Top Food and Beverage Companies: Leaders in Sustainability

How big food and beverage companies and small ones are protecting the planet and their bottom lines.

By Diane Toops, News & Trends Editor

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Caring for the environment is no longer just the right thing to do; it's essential that food and beverage companies commit to a long-term strategy of sustainable business practices. From internal operations and packaging, backwards to your supply chain and forward to your consumer marketing and public relations efforts, sustainability is a huge and complex but essential subject.

In this global and transparent economy, governments legislate and regulate sustainable practices, consumers increasingly demand it and watchdog organizations vigorously monitor and challenge corporate behavior on this front.

Defining sustainability is difficult. It means different things to different companies. In the story that follows this one, our annual Green Plant of the Year feature, ConAgra defines it as much in terms of maintaining the company and jobs in the community as in saving the Earth. And that's an increasingly common definition.

"Acting sustainably means maintaining a balance and not depleting your available resources," according to Brad Scott, senior director of Landor Associates, a brand consulting business. "In business this often translates into balancing costs against a product's impact on the community in which you operate. Some refer to this as the triple bottom line – profit, people and the planet."

So for this story, we've looked at how sustainability is defined by two of the world's biggest food and consumer products companies – Unilever and Nestle – who are universally regarded as leaders in sustainability. We also look at how smaller companies -- Naked Juice and Sunny Delight -- are doing their part to save the Earth.

Unilever's double/half challenge

Two Tomorrows Group Ltd., a UK-based international corporate sustainability agency, conducts an annual assessment of corporate sustainability practices of the world's largest food & beverage companies, following the Fortune Global 500 list, which ranks the world's largest companies by revenue. It ranked Unilever as the top sustainable food & beverage company in its most recent list, which was based on 2010 research.

In 2010, sustainability efforts were driven by consumers' social and environmental concerns as well as companies' fears that climate change and water scarcity put the security of supplies at risk, according to Two Tomorrows.

Potential customers in emerging markets was another strong incentive to develop new products and distribution models that work in challenging socio-economic circumstances and address special nutritional needs, according to the rating agency. While leaders such as Unilever, Nestlé and Danone demonstrated strong initiatives across these areas, all companies in the sector faced significant challenges, particularly within their supply chains.

Unilever, which topped the list, has a comprehensive sustainability strategy based on stakeholder feedback, governed by the company's senior leaders and underpinned by solid management systems. Its performance on important variables such as carbon emissions and water usage has shown marked improvements over the years. It has also shown leadership by co-founding initiatives such as the Marine Stewardship Council and the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil. It was an early supporter of fair trade and started rolling out nutritional labeling practices earlier than most.

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