit waste into plant-based leather. The company’s products include bags and wallets (made from apple and pineapple leather), yoga mats (made from bamboo leather), and apple leather coasters.

TripleW, a biotech company based in Israel, utilizes food waste for the production of polymer grade lactic acid, which is further used to make Polylactic acid (PLA) bioplastics used in food and beverage packaging, car parts, toys, textiles, and kitchenware, among others.

Upcycling food waste has also found applications in the beauty industry. Circumference, a New York-based skincare brand started in 2018, sources unused olive leaves from California-based olive oil company Brightland, to produce an antioxidant extract, which is used in the brand’s cleanser. The company previously launched a moisturizer using leftover grape leaves. Another US-based skincare company, Farmacy, uses left-over apple extract in its cleansing balm. Klur, a US-based beauty brand, utilizes avocado and tomato seed oils discarded by the food businesses to produce cuticle oil. Another interesting use of food waste in the beauty industry is adopted by France-based beauty brand Kadalys, wherein they extract bio-actives from bruised bananas to be used in their skincare products.

Challenges concurrent with upcycling food waste

Upcycling food waste poses many challenges. Most companies in this space are small and have limited product mix due to lack of consistent supply of upcycled ingredients. Another concern is maintaining the quality or freshness of the ingredients throughout the product lifecycle. Since these are mainly by-products or scraps, doubts on how these are stored (whether in a temperature-controlled environment or what sort of hygiene procedures are followed, if any), transported, and handled prevail.

Consumer acceptance is another challenge pertaining to upcycled foods. Consumers are often reluctant to buy upcycled food products owing to concerns about the quality of the ingredients used. Educating consumers that upcycled food is not just made from food scraps or leftovers but also from by-products which are nutritious and safe to consume is a daunting task. Moreover, the general perception that upcycled products are often priced higher further reduces consumers’ willingness to buy them.

EOS Perspective

Upcycling food waste is slowly but surely gaining acceptance, but still needs to go a long way to get established as a mainstream market. Owing to its environmental and economic benefits, the trend of upcycling is here to stay. ReFed, a non-profit organization in the USA, which strives to reduce the food loss and waste across the USA, claims that just by converting food by-products such as spent grains, fruit or vegetable pulps, and rinds into a new ingredient or an edible food product could save nearly 1.87 million tons of food waste diverted to the landfills resulting in financial benefits of US$ 2.69 billion each year.

Food waste industry offers multitude of opportunities for partnerships and cross-sector collaborations among start-ups, established food brands, food producers, philanthropic organizations, and technology and supply chain solution providers. For instance, ReGrained, in partnership with USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) developed a patented technology to convert spent grain into flour.

Several companies are also partnering with food producers for a consistent supply of raw materials. For instance, Barnana is partnering with farmers across Latin America to procure bananas and plantains on a large scale. Food producers are also working together in order to reduce food waste. An example of this is Kellogg’s UK’s partnership with Seven Bro7hers Brewing, a brewery company based in the UK, to turn its waste corn flakes into beer. Moreover, retail stores such as MOM’s Organic Market, an organic grocery chain in the USA, have also started dedicating shelf space for upcycled food products.

In addition to partnerships, philanthropic organizations such as Upcycled Food Association (UFA) also play an important role in reducing food waste by educating and connecting upcycled food companies globally to become a part of the growing upcycled food economy. Formed in 2020, UFA strives to improve the upcycled food supply chain. Currently, the association is a network of more than 180 businesses from over 20 countries. Credited with launching the world’s first third-party certification program for upcycled food ingredients and products, “The Upcycled Certified Standard” in 2021, UFA has received preliminary approval (in February 2022) from USDA FSIS (The Food Safety and Inspection Service), to include their certification mark in the FSIS-regulated ingredients and products. As of February 2022, nearly 400 products are waiting to be certified by the UFA. This initiative aims at educating consumers about the impact of upcycled food on environment and the economic potential it holds.

Furthermore, in 2021, UFA together with ReFed also launched the “Food Waste Funder Circle”, a network platform for private, public, and philanthropic funders for educating, collaborating, and investing to raise capital needed to reduce food waste by 50% by 2030 within the USA. Such initiatives highlight that the upcycling food waste industry has immense growth potential.

In the long run, it seems that upcycled products made from food waste could become a part of day-to-day life. Global appetite for sustainability is increasing and so is the upcycled food waste industry. Eventually, it is all about building an all-inclusive food system for a sustainable future.

by EOS Intelligence EOS Intelligence No Comments

Can 3D Printing Move Beyond Design Customization in the F&B Industry?

First conceptualized over 40 years ago, 3D printing is still rapidly developing. The technology has been used in various industries ranging from 3D-printed human organs for implants to printing numerous customized products as per the customers’ requirement. There are several interesting applications of this technology in the Food & Beverage (F&B) industry as well. While currently they mostly pertain to creating visually complex geometrical food structures, there are also ongoing innovations with regard to using 3D printing for nutritional controllability and sustainability. However, most of these projects are one-off and 3D printing still remains a niche application in the F&B space.

3D printing is an evolving technology, offering F&B industry players benefits such as efficiency and customization. 3D printers are mostly used by F&B producers to make foods using the extrusion technique. In this method, the edible is in the form of a paste and is extruded from syringe-like containers onto a plate based on a 3D computer model. The process is similar to icing a cake using a piping bag, except with robotic precision, as the printer layers edible filament in desired shapes.

Traditionally, 3D food printing has been used to architect intricate shapes and designs that are difficult to achieve manually. It has been mostly confined to desserts such as chocolates and sweets as 3D printing offers huge potential for customization.

That being said, there is a gradual shift to adopt this technology in preparing more complex foods such as 3D-printed pizzas, spaghetti, burgers, and meat alternatives. For instance, since January 2022, BBB, an Israeli food chain has been serving 3D-printed burgers prepared from a mix of potato, chickpea, and pea protein. Similarly, since 2021, companies such as Spain-based Novameat and Israel-based Redefine Meat have been preparing 3D-printed beef steaks and other products using unique plant-based compounds that taste like blood, fat, and muscle that make up traditional meat flavors.

Printing beyond customization

While currently the main advantage of 3D printing in food is its ability to customize complex shapes and designs (thereby making it popular for creating chocolates, cakes, and cookies), it is also extending to customizing the level of nutrients in a meal. 3D printing offers the possibility to produce high-quality food concepts such as developing personalized meals by adding specific nutrients or flavors, ultimately giving more control over the food’s nutritional and flavor value.

With this idea in mind, a Netherland-based Digital Food Processing Initiative (DFPI) is testing this concept and trying to come up with a flexible food production system using 3D printing technology that will allow personalizing food at any time based on individual dietary choices. The collaboration is an ongoing project between the Dutch institution, Wageningen University & Research (WUR), global food and beverage companies GEA Group, General Mills, Tate & Lyle, and pharmaceutical company Solipharma B.V., together with Ministerie van Defensie, and a Netherland-based research organization, TNO, whose aim is to bring commercially viable personalized food products to the market, especially for military personnel and COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease) patients.

Can 3D Printing Move Beyond Design Customization in the F&B Industry by EOS Intelligence

Another potential use of 3D printers is to reduce food wastage. The Netherland-based food-tech startup, Upprinting Food, which specializes in recycling organic food waste through 3D printing, has offered design services to various chefs and is also training restaurants to utilize their 3D printers to reduce food wastage. The company specializes in creating dishes out of any food left at restaurants and currently focuses only on high-end restaurants. They plan to expand their work towards retail and wholesalers in the future to reduce food wastage on a larger scale.

While 3D food printing seems to have a lot of unique uses, commercializing 3D-printed foods on a large scale has always been a challenge. For instance, printing a small piece (5x5x5 centimeter) of a food item takes around four to five minutes. Thinking about producing large-scale printed food would be difficult at this rate. In 2015, a project called the PERFORMANCE project (PERsonalized FOod using Rapid MAnufacturing for the Nutrition of elderly ConsumErs ) was shut down because it could not produce at a scale large enough to provide meals at nursing homes. The project focused on creating customizable meals for the elderly who had difficulties in chewing and swallowing. Thus, while customization of food products has immense use and strong growth potential in theory, it still needs a lot of work on improving speed and costs to facilitate its commercialization and feasibility.

Despite several advantages and functionalities, the market does not seem to use 3D printers for printing food as much as it could. It is mostly limited to confectionaries and very high-profile restaurants where quantities are small and prices are high. For instance, Natural Machines 3D printer, Foodini, is being used at Spain-based Michelin-star restaurant, La Enoteca, to prepare seafood, where food puree is printed into a flower-like shape, topped with caviar, sea urchins, hollandaise sauce, and carrot foam.

As per industry experts, 3D printing in F&B is still at an initial stage of development and will be more accepted once people see it being extensively adopted at restaurants. For now, 3D printing can be used to produce food with unique functionalities related to shape, taste, and texture such as printed pasta shapes of unique designs as offered by Italian food giant Barilla, through its spinoff business BluRhapsody as well as 3D-printed candy selfies by Magic Candy Factory, a spinoff of German candy manufacturer Katjes.

EOS Perspective

At present, 3D printing in food is largely limited to confectionaries. It is an evolving technology that offers considerable benefits of saving time and improving efficiency. It can potentially bring other advantages to the table, including reduction of food wastage, but such applications still require more research, investment, and trials, as well as attempts of expansion across food service formats, including small eateries and larger restaurants.

A 3D printing machine requires skill and appropriate training to print a meal. 3D food printing machines may not seem attractive for personal usage at this point but several food and beverage industry players have already moved in to adopt and exploit this innovative technology for various customized and attractive food options, although still largely at a pilot or experimental scale.

