trolley supermarket shop

The age-old business mantra is about leading not following. But being willing to follow the leader is vital, particularly when it comes to transforming the impacts of our food systems on people, animals and planet for the better.

Those companies who make the second move, who follow the lead of the first, are vastly underrated. Followers often need more courage – and less ego – than those taking the first pioneering steps. If you want to build momentum for positive change, the role of the first follower is crucial. Following in a company’s footsteps can be infectious.

Most of us follow something, whether it’s a religion, social movement, football team or social media influencer. But when it comes to food sustainability, we don’t always have enough organisations following suit, perhaps because of the ultra-competitive nature of the sector. Organisations want the glory and PR hit afforded by being the ‘first’.

Of course, we still need leaders and innovative leadership in this world – but we also need active first followers, those who see a rival company take a bold move and then decide yes, that’s right for us too.

The first organisation to take a stand is often – rightly – cited as being brave. Take a recent example: Richard Walker announced Iceland wouldn’t be producing a Christmas advert this year and would instead reinvest that money into making products more affordable for citizens. It’s a brave call, amidst the £9.5bn apparently being spent by advertisers during the festive period.

Arguably, what’s even braver still is the ‘first follower’, the next organisation to follow suit. They won’t get as much kudos as the first mover and shaker, but will be taking action because they feel it’s the right thing to do. Once the first organisation follows suit, it’s easier for others to do likewise – and for bold, progressive moves to become mainstreamed.

To stress, this is not about cancelling Christmas or weakening the festive spirit. In this example, it’s about reining in advertising a little and understanding what really matters to people, rather than striving to sell a load more mince pies or utensils that play jingles whilst people go hungry.

Another case in point is the scrapping of best before dates. A steady stream of announcements have emerged from many of the major supermarkets, which should help to reduce food waste.

An older example is the sourcing commitment by a major retailer over 15 years ago for all its bananas to be 100% Fairtrade. One supermarket led the way and another was the first follower. The second to act gave more confidence to the rest of the sector that this was actually feasible. This shift was described by someone in the know as being “like dominos”.

As I’m sure COP28 will say powerfully, the clock is ticking and then some, in relation to the food system’s impacts on climate and the biosphere. Some people in the grocery sector will be nervous to step out of their comfort zones, reluctant to shake things up internally and desperate to keep their organisational head below the parapets. But we don’t have time for mild-mannered incrementalism. Why not publicly follow the leader and invite others to join in?

Keep an eye on your competitors and acknowledge when they’ve done something decent. And in the traditional festive spirit, why not value collaboration and community over competition? When we look back to 2023 in a few years’ time, what feels radical now won’t feel radical in a climate-ravaged world. Be a leader or be a first follower. We need to redefine what it means to be brave and radical. I’m going to take a spirit of determination and courage forward into 2024. Will you join me?

PS This video about first followers argues the case powerfully – an oldie but a goodie, now with around eight million views on YouTube.