As consumers gravitate toward all things sustainable, here are some considerations for brands that want to keep ahead of expectations
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The future of food is sustainable. From the uptick in plant-based meat and dairy product launches to the front-of-pack sustainability scores coming soon to Europe, consumers are showing a growing preference for foods and beverages they consider sustainably made. But how is the scope of sustainability evolving, and how can organisations implement meaningful change across all aspects of their business? We sat down with Christina O’Keefe, Director of Sustainability for Kerry North America, to answer these questions and more.
KerryDigest: As sustainability becomes a more commonplace goal for the industry, what areas of the business need to be reviewed and potentially reworked?
Christina: Sustainability is starting to become a table stake. Right now, around 49% of consumers consider sustainability when making purchases. For a business to grow, they will have to appeal to those consumers.
Sustainability starts with the environmental side of things, so brands must figure out their own footprint and impact. Consumers are savvy, so if there is not data to back up the claims they are going to call it green-washing.
Then we have the community—which is about people. Oftentimes companies are doing community service programs or engagement and diversity and inclusion, which are core to many businesses, but they are not bringing them into their sustainability programs and not promoting those externally. So we're going to see more companies engaging in these activities and sharing these stories.
However, the true definition of sustainability is about people, planet and profit. When you have those three concentric circles intersecting, that’s the sweet spot. Otherwise you have three separate ideas. If you’re making a positive impact on all, it’s a business model and growth strategy that allows you to do the right things for people and the environment as well as for the growth of your business. Because if you can’t sustain your business you can’t do those other things.
KerryDigest: How can brands customise this approach?
Christina: When you think about reworking a strategy, organizations need to look inward and ask, what’s really important to us. What are we really about? You don’t want to shift from making candy bars to making nutritional bars. Reworking doesn’t mean a 180-degree pivot. It’s about defining your business and core vision and bringing sustainability into it.
For Kerry, we rewrote our purpose. Although sustainability has always been at the core of our business, we rewrote our purpose to really state that loud and clear. You don’t need to change your identity—it’s finding out what already fits within your own values and purpose as an organization and then setting goals to be better.
KerryDigest: How often should such a review be done, and who should do it?
Christina: Technically, it’s good practice to review annually. But sustainability should be talked about consistently. It should be built into conversations, just as safety and quality are. I can tell this is happening at Kerry just from looking at my calendar—meeting after meeting is titled “sustainability”, and I’m also seeing it in operations calls and sales meetings. Sustainability is not a separate topic anymore. It’s built into the conversation on our business.
KerryDigest: What can companies do to build this holistic and all-inclusive view of sustainability?
Christina: The first thing is getting buy-in from executives. We’ve started to see sustainability increasingly tied into shareholder reporting and outcomes such as executive bonuses, which helps keep it top-of-mind. But, while it’s important to have visionaries who set out goals and aspirations, you have to have the doers, too.
That’s where our regional champions come in: they make sure our plan and strategy are aligned. Our champions are the subject matter experts for their functions. For R&D there’s a focus on sustainable innovation and nutrition. For engineering the focus is on carbon and water. Having these champions on the ground helps ensure we are moving forward with sustainability in mind.
Through repetition, everyone begins to look through that sustainability lens. People do not always realize that the project’s they’re working on already tie into sustainability—through reinforcement and education you can help people see the impact they’re making.
KerryDigest: In terms of environmental impact, food waste, food production and food packaging are often under scrutiny. Are there any recent developments that could help reduce a company’s carbon footprint?
Christina: With so many companies focused on coming up with solutions to meet sustainability goals, new technologies are emerging every day. From new packaging innovations to the better monitoring of production facilities to using biology to improve shelf life, innovations are constantly coming to light. Amongst our customers that sell to consumers, there’s a real focus on trying to make it more convenient to do the right things. So easy-to-exchange reusable containers are being piloted across foodservice, for example. Our new research suggests that there are clearly defined stages of sustainability adoption for consumers, with the front runners being people who have connected health and wellness to the environment, so we’re sharing this information and supporting innovation with our customers on sustainable nutrition.
KerryDigest: How did health and nutrition and human and animal welfare come to be considered part of sustainability?
Christina: When we talk about sustainable nutrition, it’s about providing products that are healthier for you and your family as you grow, and making them in a way that they do not negatively impact natural resources in the future. All of these ideas are interconnected, and we are committed to creating a food system that works for the future by making a minimal or beneficial impact on the planet while providing nutrition for the world’s growing population.
KerryDigest: How can brands better share their sustainability efforts?
Christina: There’s been a big increase in brands bringing their existing actions to the forefront and weaving it into how they’re telling their stories. A few months ago, Budweiser ran a commercial that centered around their support for veterans, and they also put on their packaging that they’re made with renewable electricity. Amazon has been promoting their electric delivery vehicles, while Oatly released a spot in which their CEO talked more about “no cows” than the product. It’s a real shift in how companies are branding themselves and telling their stories, and it is really resonating with consumers.