Most 3D food printers currently only cater to single restaurants or personal kitchens and are not very popular. For the technology to enter mainstream use and become attractive to broader audience, the printers need to be able print at large volumes. At the moment, there is a huge gap between what could be achieved with 3D printers in the F&B space and what has been actually tested and implemented. While several companies are working towards using this technology in innovative ways, there is a large space open for market disruption.

by EOS Intelligence EOS Intelligence No Comments

Cloud Kitchens on the Surge as Consumers Choose to Order-in

For food delivery, e-commerce was an option before Covid-19 but as the pandemic unfolded, it became the preferred way to take the customers’ orders. Restaurants were shut down for indoor dining, so customers turned towards cloud kitchens to order and enjoy restaurant-like food without having to step out. The ease of having high-quality food delivered right at the footstep, has instigated people, now more than ever, to order-in. The pandemic has accelerated the cloud kitchen business causing a paradigm change. Customer- and technology-driven cloud kitchens reflect a business model that will be adopted, sooner than later, unanimously by players in the food and restaurant service space.

The global cloud kitchen market was valued at close to US$ 52 billion in 2020, with the APAC region accounting for more than 60% of the global market share. Rising disposable income and increased use of smart phones have been driving the increase in online food delivery services (on which cloud kitchens depend), but it was not until the pandemic entered the scene that cloud kitchens really gained traction as restaurants and other eateries closed down.

COVID-19 accelerated the ascent of cloud kitchens as people used food delivery services much more frequently than before the pandemic. The growth was further favored by the trivial need for dine-in space due to social restrictions.

Everyone wants a piece of cloud kitchen on their menu

While China, India, and Japan are the key markets driving growth of the cloud kitchen market in the region, the market in other countries is also witnessing significant growth rates. For instance, JustKitchen, a Taiwan-based cloud kitchen operator established in March 2020, has 14 “Spokes” (smaller kitchens for final meal preparation and packaging) and one “Hub” (larger commercial kitchen where earlier stage food preparation takes place) across the country. The company further plans to expand both domestically (by having 35 Spokes and two Hubs in Taiwan by the end of 2021) and internationally – it opened its first overseas kitchen in Hong Kong in June 2021 and plans to expand further in Singapore, the Philippines, and the USA. Another player, GrabKitchen, owned by Singapore-based Online to Offline (O2O) mobile platform Grab, which opened its first cloud kitchen in Indonesia (in 2018), now has operations in Thailand, Vietnam, Singapore, Myanmar, and the Philippines.

Restaurant chains are the primary adopters of the cloud kitchen concept. The pandemic has made India-based QSR chain, Bercos, realize that it is important to include deliveries as part of the business plan because of which it is planning to launch three new cloud kitchen brands in the western and southern parts of India. Another Indian multi-brand cloud kitchen player, TTSF Cloud One, looks at opening 150 cloud kitchens by 2022. They aim at investing between US$ 3.3 million to US$ 4 million in the project through a combination of owned cloud kitchens, retail stores as well as franchised stores, and franchised cloud kitchens.

Owing to corporate strategy and global restructuring, the Philippines-based fast-food restaurant chain Jollibee Foods announced (in May 2020) that it would spend US$ 139.4 million on building its cloud kitchen network.

Global food chains are also partnering with local players to increase their outreach in the cloud kitchen ecosystem – in 2020, Wendy’s, a US-based fast food restaurant chain, entered into a joint venture with Rebel Foods, an Indian online restaurant company, to open up 250 cloud kitchens across India. This is a strategic move for Wendy’s as the company will get immediate access to scale rapidly across the country because of Rebel Foods’ existing network of cloud kitchens. Furthermore, Rebel Foods recently announced that the company plans to add another 250-300 locations to its repertoire across Southeast Asia, West Asia, and the UK via partnerships.

With the cloud kitchen concept growing at an astronomical rate, players, especially in nascent markets, are also looking to scale up rapidly. CloudEats, a Philippine-based cloud kitchen, plans to expand its reach further within the country (it currently has five cloud kitchens domestically) and other countries with the highest online food delivery penetration across Southeast Asia. Bangladesh-based cloud kitchen and digital food court player, Kludio, launched Kitchen-as-a-service to help restaurateurs, home cooks, and virtual brands to expand with no upfront investment, and FoodPanda Bangladesh, in July 2020, announced that it would be launching 30 new cloud kitchens (in a period of 6 months) across the country.

Cloud Kitchens on the Surge as Consumers Choose to Order-in by EOS Intelligence

Cherry-picked business model served on a silver platter (well, almost)

Cloud kitchens present a sea of prospects for both food and restaurant industry players as well as other adjoining sectors. They represent a potential of a tech-enabled business model for the restaurant and food delivery industry where operational jobs in the kitchen will be handled by robots and deliveries made by drones. Another opportunity is for restaurants that would like to expand their geographical reach but are incapable of opening another dine-in place. With a cloud kitchen in place, they can access new markets via delivery only. Restauranteurs can further use it to their advantage by experimenting with new food items with relatively no investment and low risk. Last but not the least, the mid and large-sized restaurant chains, which thrived on the dine-in concept (before the pandemic), will be quick to jump and adapt (some players have already ventured into this space) the cloud kitchen model to capitalize on the growing food delivery business. Furthermore, new players entering the restaurant and food business can take this as an opportunity to pan their premises layout in a way that space is efficiently optimized to adjust both the restaurant layout as well as the delivery service.

But it is not all smooth sailing. With a large number of cloud kitchens sprouting, the competition will be fierce in the coming years. Furthermore, with only so many food delivery platforms to support the already crowded cloud kitchen market, they are easily exploited by food aggregators. Not only do aggregators charge a high commission (ranging between 25% and 40%), the ratings for cloud kitchens on these portals (for a cloud kitchen) play a massive role in influencing other customers and affect the brand value.

EOS Perspective

Unlike restaurants, a cloud kitchen offers no dine-in facility and relies solely on online orders. The delivery-only model has its limitations, especially when it comes to customer experience. And a slowdown in dine-in style is indicative that restaurants are moving forward and looking to enter this space. Therefore, a hybrid model where cloud kitchen and dine-in concepts integrate is most likely to rise in the future.

The restaurant industry is recovering from the coronavirus crisis and adjusting to the fact that a pandemic could shake the entire foundation of the sector which was once based on dining in. But now with more and more people ordering in, the burgeoning cloud kitchen space represents a sprouting new business model. In the near future, smaller brands are most likely to embrace a cloud kitchen network model whereas the hybrid business model (combining physical stores and cloud kitchens) will work best for the larger and established brands. For instance, in July 2020, Thailand’s fast-food restaurant chain, Central Restaurants Group (CRG), which currently operates 1,100 fast food outlets nationally, announced that it will open 100 cloud kitchens across the country in the next five years to strengthen its food delivery business. Moreover, as social distancing becomes the norm (wherein restaurants are forced to maintain sizable distances between tables) and preference for eating out reduces, the dine-in spaces across restaurants are also likely to shrink.

In the long term, the concept of cloud kitchen seems practical and a plausible winner, however, its success hinges entirely on the growth of food delivery market. Before the pandemic, in 2017, APAC lead the global online food delivery market with a share of 52.1% and market revenue of US$ 34.31 (the region was anticipated to contribute a revenue of US$ 91.0 billion and a share of 56.2% by 2023). Post pandemic, these figures have multiplied and present a space that exudes growth potential. For instance, in Southeast Asia, the food delivery market grew 183% from 2019 to 2020 (in terms of gross merchandize value) owing to changing consumer behavior (towards how they consume food) and the ease of ordering in due to digitalization. Moreover, the growth in the food delivery sector is expected to continue.

Food aggregators have been active in the cloud kitchen space even before the pandemic hit. Their value proposition of acting both as a supplier (wherein it allows independent cloud kitchen players to use its platform while charging them on a revenue-sharing model) and operator of the platform puts them in an interesting position, where they have control, to a certain extent, of business functions of other players. Food aggregators may likely dominate this space in the long run.

The metrics of the food and restaurant service industry have changed as businesses evolve continuously. With concepts such as cloud kitchen, the sector has become consolidated wherein multiple establishments work under a single roof.  In a nutshell, the cloud kitchens are here to stay as they display substantial growth potential provided players revisit their business strategies and rethink the right hybrid business model (such as merging with a large brand, to expand into cloud kitchen space, among others) in order to thrive.

by EOS Intelligence EOS Intelligence No Comments

Is Sustainability Just Another Buzzword in Food Packaging Industry?

Sustainable food packaging has recently received an increased attention within the food & beverage sector. Most players try to make sure not to miss any chance of communicating their concern over plastic waste to the general public, showcasing their initiatives taken to curb the waste. Are such initiatives taken out of actual concern or are they just a move to position the brands right in the ‘environmentally-concerned’ market?

It is assumed that packaging is considered sustainable, if it meets three criteria of sustainability. First, it should be economically viable for the consumers as well as the manufacturers. Second, it should be socially acceptable in terms of ease of use, transporting, sorting, and storing. Most importantly, third, the packaging must be eco-friendly through the use of materials that are responsibly-sourced and reusable/recyclable, to reduce the environmental impact of the packaging.

Change fueled by multiple triggers                 

Food and beverage (F&B) and related packaging industry players have been under a growing pressure to be more transparent and to introduce changes to the way food products are packaged. Considering that a significant share of non-sustainable, non-biodegradable waste, especially plastic, comes from food industry, improving the packaging and transitioning to more eco-friendly solutions is becoming imperative, rather than optional, for increasing number of F&B companies.

At the same time, the pressure to reduce waste and protect the environment from non-biodegradable substances is creating new opportunities for the packaging materials producers and for F&B companies with regards to more relevant brand positioning in this highly competitive industry.

While a lot has been changing in the packaging sphere under the heat from environmentalists and legal requirements introduced by regulators, the role of an aware consumer exerting pressure through product scrutiny and shopping choices should not be underestimated in this process.

