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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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.

Last year, CEO Paul Polman unveiled Unilever's Sustainable Living Plan, which seeks to halve the company's environmental footprint by 2020 while expecting to double sales.

Major goals of this aspirational, albeit challenging, initiative involve greenhouse gas (GHG), water, waste and sustainable sourcing. Specific goals are:

  • Reduce GHG emissions by 15 percent by 2012, and reduce carbon emissions to at or below 2008 levels by 2020, a 63 percent reduction per ton of production and a 43 percent absolute reduction.
  • Reduce water use by its factories to at or below 2008 levels, a 78 percent reduction per ton of production and a 65 percent absolute reduction.
  • Reduce packaging weight by a third by 2020, increase recycling and recovery rates on average by five percent by 2015, and 15 percent by 2020 in all its top 14 countrie. Also key is to increase recycled material content in packaging to maximum possible levels by 2020, and reduce total waste sent for disposal to at or below 2008 levels, an 80 percent reduction per ton of production and a 70 percent absolute reduction. In addition, Unilever plans to eliminate PVC from all its packaging by 2012. 
  • Source 100 percent of agricultural raw materials sustainably by 2020 – but ease into the goal with a 30 percent reduction by 2012 and a 50 percent reduction by 2015. To achieve the goal, Unilever will first focus on its top 10 agricultural raw material groups: palm oil, paper and board, soy, tea, fruits and vegetables, cocoa, sugar, sunflower oil, rapeseed oil and dairy. And the company plans to move to 100 percent cage-free eggs for all its products.

Unilever suggests to suppliers its 16-page booket, "Responsible and Sustainable Sourcing: Standards Guide for Our Supply Partners. " "We have an important message we want to share with valued suppliers around the world," Polman writes in his introduction to the booklet. "Our suppliers must play a critical role in helping to deliver this ambition, to help us buy responsibly and enable us to source sustainably."

To that end, Unilever urges its suppliers to join non-for-profit Supplier Ethical Data Exchange (Sedex) as a way of sharing sustainability data, such as audits and self assessments. This allows information and best practice to be shared while reducing the compliance overheads of suppliers. And the company is also keen on collaboration. "While Sedex helps us to understand our supply base, it is incomplete without the engagement and training of both our procurement teams and our suppliers. We are inviting suppliers to attend workshops to increase involvement, understanding and ultimately compliance with our standards."

Nestle's 'Shared Value'

Nestlé has applied the term "Creating Shared Value" as an umbrella for its sustainability efforts. "Creating Shared Value is the basic way we do business, which states that in order to create long-term value for shareholders, we have to create value for society," the company's website states. Part of the definition talks about the company's various business principles, but adds: "Beyond that, how we do business is based on sustainability – ensuring that our activities preserve the environment for future generations. In line with the Brundtland Commission's definition, sustainable development to Nestlé means 'development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.' "

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