According to a report published in April 2019 by Globalwebindex, a market research company, there has been a rise in the number of consumers globally who are willing to pay more for eco-friendly/sustainable products (including their packaging), from 49% in 2011 to 57% in 2018. Consumer awareness is growing fast thanks to governments’ initiatives, educational media, and activists’ social media efforts, all of which have triggered an increased sense of responsibility amongst many consumers, who start to understand the importance of switching to eco-friendly and sustainable packaging.

Increasingly, consumer awareness is going beyond just passive understanding and translates into actions which have a real power to change F&B sector’s approach to food packaging. Consumers vote with their spending dollars and exert pressure by switching their loyalty to other brands, both of which approaches appear to be quite effective. According to the same survey by Globalwebindex, 61% of consumers are likely to switch from their currently-used brands to more environmentally-friendly ones if the latter score better on the environmental friendliness front. This shows that F&B companies really do need to re-think their product and packaging choices and start putting money and effort in sustainable solutions, if not from real concern over the environment, then for retaining consumer trust and maintaining brand values.

Big F&B brands appear to show initiative

The increased scrutiny over F&B companies’ packaging choices has already started bringing some results. Several major players are looking to invest in transforming their packaging materials to sustainable ones. Despite the challenges in bringing innovations into packaging materials and designs, and altering their supply chain, several F&B players are claiming to strive for their sustainability goals. Some claims may surely be genuine but some could possibly be a strategy to get the ‘sustainable company’ tag to stand out from the competition in the F&B industry.

Understandably, players are very vocal about their initiatives targeted at improving their eco-friendly standing to appeal to the environmentally-concerned consumers. F&B brands such as Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Unilever, Nestle, to name a few, have already announced time-bound plans to revolutionize their packaging models.

For example, in January 2018, the beverage giant Coca-Cola announced a goal to collect and recycle the equivalent of every bottle it sells globally by 2030. The company with its bottling partners started an initiative with a plan called “World Without Waste” that is focused on entire packaging cycle from designing and manufacturing of bottles to their recycling. For the execution of this plan, the company plans to educate the public on what, how, and where to recycle, teaming up with local communities, NGOs, industry peers, and consumers. Furthermore, under the plan of “World Without Waste”, the company aspires to create packaging from at least 50% recycled materials by 2030 and continue pursuing the goal to make all consumer packaging 100% recyclable by 2025.

Is Sustainability Just Another Buzzword in Food Packaging Industry? by EOS Intelligence

In addition to this, in October 2019, Coca-Cola European Partners (CCEP), the largest independent Coca-Cola bottler, announced it would switch the carriers on its multipacks from shrink wrap to paperboard to reduce packaging waste. The company claims that with this switch it will remove about 4,000 metric tons of single-use plastic per year from its current supply chain. The paperboard packaging is planned to be certified from either the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) or the Program for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC). Similarly, in January 2019, Coca-Cola packaging partner, Coca-Cola Amatil Australia, announced to cease the distribution of single-use plastic straws and stirrers, and distribute biodegradable Forest Stewardship Council accredited recyclable paper straws.

According to a report by Packaging Gateway, Coca-Cola claims to have made 88% of the consumer packaging recyclable, while its packaging used 30% of recycled material by the end of 2018. Also, about 58% of the equivalent of bottles and cans introduced by the company into the developed markets were refilled, collected, or recycled during 2018. Overall, the company’s recover and recycle rate was said to be 56% in 2018 as compared to 59% during 2017 or 61% in 2014. This proves that with growing sales, Coca-Cola’s efforts might not make as much impact as the company would want the public to think.

Nevertheless, the company is undertaking further initiatives to improve its environmental score. It committed to invest US$15 million in Circulate Capital, an investment management firm dedicated to incubating and financing companies and infrastructure that work upon curbing the plastic waste thrown into the oceans. Further plans of the company include increasing the use of recycled plastic in Australia by 2020.

In another example, PepsiCo also talks about becoming an environment-friendly company, announcing to use 25% of recycled content in its plastic packaging by 2025. In order to meet its target, in September 2018, the company announced its participation in the World Economic Forum’s Global Plastic Action Partnership (GPAP). The partnership focuses on stakeholders located in coastal economies, such as those in Southeast Asia, and its purpose is to help businesses, communities, and local governments redesign waste management to create circular models that include collecting waste and recycling or composting it to reduce waste streams to the oceans or landfills.

PepsiCo also announced other targets for improved sustainability to be achieved by 2025. These include to re-design all of its packaging to be recyclable, compostable, or biodegradable, to reduce virgin plastic content by 35% across its beverage portfolio, and to amp up investment to increase recycling rates in key markets.

Apart from individual targets, another initiative was also launched in October 2019 jointly by a few beverage players. As reported by a publishing firm, William Reed, three beverage companies, Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, and Keurig Dr Pepper, announced their partnership with World Wildlife Fund, The Recycling Partnership, and Closed Loop Partners under the “Every Bottle Back” initiative. This initiative, starting in late 2020, will include investment of US$100 million and will focus on sorting, processing, and collecting discarded plastic bottles in four US regions. The initiative also targets to educate consumers that PET bottles are 100% recyclable, easily remade into new plastic, bottles, shirts, shoes, coats, park benches, and playground equipment, by introducing pack label messaging.

Smaller players are emerging with packaging innovations

The pressure to embrace sustainable packaging is even greater for smaller and mid-size F&B companies, if they want to stay relevant to the customers, grasp their attention, and grow own market share. Smaller players in the industry seem to understand this and have proven to be more agile in introducing new products that focus on organic ingredients with sustainable packaging, while challenging big brands’ prices.

For example, in March 2016, Alter Eco Foods, a San Francisco-based chocolate-centric, healthy indulgence, and sustainability-oriented food brand, launched the first stand-up pouch made from renewable plant-based materials, designed for storing quinoa grain. This innovative pouch named “Gone 4 Good”, is not meant to be recycled but to be thrown in a composting bin where it will disintegrate within three to six months. Made from eucalyptus and breech trees for the exterior and compostable resin called “Matter-Bi” for the interior, the pouch has several green certifications. Apart from this, in early 2019, the company also transitioned its chocolate truffles packaging from non-recyclable plastic pouch to a recyclable paper box and claims to be looking for solutions to replace its current plastic Coconut Cluster pouch, since it is yet not recyclable or compostable. The company is determined to make all its products packed in 100% recyclable or compostable packaging by December 2020.

Another player, B.O.S.S. Food, a Texas-based nutrition bar company, started selling its premium nutrition bars in compostable wrappers made by TIPA (an Israel-based compostable packaging company) in 2017, focusing on ensuring the products’ packaging is environmentally safe. TIPA’s packaging is a bio-based blend with all the properties of normal plastic but is certified for both home and industrial composting through OK Compost mark by the TUV institute. The packaging also complies with food contact regulations in Europe and the USA.

Similarly, a UK-based beverage company named Earlybirds launched a 100% plant-based packaging for its breakfast drinks – bottles and lids made from sustainable sugarcane, over the span of two months of September and October 2019. The launch made the packaging 100% compostable as per EU biodegradability standards. The company’s advertisements claim that, under the right conditions, the bottle will breakdown in twelve weeks and it can be thrown in food waste bin and then composted at an industrial composter, reducing it back to soil. The company is the first in the UK to launch sustainable packaging for beverages.

These are just a few of several smaller F&B companies, which are focusing on bringing new packaging solutions to improve their rating as environment-friendly companies in the eyes of consumers. The initiatives are worth the effort, even though players face quite a few challenges in embracing sustainable packaging over traditional packaging.

Such challenges include higher costs, choosing the right material for packaging that must comply with the standards of environmental safety, as well sustaining the quality of the food product. It is estimated that the companies are required to spend nearly 25% more on the sustainable packaging than on the traditional packaging. This higher cost is attributed to major shifts in supply chain, including (but not limited to) procuring the raw material for packaging to collecting the used packaging for recycling. Another major factor contributing to higher costs of sustainable packaging is the R&D expenses that must be borne by the companies. The solutions still require a lot of research, as there are still very few commonly-used technologies and packaging products, thus a lot of players need to invent them. The companies need to invest considerable sums in developing an environment-friendly packaging material that is viable for their food product to sustain throughout the supply chain as well as shelf life, and (equally importantly) has the aesthetic appeal to grab the consumer’s attention.

But despite being smaller in size and having to deal with challenges, companies such as Alter Eco, B.O.S.S. Food, or Earlybirds have been investing extensively in R&D, a fact that resulted in several of them coming out with better and innovative packaging solutions. In fact, at times, smaller scale of operations works to these players’ advantage, as they do not have the constraint of having to convert the existing large-scale traditional packaging lines to ones suited to deliver new format or feature of packaging. Therefore, many efforts undertaken by smaller players seem to be converted into tangible solutions and launched more quickly and easily, also giving the companies a great marketing advantage over large F&B brands.

EOS Perspective

With the rise in awareness about plastic waste and environment safety among consumers, along with regulations formulated by governments across many countries to curb plastic waste, it has become paramount for F&B companies to enter the path of sustainability. At the same time, sustainability is becoming an important element of many companies’ marketing strategy to get ahead of the competition (or, increasingly, not to stay behind other players). The latter reason alone makes it no longer a matter of choice for F&B companies whether to keep assuring the public about efforts undertaken towards improving own sustainability rating across the supply chain.

Certainly, it is doubtful whether all these F&B companies are capable of actually achieving the claimed sustainability. On the one hand, there is a doubt if the scale of their efforts is relevant enough to bring about an actual change and not remain just a PR tool. On the other hand, the doubts seem to be really justified considering the challenges associated with achieving true sustainability goals.

The challenges range across many aspects. These include the complexity of the required changes in the supply chain, which involve both radical and incremental change, from manufacturers to users, owing to alterations in packaging materials and designs.

Another major challenge is the higher cost associated with changing the packaging materials from plastics to renewable or compostable materials. This starts with the development of the right product’s packaging material to ensure stable and long shelf life, and safe transportation with minimal waste, all of which is particularly challenging when dealing with food products. The costs and complexity of the task is further increased by the responsibility of creating an infrastructure for recycling of the packaging materials and taking the onus of collecting and recycling the packaging of own products, if not directly then through well-planned network of third-party entities.

Considering the complexity of these challenges and the high cost of going up the sustainability ladder, many F&B companies are likely to not be able (or to not want to) work towards full sustainability across their supply chain. In the midst of the growing pressure to meet the sustainability criterion, it is possible that some of the players might quietly opt for less sustainable solutions or stick to only those changes that are most visible to the consumer’s eye.

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Growing Appetite for Plant-Based Foods Disrupts the Meat Market

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Not many years ago, veganism or consumption of only plant-based foods, was considered an extreme form of lifestyle. Food options that were available for vegans were very limited and meat alternatives were based mainly on tofu, tempeh, and nuts. However, this is not the case anymore. Not only has the mindset regarding vegan food changed in the recent times, but also plant-based alternatives have become the fastest growing food category in the USA. This is also driven by a greater number of meat eaters experimenting with plant-based meat alternatives, whether due to health benefits, growing awareness regarding animal cruelty, or environmental reasons. Moreover, tremendous amount of investment and research in this space has resulted in wide range of food options, including vegan cheese and vegan meats that taste similar to animal-based proteins.

Vegan food has been around for quite some time now, but it was largely considered to be a niche market having a separate shelf in the supermarkets or being served in vegan-only restaurants and cafes. Moreover, it was considered an extreme lifestyle by many. However, over recent years, vegan meal options have found their way into the mainstream, with more and more people embracing veganism and meat-eaters adding plant-based food options in their diet. This is clearly evident from the steep growth witnessed by this food category, especially in the western world.

As per a study commissioned by the Good Food Institute (GFI) and the Plant Based Food Association in the USA, the retail market for plant-based foods was valued at about US$4.5 billion in April 2019, registering a year-on-year increase of about 11% and a growth of 31% in the two-year period from April 2017 through April 2019. The largest segment of vegan food market in the year ending April 2019 was the plant-based milk segment, which comprised about 40% of sales (US$1.9 billion). This category witnessed a y-o-y increase of about 6%. To put this in further perspective, animal-derived milk sales for the same period declined by 3%. While plant-based meat alternatives, cheeses, yogurts, eggs, and creamers are relatively new and smaller categories, they are driving growth in the vegan food segment too.

The growing sales across most vegan food segments indicate a momentous shift towards a vegan diet, which is not only propelled by an increasing number of people turning purely vegan but also a rise in meat eaters that prefer plant-based alternatives in some food categories, such as milk and milk-based products. This is due to growing lactose intolerance among consumers, with about 65% of the world’s population estimated to be lactose intolerant. The environmental benefits (i.e. lower carbon footprint) of maintaining a vegan diet and a growing uproar regarding animal cruelty have also driven conscious consumers to adopt a vegan lifestyle.

The environmental benefits (i.e. lower carbon footprint) of maintaining a vegan diet and a growing uproar regarding animal cruelty have also driven conscious consumers to adopt a vegan lifestyle.

The trend is further supported by the launch of vegan meat substitutes that resemble meat products in taste, look, and even texture. US-based players, Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat, are leading this space with the latter having received investments from the likes of Bill Gates, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Twitter co-founders Biz Stone and Evan Williams.

Industry players are diversifying into plant-based foods

Understanding that this trend is more than just a fad, several food companies (including large meat producers) have started entering this space, by either buying or investing in plant-based food start-ups.

Tyson Foods, USA’s leading meat producer, invested in Beyond Meat in 2016 and 2017, by acquiring a 6.52% stake in the company. However, in April 2019, Tyson Foods sold its stake in Beyond Meat with an intention to develop its in-house line of alternative (plant-based) protein products.

Nestle, which is one of the largest food companies globally, has also been expanding its portfolio with a keen focus on plant-based alternatives. In 2017, the company purchased Sweet Earth, a California-based producer of vegan meals and snacks, while in 2018, it purchased majority stake in Terrafertil, a plant-based organic food player that was founded in Ecuador and has presence across the USA, UK, and Latin America.

In January 2019, Nestle expressed its plans to launch its in-house vegan burger patty, called the Incredible Burger under its Garden Gourmet brand. The company is also looking to develop a portfolio of dairy-free beverages, such as purple milk (which is made with walnuts and blueberries) and blue latte containing spirulina algae. It is also adding vegan options to its existing brands, such as Haagen-Dazs (which launched a range of dairy-free ice creams in July 2017) and Nescafe (which introduced vegan protein-based coffee smoothies in December 2018).

Similarly, Marfig, Brazil-based leading meat processor, also entered the plant-based food alternatives market through a partnership with Archer Daniels Midland in August 2019. Under the partnership, Archer Daniels Midland will produce the raw material while Marfig will produce and sell the end product through foodservice and retail channels.

Canada-based Maple Leaf has also made significant investments in plant-based food players to expand its product portfolio and brand positioning. In February 2018, it acquired US-based plant protein manufacturer, Lightlife Foods, for US$140 million. Through this acquisition, it added Lightlife’s refrigerated plant-based products, such as hot dogs, breakfast foods, and burgers, to its portfolio and garnered a strong footprint in the US plant-based food market. To further strengthen its hold in this market, in December 2018, the company entered into an agreement to buy US-based Field Roast Grain Meat Co. for US$120 million. Field Roast Grain Meat supplies grain-based meat alternatives (including sausages, burgers, etc.) and vegan cheese products to the North American market.

Danone, a global food company with large number of dairy products is also bullish on the growing popularity of plant-based foods. In April 2017, it purchased WhiteWave Foods, a US-based leading player in plant-based food and beverage for US$10 billion. It rebranded the company to DanoneWave and in October 2017, further invested US$60 million into its plant-based milk operations. In 2019, the company expressed plans to triple its revenue (to about US$5.6 billion) from its plant-based food line by 2025.

In addition to these, many other large food processors and retailers have entered the plant-based food market either through acquisitions or the launch of in-house products and brands. These include Brazil-based JBS Foods, US-based Smithfield Foods, UK-based Hilton Food Group, Germany-based Wiesenhof, UK-based Heck Food, Canada-based Saputo, and US-based Dean Foods Company, among many others.

In addition to these leading food producers, many other large food processors and retailers have entered the plant-based food market either through acquisitions or the launch of in-house products and brands.

Fast food chains have also joined the vegan bandwagon. In April 2019, Burger King introduced a vegan version of its classic sandwich, called the Impossible Whopper. Similarly, Dunkin introduced a vegan breakfast sausage made by Beyond Meat, while KFC launched vegan fried chicken also made by Beyond Meat. In 2017, McDonald’s launched a vegan burger in Finland and Sweden and has plans to launch the same in Germany. In 2016, UK-based café, Pret a Manger opened a vegan pop-up store in central London and later made it permanent in 2017. Over the years, it opened three more stores (two in London and one in Manchester) under the name Veggie Pret. In April 2019, the company purchased rival food chain, Eat, and aims to convert about 90 of its stores into its vegan chain, Veggie Pret.

Just like the food producers and quick service restaurant chains, supermarkets have also been quick to respond to the vegan trend. In 2018, Tesco, a leading UK-based supermarket chain, launched its own range of vegan foods under the name Wicked Kitchen. Similarly, British department store chain, Marks & Spencer has also introduced a vegan food range in its food department. Vegan options have been introduced and are easily available across a wide range of US-based departmental stores such as Whole Foods, Target, and Kroger.

However, the key shift seen in departmental stores regarding plant-based meals is their placement. Traditionally, vegan food including plant-based meats and dairy were stocked together in a ‘vegetarian’ or ‘vegan’ isle or section. However, recently, these options have begun to be stored alongside their animal-based counterparts. For instance, plant-based dairy has now been moved to the beverage or dairy case. This exposes shoppers to a wider range of options for milk and increases the shopper’s chances of trying plant-based alternatives. This thereby opens the category to shoppers who otherwise would have not explored the separate vegan section in the store.

Similarly, plant-based meat options are also being increasingly stored along with traditional meat items, widening the choice for consumers who are flexitarians (i.e. consumers who are not completely vegan but do also consume vegan food from time to time). UK-based department chain, Sainsbury, was the first supermarket in the UK to place vegan products that are designed to look and taste like meat within the meat section.

Challenges ahead

While the number of vegan consumers is on the rise, it is still very low when compared with people consuming a meat-based diet. Moreover, while a great number of people are exploring vegan options, vegan meals are still largely perceived as offering limited nutritional value when compared with traditional meat-based meals, especially with regards to protein intake. While there is limited truth to this, companies offering vegan options have to invest substantially to educate consumers regarding the nutritional value of vegan meals.

In addition to this, vegan or plant-based meal options face another mindset block. Meat eating has long been associated with masculinity. This by contrary gives vegan meals a perception of being less ‘manly’ and thereby limiting the number of men who are open to embracing this meal option. To counter this, market leaders such as Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat have been avoiding terms such as vegan and vegetarian in their marketing strategy and have been promoting their burgers at male-centric locations such as sports events. Instead of pushing men to eat less meat, they are working towards expanding the definition of meat in the consumer’s mind to include plant-based options. They have also included ingredients (such as beet juice) in their burger to resemble a bleeding beef, making it clone the beef burger in terms of appearance, texture, and experience of consuming.

Other than mindset, price is also currently a considerable barrier for consumers. Plant-based meat substitutes are more expensive when compared with animal meat. While the Beyond Burger sells for about US$12 a pound at Whole Foods (a leading retail chain), its beef counterpart retails for about US$5. Similarly, Beyond Meat’s, Beyond Sausage retails for US$10.30 a pound, charging a premium of about 70% over a comparable pork sausage. Higher price points are off-putting for a big chunk of consumers, who may otherwise be willing to change eating habits owing to health or environmental reasons. While currently, the prices differ greatly, it is expected that the price difference will reduce in the long run (or be wiped off completely). Understanding price to be a big limiting factor, companies such as Beyond Meat are researching and investing into alternative plant protein sources that would lower the cost.

Price is also currently a considerable barrier for consumers. Plant-based meat substitutes are more expensive when compared with animal meat. While the Beyond Burger sells for about US$12 a pound at Whole Foods (a leading retail chain), its beef counterpart retails for about US$5.

However, one of the biggest roadblocks faced by the vegan food producers in making them mainstream is the backlash from the meat industry, which has in some cases resulted in labeling regulations that are damaging for the growth of the plant-based food sector.

In 2017, the EU banned the use of the term ‘milk’ and other dairy products, such as ‘cheese’, ‘yogurt’, etc., for plant-based alternatives (however, traditional versions such as almond or coconut milk and peanut butter are excluded from the ban).

In April 2018, France banned meat names for plant-based alternatives, such as vegetable ‘steak’, soy ‘sausage’, and ‘bacon-flavored strips’. Similarly, in May 2019, the European Parliament’s agriculture committee proposed a ban on the use of meat-related terminology on their labels and product description for vegetarian or vegan products. This includes terms such as ‘steak’, ‘sausage’, and ‘burger’. The proposal will be voted upon by the Members of the European Parliament in autumn 2019 and if passed, will be a big setback to the vegan industry as they would be required to remove the word burger from any product that does not contain meat.

In the USA, a Dairy Pride Act, which requires FDA to stop all plant-based dairy alternatives from being labeled as ‘milk’, was reintroduced in Congress in March 2019 (after being squashed earlier in 2017). While the chances of the bill being passed remain slim, if passed, it could seriously dampen growth in the vegan dairy market in the USA. Most of these legal actions are likely to have stemmed from strong meat and dairy lobbies that are directly impacted by the growth witnessed in the vegan market.

EOS Perspective

There is no doubt that the plant-based food market is growing exponentially and the food industry is taking notice. Meat producers and animal-based dairy companies are currently at a fork, where they may face some level of cannibalization of sales (especially in case of dairy) when they introduce vegan alternatives to their portfolio. The cases of Kodak and Apple are important examples when discussing the prospects of cannibalization of sales. While Kodak failed to innovate at the time of camera digitalization due to a fear of cannibalizing sales of its then popular camera films, Apple has made this one of its strength by innovating and launching new products that have (to an extent) cannibalized its own sales (IPhone for IPods and IPad for Mac).

While most players in the food industry have been quick to understand the potential of plant-based food market and have started to invest in this segment, several others still remain resistant to change. This may cost them dearly. Moreover, evaluating the future prospects of this industry, it may be prudent for meat producers to be focusing more on their plant-based food section than their long existing meat business. In a first of its kind case, in May 2019, Vivera Foodgroup, a leading European meat company sold off its meat business retailed under the brand name, Enkco, to Netherland-based Van Loon Group so that it could solely focus on its vegan food line.

However, while plant-based foods seem to be the future now, things may stir up again when clean meat (also known as lab-grown meat) goes mainstream. Currently, a lot of industry players (such as Tyson Foods) and business tycoons (such as Bill Gates) have begun investing in companies that are researching and developing lab-grown meat. It is expected to become a reality very soon, however, it may still take some years for lab-grown meat to match the prices and volume of farmed animal meat as well as obtain the required regulatory approval. While clean meat will definitely upset sales of farmed meat, it may also have a considerable impact on the plant-based food market as several consumers (who turned to vegan options due to animal cruelty and environmental reasons), may switch to clean meat instead of vegan alternatives. Thus vegan companies must stay ahead of the curve in terms of pricing as well flavors and product range to not only thrive but also survive in the coming times.

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Beverage Industry in Troubled Waters, Attempting Conservation Efforts

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Water is a finite resource, which is becoming constrained with the growing population and climate change. It is a vital component in production of beverages, both alcoholic and non-alcoholic. From growing raw materials (such as wheat or barley) for beverages, through product development, till the production process, water is indispensable at each step. The beverage industry has come to realize that water scarcity could tremendously impact businesses, forcing them to reassess water management strategies and tap into efficient conservation measures.

Water covers around 70% of the earth’s surface and only 3% is available as freshwater, which can be used for various commercial and non-commercial activities. Unfortunately, this quantity of water is inadequate for growing population and thriving businesses using this resource without considering its limited availability. According to WWF, an international NGO for preservation of wilderness and nature, two-thirds of the world’s population may face water shortage by 2025, with demand for water exceeding supply by 40% by 2030.

Beverage production is highly water-intensive, with water being used at each step across the value chain. According to Water Footprint Network, it takes at least 70 liters of water to produce 0.5 liter of soda, 74 liters of water for a glass of 0.25 liter of beer, and 132 liters of water for a cup of 0.125 liter of coffee. Water footprint for beverage companies is evidently high, and this can be mitigated by implementing water management technologies across the value chain, from farming to beverage production.

Water scarcity posing challenges for beverage producers

Water stress is a pressing problem for all beverage industry players, causing various operational challenges that are impacting business operations.

Opposition to water extraction from natural resources

California suffered a searing seven year drought that ended in 2017. Distress from water scarcity impacted communities, as well as companies operating in the region. For instance, Nestlé, a Swiss multinational food and beverage company, faced opposition from local communities and criticism from conservationists for extracting large quantities of water from Californian springs even during the drought-stricken years.

These events impacted Nestlé’s operations and eventually, succumbing to the pressure, Nestlé invested US$7 million in conservation projects across five of its bottling plants in California in 2017. The projects focused primarily on reducing the amount of water used in filtration process while simultaneously maintaining hygiene of the processing plant. Only after consistent water conservation efforts, Nestlé was granted a three-year permit by US Forest Service in 2018 to extract water within the limit of 8.5 million gallons annually from Californian springs.

Similarly to Nestlé, Coca-Cola faced opposition from local communities in India resulting in closures of two of its bottling plants located in the states of Kerala (in 2004) and Uttar Pradesh (in 2014), due to extensive water extraction from local resources. In order to sustain operations, Coca-Cola announced plans to invest about US$5 billion between 2012 and 2020 to help replenish groundwater in India, allowing the company to also use water for beverage production.

Water shortage impacting business operations

According to global survey of 600 companies by Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP), water scarcity and stricter environmental regulations cost businesses around US$14 billion in 2016. Many companies agreed that water-related issues have affected their businesses directly or indirectly.

For instance, severe droughts in Southeast Brazil in 2014 and 2015 disrupted water supply in the area, limiting production capacity and disturbing operations of Danone, a French multinational food and beverage corporation. As a result the company suffered sales loss of ~US$6 million in 2015.

Not only Danone was affected. As Brazil is one of the world’s leading coffee producers, limited availability of water for irrigation due to the drought, crop production in the region took a hit. Eventually, the situation threatened supply, which led to higher raw material prices for coffee manufacturers. One of the producers that felt the repercussions was J.M. Smucker, an American producer of food and beverages, reported a net loss of US$90.3 million in 2015 due to higher coffee bean prices in Brazil.

Tapping into innovations to reduce water consumption

Water risk for beverage companies highly depends on external factors, such as water quality and availability either through natural resources or municipal bodies. Industry players have very little control over the external factors but can regulate water usage in their internal manufacturing operations to reduce consumption.

Recycling water using zero water technology

Beverage companies are collaborating with technology providers to incorporate innovative water recycling methods.

For instance, in 2014, Nestlé collaborated with Veolia Group (a French company providing water, waste, and energy management solutions) and GEA Group (a German food processing technology firm), to introduce Cero Agua (zero water) technology across dairy production plant in Lagos de Moreno, Mexico. Using the technology, the factory does not have to rely on external water sources. Instead, it recycles and reuses the waste fluid extracted from milk – Nestlé extracts 1ml of water from every 1.6ml of milk. The treated water is used in non-food production applications such as cooling, irrigating the gardens, and cleaning, thus, eliminating the need to depend on external water sources. The company has invested around US$15 million to introduce zero water technology in the plant.

With the help of this technology Nestlé claims to have saved 168 million liters of water in the first year of implementation, reducing water consumption by more than 50%. Zero water technology has been rolled out across its other diary factories located in water-stressed areas of South Africa, India, China, to list a few.

Moreover, between 2004 and 2014, Nestlé claims it was able to reduce water consumption globally by one third and by 50% across its Mexican plants.

Onsite wastewater treatment

Brewing companies are not far from adopting technologies to reduce water footprint. Waste water treatment is one of the effective ways to reuse water and several brewing companies have jumped on the bandwagon to conserve water using this approach.

Since 2014, Lagunitas Brewing Company, a subsidiary of Heineken, has been using EcoVolt membrane bioreactor, a wastewater treatment technology that removes up to 90% pollutants from water so that it can be reused onsite for cleaning purposes. Using this solution, the company has reduced its water footprint by approximately 40%.

In 2016, Bear Republic Brewing Company, a brewery based in California, invested US$4 million in a waste water treatment system that uses electrically active microbes to purify wastewater, which helps the brewery to recycle about 25% of water that it uses to clean factory equipment.

Furthermore, in 2015, a Boston-based craft brewer, Harpoon Brewery, collaborated with Desalitech, a US-based water treatment company, to produce beer made from treated Charles River water. Desalitech uses its ReFlex Reverse Osmosis systems to purify the river water and has been able to recover 93% of the treated river water to brew beer.

Innovative farming techniques

Farming is highly water-intensive and sustainable beverage production can only be achieved if water consumption is cut down during farming. Hence, companies are employing various water management solutions to check water utilization during farming.

In 2014, Anheuser-Busch, an American brewing company installed six AgriMets, a network of agricultural weather stations, in Idaho to provide farmers with real-time weather and crop water use data. Using AgriMet data, growers can monitor rainfall and soil conditions, which helps them to cut down on the amount of water required in irrigation and decide when to irrigate. This ensures efficient use of water across the fields.

Further, for improving water management, the company is employing various seeding and harvesting techniques – for instance, it plants and harvests winter barley earlier in the year, resulting in 30% higher crop yield and 40% lower water usage.

PepsiCo and Coco-Cola have been promoting drip irrigation (a type of irrigation system where water is allowed to drip slowly to the roots minimizing evaporation) in water-scarce Indian states of Maharashtra, Gujarat, Karnataka, Haryana, among others. Coca-Cola started with drip irrigation project in 2008 with 27 farmers covering 13.5 hectares of agricultural land in India, which expanded to over 513 drip irrigation systems installed, stretching across 256.5 hectares of agricultural land by 2011. Drip irrigation leads to significant water conservation, with an average saving of 1200 kiloliter/ hectare of water for a cropping cycle of 110 days/hectare (an agricultural cycle comprising activities related to the growth and harvest of crops). Additionally, savings on account of electricity, fertilizers, and pesticides are estimated at about US$ 29/hectare/year.

Beverage Industry in Troubled Waters - EOS Intelligence

EOS Perspective

For decades, water has been regarded as free commodity in processing and manufacturing environments, but this notion is beginning to change with growing awareness about water scarcity. Limited availability of water puts pressure on industrial activities and often pushes operational costs of beverage companies up. Availability of water is likely to get worse in the future, which could jeopardize operations of food and beverage companies unless the crisis is treated as a priority.

The solution to water scarcity lies in the hands of businesses as much as the governments of various countries. Water management requires stringent policies by the governments to better regulate the use of groundwater or natural resources for irrigation. The governments also need to implement efficient wastewater management and recycling technologies to conserve water. Countries such as Singapore have undertaken water recycling and management measures, but unfortunately such examples are relatively scarce in other parts of the world, with most conservation efforts being implemented only by large food and beverage companies. It is time that the governments as well as all industry players (including small-to-mid sized companies) wake up to the challenges that lie ahead owing to water stress.

Solutions to water scarcity do not always need to be expensive. Small-to-mid sized companies could start with small and inexpensive measures such as installing flow meters or leak detection systems, measuring water usage at each step and setting short and long term goals to reduce consumption across those processes.

Other measures could be to reduce water consumption across most water intensive processes, such as cleaning, which typically accounts for 60% of a beverage plant’s total water consumption. Water could be replaced with dry ice to manually wash equipment or it can be physically cleaned using vacuum systems or high-pressure hoses that can be used to move debris.

Nonetheless, sustainable water management efforts by large beverage companies have resulted in lowering of operational costs, improvement in quality of final products, and in building better brand perception among customers. These strategic advantages could motivate all industry players to reduce water footprint and play their part as responsible water users.

by EOS Intelligence EOS Intelligence No Comments

The Rapid Rise of India’s Food Tech: Yet Another Tech Bubble?

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In the past few years, food tech (online food delivery) industry in India has seen substantial growth in terms of daily order volumes (DOVs), revenue, and funding. While the business is growing for all players, they are still posting losses. A closer look into their financials and business models reveals that the current operating margins are very thin, and much of the recent rapid growth has been on the back of heavy discounting offered by players to attract customers. At present, the growth strategy is loud and clear: to acquire new customers, enter new markets, and expand current market share at any cost. This has raised a question whether such a model is sustainable in the long run or is it another tech bubble just waiting to burst?

Less than five years ago, the way Indians consumed food was completely different. Eating out was predominantly occasion-driven, while ordering food was limited to calling local restaurants or ordering a pizza from Dominos or Pizza Hut through their own websites. Online food ordering through apps was not at all a part of consumers’ culinary vocabulary.

However, this has been transforming over the past few years. There is a growing trend among Indians to order their food online via food aggregation apps. Today, Indian consumers, especially in metro and larger cities, are ordering food online more often than before. As a result of this, food tech has become one of the fastest growing internet sectors in India with an astonishing triple-digit growth rate in gross merchandize value (GMV) and DOVs in 2017 and 2018.

Huge potential waiting to materialize

After an initial hype among entrepreneurs and investors in 2015, the food tech industry saw a slump and market consolidation in 2016 and 2017. Yet in 2018, India’s food tech industry rekindled investors’ appetite for the sector with huge spending spree. Driven primarily by rising disposable income, rapidly growing internet and smart-phone penetration, urbanization, and a young and working-class consumer base, India’s food tech industry stood at around US$700 million in 2017 and is expected to reach US$4 billion by 2020. In 2018, DOVs went up to 1.7 million orders from 0.2 million in 2016. The current market consists of four key players. Leaders Swiggy and Zomato currently hold a combined market share of ~70%.

The Rapid Rise of India's Food Tech

The market still in its infancy

While order volumes have gone up significantly in the last 12-18 months, the industry is still in its infancy considering its outreach and adoption rates across the nation. At present, online food ordering is available in just over 200 cities across India and contributes to merely around 5% of the total food delivery business.

Further, India’s US$1.7 billion food tech market is pretty small compared to US$10.5 billion in the USA and US$36 billion in neighboring China. Out of the 90 meals consumed each month, Indians eat out or get their food delivered less than five times a month as compared to around 40-50 meals in countries such as Singapore, China, and the USA. In a nutshell, food aggregators have just begun to scratch the surface in India and there is a long road ahead for the industry to develop and grow further.

Growth driven by deep discounts

While the recent growth numbers draw a compelling picture of the industry, it should be noted that much of the current growth is driven primarily by deep discounts that are offered by the players to attract customers onto their platforms. With the recent funding boom, all players are deep-pocketed. In a fierce battle for market share, companies are spending heavily on advertising, low-cost and complimentary deliveries, and discounts as their primary growth strategy. Given the huge potential of the internet economy, even investors are willing to throw in money and keep the incentives going. However, recent history in India as well as similar experiences from other internet companies globally reveal that while this can be a good strategy to attract customers and penetrate markets, it is unlikely to be sustainable.

The recent growth is not entirely organic. A significant part of it is inorganic, pushed by discounts and offers, as players focus more towards acquiring new customers, increasing their order frequency, and entering new geographies.
Satish Meena, Senior Analyst, Forrester

Again, customer loyalty is very hard to come by in the food tech industry. With India being a price-sensitive market, consumers will often flock to the platform that offers the best deal. Just like in India’s cab aggregation industry, it will be interesting to see how the food aggregators find their revenue and DOVs impacted once these offers will start to disappear.

Penetration beyond tier-II cities

Till 2018, orders were highly concentrated among top ten cities of India. These markets accounted for around three-fourths of the total business for all players. In order to move away from these gradually saturating markets, and to scale up their outreach across India, food tech players are pushing to capture the untapped potential in tier-III cities and smaller towns with first-mover advantage. While they consider these markets to be lucrative with improving demand appetite, rising spending power, and profitability, these cities are very different from metros in terms of size and customer preferences. E-commerce adoption rates as well as user base in these cities are relatively small, and therefore it will be challenging for food aggregators to create demand here, as consumers are not acquainted to online food ordering.

On the demand side, it will be difficult for aggregators to generate order volumes from smaller cities in India. Considering that Indians are very price sensitive, once these offers are gone, the drop-out rates will be much higher in these markets as compared to metros. –
Satish Meena, Senior Analyst, Forrester

Back in 2016, Zomato tested the potential in smaller cities and had to shut down its business in four cities including Lucknow, Coimbatore, and Indore due to poor demand. Similarly, Grofers, an online grocery delivery platform expanded into several tier-II and tier-III cities. But they also had to suspend operations in nine cities, citing the same reason. While the advent of Jio (an Indian mobile network operator) and its cheap internet data packages are proving to be a boon for e-commerce players, the question still remains how food aggregators will be able to create a sustainable demand in cities where population prefers to cook its food every day.

In addition, unorganized players dominate food delivery in these markets. It will be tough for aggregators to compete with them, especially in terms of pricing, since the local players operate with very low overhead costs without the need to worry too much about hygiene, safety, and other quality standards.

Weaker financials and unit economics

With the ongoing discounts and offers, the cost of customer acquisition is very high at present. A closer look at the financials of Zomato and Swiggy reveals that their monthly cash burn has increased five times within 2018, as they resort to aggressive discounting to grow further across the country. At present, all players are posting losses. This is very common even in the global food tech industry where most players are still operating with losses. For example, China’s Meituan-Dianping and ele.me are still far from reaching the break-even point, even after 10 years in the business. The story is the same even in developed markets such as USA and the UK. The aggressive cash burn model requires food aggregators to keep raising funds at regular intervals in order to further scale up and grow. This is a major concern raised by many industry experts.

Look at China! The top two players have still not managed to turn profitable even with far superior market penetration and order volume rates as compared to India. – Former Executive, Swiggy

Another major challenge faced by all the players are the inefficiencies in their operations, a fact that has a direct impact on their unit economics and thereby profitability. Although food delivery logistics is slowly getting better, it still constitutes a major chunk of the overall cost. Players are in a dire need to leverage innovative technologies and processes to streamline their logistics operations and make the most out of their logistics infrastructure and assets.

In order to improve their unit economics and operational margins, everyone is trying to streamline their logistics operations and to make the most out of their current infrastructure and assets. –
Vaibhav Arora, Former Associate General Manager,
RedSeer Consulting

Playing by the same playbook?

For the Indian market, food tech industry’s current growth story may seem to be a flashback from the ride-hailing industry, which really took off in the early days. On the back of heavy discounts and attractive offers, it looked like a win-win situation for all. In recent years, when cab aggregators slowly started to move away from discounts, at the same time increased fares for customers on one hand, while reducing incentives for drivers on the other, they started to witness challenges on both demand and supply sides of their business.

Strategies such as surge pricing, hike in fares, cutting-down driver salaries and incentives, etc., have impacted their businesses and resulted in unhappy customers and driver partners, unreliability in services, and a tussle with local associations. Cab aggregators in India have still not found the right balance to continue to grow without leaking money.

Many industry experts believe that food aggregators will also face the same set of challenges in the coming years, as players will start moving away from discounts along with hike in delivery charges and restaurant commission in order to improve their operating margins. This is already becoming evident as delivery partners from Swiggy in Chennai went on a strike for wage-related demands in December 2018, while UberEats faced a similar situation in April 2019 in Ahmedabad.

You can connect the dots with cab aggregation business and foresee similar challenges coming up for the food tech sector. In the long run, they will start charging higher delivery fees from customers and higher commissions from partner restaurants. –
Vaibhav Arora, Former Associate General Manager,
RedSeer Consulting

EOS Perspective

In recent years, food aggregators in India have definitely created a market for themselves by inculcating consumers with online food ordering concept. There is no doubt that the Indian food tech market is still developing and has a huge potential. But it is also a difficult one to crack. As seen in the past few years, many start-ups folded up early on. Similarly to India’s cab aggregators and e-tailers, food tech companies have started to believe that discounts are the way to a customer’s heart and eventually increasing their market shares.

None of the major players within the Indian internet sector is profitable yet. Even for Indian food tech players, profitability looks elusive, at least in the short to medium term. They will require massive funding injected regularly to finance their aggressive growth strategies. Uber in its recent initial public offering (IPO) prospectus made a bold statement admitting that if may never be profitable. This is one of the deepest concerns across the industry, and many industry experts are not sure whether sustainable growth can be achieved with the present business models.

In India, it looks like a certainty that both Swiggy and Zomato will be still posting losses for at least the next two to three years. –
Former Executive, Swiggy

There are many areas which are not streamlined enough, and therefore a significant amount of money is lost there. In order to grow, players will have to address the fundamental issues around unit economics and operational efficiencies. Companies will have to find multiple ways to improve their operational efficiencies such as looking at alternative revenue streams, monetizing their fleets, building other businesses, etc. Therefore, Swiggy has ventured into hyperlocal business by starting deliveries of groceries and medicines to further optimize its current delivery fleet. Similarly, Zomato has started Hyperpure, a service wherein they deliver food products to restaurant partners in order to grow further.

On the one hand, the above mentioned strategies seem to be logical for food aggregators and the way forward to scale up their businesses. On the other hand, this approach also raises concerns whether they are trying to juggle too many balls with just one pair of hands. Are players diversifying too early and rapidly, considering that they have not yet mastered the trade of online food delivery? Will these diversifications shift their focus away from the core business? Do they have the bandwidth as well as the expertise to manage these new businesses?

Furthermore, it will be also difficult for players to continue their current growth momentum beyond 2019, since they have penetrated all metros as well as tier-I and tier-II cities in India. Growing in smaller cities with low e-commerce penetration will be a daunting task, especially without the discounts. All these challenges are likely to cause the industry growth to slow down. To continue the growth momentum, food aggregators will also have to customize their strategies for smaller towns in India. Since availability of cuisines and quality of food is the biggest pain-point in these markets, players will have to compete by offering more choices with higher quality standards. Variety and quality of food will be one of the key differentiators for them to succeed in these markets.

In order to succeed in the long run, players will have to leverage the vast consumption pattern data at their disposal, and convert them into insights. By harnessing technologies, they can smartly identify the demand-supply gaps in each market, and address them by launching relevant products and services. For example, aggregators can assess and identify particular cuisines, dishes, order time-slots, etc. that are trending in each market, based on which they can either collaborate with restaurants and push them to expand their offerings and outreach to meet the increasing demand, or themselves start to move up the value chain by setting up own cloud kitchens (delivery-only kitchens) to fill such gaps, and thus further improve their profitability.

Additionally, players will have to further innovate their offerings. For instance, since migrant workers and students are the prime target, introducing subscription based meals in this segment could allow players to gain customer loyalty as well as earn steady stream of revenue. Similarly in the B2B (business-to-business) space, they can forge partnerships with small and medium enterprises (e.g. Indian Railways) to supply meals to their employees and customers. This is another market segment with huge latent demand where variety and quality of food is the need of the hour.

While these are early days to comment on the long-term growth potential of the industry, we can expect the market and current players evolve over the next few years. Considering that no one in the Indian aggregation space is profitable yet, and the fact that the path followed by food aggregators closely resembles to the one followed by cab aggregators in India, who have found it to be bumpy, unless players can build a solid business model with a clear path to profitability, for now, the rapid rise of food tech sector looks like another tech buzz that will eventually slowly down over the years to come.

by EOS Intelligence EOS Intelligence No Comments

Blockchain Paving Its Way into Retail Industry

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Blockchain technology, which initially became popular with cryptocurrency (especially bitcoin), is now making its way into many other industries, including retail. Though still in its infancy, blockchain holds tremendous potential for retailers and has applications across supply chain data management, customer retention through loyalty programs, digital advertising, among many others. While several industry experts have proclaimed blockchain to be the next revolutionary technology in the retail sector, it is yet to be seen if these applications gain commercial acceptability (or remain niche solutions for niche products).

While the financial services industry has been one of the early adopters of blockchain technology, other sectors are also increasingly realizing the potential that blockchain can unlock for their businesses.

One such sector is retail, which is increasingly going digital – shedding its paper-based and centralized way of doing business. With an increasingly demanding customer and growing need for transparency, blockchain technology is expected to play a big role in the retail sector.

In addition to its inherent application as a payment-medium supporter (i.e. increasing acceptance of cryptocurrencies as a payment mode by retailers), blockchain has several other applications in the retail space – encompassing supply chain management, customer loyalty programs, and digital advertising.

Blockchain in supply chain

Blockchain helps improve transparency

Blockchain technology makes it possible to record every touchpoint of the product’s life as it moves through the supply chain – from manufacturer to shipper to supplier to seller – adding blocks of verifiable record to the product’s heritage.

For instance, if a supermarket is selling a box of cookies, blockchain data would record exactly when, where, and by whom the cookies were made, as well as what ingredients were used during manufacturing. By placing the cookies supply chain on the blockchain, the process becomes more transparent through inerasable tracking of how cookies have been handled at each node all the way up to the store shelves. This makes any affected ingredient traceable faster. For instance, if milk or eggs used in the cookies were affected due to poor storage, the affected ingredient (or its batch) could be traced back to the storage location and could be withdrawn from the warehouse without the tedious and error-prone process of checking each supply chain node. This ensures greater food safety and helps hold suppliers accountable throughout the chain. This is also useful in case of tracing of organic products where it is particularly important to trace whether each ingredient used to make a product is organic and matches the claims made by the producer.

There are several players in the industry who are already taking advantage of the benefits brought to their operations by blockchain. One of the largest retail giants, Walmart, has partnered with IBM and has been working together since October 2016 to develop a food safety blockchain technology called, IBMs Food Trust, to facilitate the digitization of the food supply chain process. The technology, which was previously in its testing phase, was launched for commercial use in October 2018. With the help of this technology, the source of the product can be tracked in 2.2 seconds, which previously could take up to seven days (with the use of paper-based ledgers).

In September 2018, Walmart announced a Food Trust Initiative, under which it has requested all its greens suppliers to upload data about their produce on the blockchain and ensure end-to-end traceability by September 2019. It is likely that the company extends the use of this technology to other fresh foods and vegetable suppliers in future.

Post the commercial launch of the IBM Food Trust platform in October 2018, France-based retail giant, Carrefour, also announced that it will be using IBM’s blockchain technology to track animal and vegetable product lines. Furthermore, it expects to expand this technology to other fresh products by 2022.

Blockchain Paving Its Way into the Retail Industry

Blockchain effectively combats food-related fraud

Another issue that blockchain helps combat in the retail space is food-related fraud, i.e. the misrepresentation of product contents by substituting the ingredients with cheaper alternatives. It is estimated that the global food industry suffers losses of about US$40 billion annually due to food fraud. An example of such a fraud was the Tesco horsemeat scandal in 2013, where some of Tesco’s packaged beef meals were found to include 60% horsemeat (undeclared on the label).

To fight such frauds, one of the world’s largest e-commerce players, Alibaba, has partnered with four Australian and New-Zealand-based companies, among whom are Blackmores (an Australian health supplement company) and Fonterra (a multinational dairy co-operative) to create a food tracing system built on blockchain technology. The project entered into its pilot phase in 2018. Through this system, Tmall Global’s (Alibaba’s international online marketplace) customers in China will be able to trace the goods that they order online (from partnering companies) across each node of the supply chain before the goods are finally delivered. The partnership is not only expected to help customers track the supply chain of food ordered online but also to prevent food fraud thanks to greater visibility and traceability of such fraudulent actions potentially attempted by producers.

Blockchain helps bring down the counterfeit luxury goods market

As a digital ledger where multiple stakeholders share and authenticate the same information, blockchain also makes counterfeiting more difficult. Counterfeiting is a big issue in the luxury and premium goods market owing to high prices and limited availability. The scale of counterfeiting in the luxury retail segment is overwhelming and it is sometimes nearly impossible to distinguish legitimate goods from the counterfeit ones. Forbes estimated the counterfeit luxury goods market in 2018 to be worth approximately US$1.2 trillion.

However, the use of blockchain technology can help luxury brands fight against the menace of counterfeiting. By using blockchain, companies can track every link in their supply chain and customers can access information to ensure the origins of the product and its authenticity.

Greats, a US-based premium sneaker brand, has been using blockchain and embedding smart tags in its footwear since 2016. Customers can use their smartphones to scan the tags to verify the authenticity of the sneakers.

The use of blockchain technology can help luxury brands (and other retail companies) fight against the menace of counterfeiting. By using blockchain, companies can track every link in their supply chain and customers can access this information through smartphones to ensure the origins of the product and its authenticity.

In 2018, a Paris-based blockchain company, Arianee, announced that it will be building a registry to combat counterfeiting of luxury brands, where every product will be classified with a unique token that differentiates it from the rest of the products.

Another example of this is De Beers, one of the world’s largest diamond producers, which along with five other diamond players (Diacore, Diarough, KGK Group, Rosy Blue NV, and Venus Jewel) has developed a blockchain platform, called Tracr in 2017. Through this platform, a diamond can be tracked from miner to end customer, i.e. throughout its complete value chain, using ethereum blockchain technology. In 2018, De Beers announced that it has successfully tracked 100 high-value diamonds along the value chain during the pilot run of its blockchain platform. The platform is expected to bring transparency in the diamond trade through physical identification of diamonds. A diamond could be tracked through its unique number from mining to cutting to polishing and to retail, which will ensure its purity.

Owing to its ability to empower companies to track, trace, and authenticate their products from the point of origin to the retail shelf, blockchain is likely to become the standard in supply chain tracking for the retail sector. However, this application is currently in its nascent stage of development and is being experimented on by only few large and niche players before it reaches industry-wide adoption.

Blockchain in customer loyalty programs

Customer loyalty points is another area where blockchain could be considered very useful. Loyalty programs generally work by awarding points to customer account for each purchase, which later can be redeemed for discounts on future purchases. While it follows the principle that retaining existing customers is less expensive than attracting new customers, loyalty programs are not always successful.

Most loyalty programs are centralized, where the customer could only redeem its value with the same retailer (or in some cases a small group of retailers), thereby limiting their use and appeal. Moreover, in many cases, loyalty programs also have stipulations that further restrict the use of the points and reduce the program’s perceived value, which in turn results in lower loyalty of the customer. According to Colloquy Loyalty Census 2017, there were approximately 3,000 loyalty programs in North America, where 6.7 trillion points were issued every year and about 21 trillion points were dormant or not used. This suggests that more often than not, customers find loyalty programs more exhausting than benefitting, defeating the entire purpose of having loyalty programs.

Blockchain technology allows customers the flexibility to use their loyalty points when and how they please. Blockchain-based loyalty programs award customers with tokens or cryptocurrencies instead of points, which could be redeemed by customers during future retail purchases and could even be redeemed for fiat currency (as the value of tokens grow overtime and do not expire).

This can be seen in the case of Rakutan’s loyalty program. In 2018, Rakutan, one of Japan’s largest retailers, announced an alt-coin, called Rakutan Coin, with which customers could redeem reward points for gifts at all Rakutan Group companies and also for other cryptocurrencies. The company has moved US$9 billion worth of existing Super Points (customer loyalty program points) into the blockchain to provide a boost to the Rakutan Coin.

Blockchain-based loyalty programs award customers with tokens or cryptocurrencies instead of points, which could be redeemed by customers during future retail purchases and could even be redeemed for fiat currency.

In another example, in 2017, University of New South Wales in Australia partnered with LoyaltyX, an experimental loyalty agency for a blockchain loyalty research project, wherein students and staff earned US$5 of ether (cryptocurrency ethereum) for every ten transactions made at any of the eleven campus retailers including Boost Juice (Australian fruit juice and smoothie retail outlet) and IGA (Australian chain of supermarkets). It was found that 86% of the participants were more attracted to earn cryptocurrencies where they had the option to redeem them for fiat currency.

Thus, blockchain-powered programs seem to encourage customers to engage in the loyalty programs as they not only curb the problem of set expiration of traditional loyalty points but also give the power to the customer to use the tokens as and when they require with any retailer. This is likely to help retailers renew customer interest in their loyalty programs, which in turn is likely to improve brand loyalty.

In addition to adoption in the retail space, players from other related industries are also experimenting with blockchain-based loyalty programs. In 2018, American Express (an American financial services company) partnered with Boxed (an American online wholesale retailer) to make its membership rewards program more versatile by integrating blockchain. With blockchain, merchants will be able to create custom membership rewards program for American Express card holders. The power to structure the offers will be with the merchants, whereas American Express will have the right to regulate the products or brands being promoted.

Also in the same year, Singapore Airlines partnered with KPMG and Microsoft and created a blockchain-based digital wallet KrisPay, where customers can turn travel miles into units of payment that can be used with partner merchants such as eateries, beauty parlors, gas stations, and some retailers, including LEGO store outlets within Singapore. This shows that some large brands are experimenting with this technology for their loyalty programs.

While integration of blockchain seems to be the ideal solution to invigorate the fading customer loyalty programs, it is still in its embryonic stage. Such applications need mass adaption to be successful and this will require significant time and investments.

Moreover, the adoption and success of blockchain-based loyalty programs to an extent also depend on the overall sentiment towards cryptocurrencies – their value and ease of transactions.

Lastly, scalability is also an extremely critical point for the smooth running of such loyalty programs. With numerous retail transactions happening every second, it is yet to be seen if blockchain can cater to these huge numbers without a slag time.

Blockchain in digital advertising

Another space where blockchain technology is likely to have significant potential is digital advertising, which is used by numerous retailers as a medium to reach their prospective customers. However, the process of buying online advertising is susceptible to fraud, especially with the increasing use of automated real-time bidding through ad-exchanges (programmatic advertising).

Under real-time programmatic advertising, publishers (themselves or through ad vendors) showcase their inventory along with details about the kind of visitors that their site targets. The advertisers then bid for these ad impressions and the highest bidder gets to display their ad on the site.

The entire process and ad marketplace lacks a sufficient level of transparency. Sometimes vendors misrepresent remnant inventory for a publisher as premium inventory, thereby charging higher fees from advertisers. In other cases, fraudulent sellers enter the exchange, claiming to represent publishers and having access to their inventory, in turn selling fake inventory to advertisers.

Blockchain has the potential to make the online ad marketplace more robust and legitimate by providing transparency, which is currently missing. Since blockchain is a peer-to-peer online ledger where all transactions between the participating parties are recorded (and cannot be deleted or changed), the advertisers can see for themselves where the inventory that they are bidding for has originated and who has access/authority to sell it.

Some examples of implementations are already found in the market. In June 2017, MetaX, a blockchain technology company, along with DMA (The Data and Marketing Association) launched adChain, an open protocol built on the public ethereum. adChain is an open access ledger that tracks and reports the origin, sale, resale, and publishing of an online ad.


Explore our other Perspectives on blockchain


In December 2017, MetaX also launched a blockchain-based solution ‘Ads.txt Plus’ to improve transparency in the digital advertising space. Ads.txt Plus is based on a technology by IAB Tech Lab, called Ads.txt, which helps prevent fraud in the industry by allowing publishers to broadcast a list of authorized sellers of their ad inventory. By bringing this technology to ethereum blockchain, MetaX aims to further improve efficiency and transparency for its users.

If blockchain is adopted successfully in the digital advertising space, the advertisers can see exactly where their ad dollars are being spent, which players made commission, and how much of the total amount paid by them for the ad reached the site publisher.

Further, with the help of blockchain, buyers and sellers (advertisers and publishers) can enter into smart contracts for the sale and purchase of digital ads without the need for intermediaries, eliminating them from the ad bidding process.

Alternatively, buyers and sellers can choose to add other verifying parties/service providers to the smart contracts, such as measurement provider, ratings provider, payment provider, and arbitrator. In 2017, Kochava Labs (the R&D subsidiary of Kochava Inc.) launched XCHNG, an open and unified blockchain-based framework for the digital advertising ecosystem. Through the use of smart contacts, XCHNG aims at reducing the number of middlemen in the digital advertising ecosystem by facilitating transactions between the buyer and the seller and measurement providers.

While blockchain-based solutions fit perfectly in the digital advertising space on paper, the practicality and adaptability are yet to be seen.

One of the key issues challenging the adoption of blockchain in the digital ad space is scalability. The process of chaining and verifying on a blockchain takes much longer, especially, when compared with the current speed of real-time bidding transactions. It is yet to be seen if blockchain technology can evolve to offer faster processing speed, which is critical for industry-wide adoption.

While blockchain-based solutions fit perfectly in the digital advertising space on paper, the practicality and adaptability are yet to be seen. One of the key issues challenging the adoption of blockchain in the digital ad space is scalability.

While few blockchain solutions, such as XCHNG (which claims it can handle 180,000 transactions per second per smart contract composed of multiple insertion orders), refute this challenge, the other challenge in this area is that of intent. Since blockchain is expected to make transactions more transparent and also reduce the number of intermediaries, industry players may not fully embrace the technology and despite its inherent benefits, blockchain may take time to gain ground in the digital advertising industry.

EOS Perspective

In an era where businesses are becoming more customer centric, blockchain helps bring the customer and retailer together on the same platform and promises a future with more transparency. It is clear that blockchain technology has the ability to transform the retail sector just as it is likely to transform several other industries (such as healthcare, car rental and leasing, or aviation).

However, despite holding immense potential and promise, most applications in this space are still to move beyond just being proof-of-concepts. Several issues, such as high investment requirements, scalability, and to an extent, willingness to change, remain to be addressed before there is an industry-wide acceptance for these solutions.

That being said, executives are definitely keeping an eye open for the latest developments in this space and several of them are open to testing and investing in blockchain-based solutions, hoping for them to be the key differentiator/value-proposition that attract the customers towards them. While most investments currently are being seen in the supply chain space (since its benefits seem most achievable and tangible), solutions in the space of loyalty programs and digital advertising may take a little more time to gain traction.

It is safe to say that retailers cannot afford to ignore the benefits of blockchain technology anymore. Many retailers lack specific understanding of this concept and its potential across different areas of their operations. This could cost them dearly in terms of customers. Technological innovations are happening at light-speed in today’s day and age and while blockchain technology currently may lack commercial acceptability and scalability, it is expected to seep into the operations of the real sector in a significant way in the coming future.

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