Consumer environmental concerns drive food processors toward sustainability
Sustainability today is just good business. “Sustainability is one key aspect that can directly affect the survival of a business in the long-term, because sustainability is important to consumers,” says Jean Shieh, marketing manager, Sensient Natural Ingredients, Turlock, CA, crediting the development of information technology for consumers’ growing interest.
Thanks to social media, word spreads faster today about most things than it did in years past. “As a result, one ‘bad’ ingredient that causes harm could surface to the top and bring down the reputation of a successful business,” adds Shieh, “and one good deed could also be recognized and remembered.”
This enhanced consciousness on the part of consumers is illustrated in the Natural Marketing Institute’s recent report, “The State of Sustainability in America 2015: Trends & Opportunities,” which surveyed more than 3,000 American adults in 2014. Eighty-six percent of respondents said they believe that we live in a wasteful society, and 84 percent make a conscious effort to save and reuse things in their own lives (perhaps due to the lingering impact of the recession, NMI speculates). And awareness is also on the rise: just 64 percent of consumers self-identified as eco-conscious in 2011; by 2014, that number jumped to 71 percent.
Ingredients and supply
Consumers care about the foods they eat and how those foods either support or endanger the environment in which they’re grown—from the people working in farming communities to the land itself.
“We know that consumers want great-tasting, nutritious food, but they also want to know where their food comes from and that their foods are sourced and made responsibly,” says Paloma Lopez, global sustainability director, Kellogg Co., Battle Creek, MI, which hosts a consumer website called OpenForBreakfast.com. “This site enables people to ask us questions about how our foods are grown and sourced, and learn about how we support the farmers, environment and communities where we work and live.”
On the ingredient front, the company prioritizes farmer engagement programs in the U.S. and abroad. One example is the Kellogg’s Master Rice Grower Program, which uses data tracking to measure improvements across environmental indicators like water quality, emissions, soil carbon, energy use efficiency and soil conservation yields. Growers can achieve four tiers—bronze, silver, gold and platinum—with the highest tiers requiring, among other benchmarks, the development of a farm-specific conservation plan in partnership with the USDA’s National Resources Conservation Service.
“As a global food company, we have the opportunity to influence responsible and sustainable behavior throughout our value chain,” adds Lopez. “In doing so, we can drive environmental, economic and social progress far beyond our own walls.”
At Sensient Natural Ingredients, responsibly sourced ingredients are also a top priority. The company’s California-grown garlic and onion varieties are just some of the sustainable options offered. “We strive to develop improved strains of seed lines that enhance quality and productivity, and reduce overall resource requirements,” explains Shieh. These non-GMO varieties not only use land and water resources more efficiently, she says, but also minimize the amount of fossil fuels consumed per dry pound of product produced.
“We partner with our growers to share best practices in farming that are unique to our products in areas such as integrated pest management, improved nutrient management, water conservation and other farm-management systems and tools,” Shieh adds. “Many of those partnerships span decades, as our growers vertically integrate into our supply chain.”
Of course, it’s not just the ingredient, but also the supply chain producing it that resonates with eco-conscious consumers.
To that end, Kellogg recently updated its Global Supplier Code of Conduct. “The code states, for example, that we expect our agricultural suppliers to support our corporate responsibility commitments by implementing sustainable operating and farming practices and agricultural production systems,” says Lopez. “Suppliers must strive to reduce or optimize agricultural inputs; reduce greenhouse gas emissions, energy and water use; improve soil; and minimize water pollution and waste, including food waste and landfill usage.” The code also prohibits discrimination against female farmers and workers, and forbids the use of involuntary labor and any child labor as prohibited by International Labour Organization (ILO) guidelines.
“Companies typically see improved overall business performance when their supply chain is more sustainable in key areas like profitability, employee engagement and customer satisfaction,” says Christopher Shepard, digital marketing manager and sustainable leader, ORBIS Corp., Oconomowoc, WI. “Being a good corporate citizen and minimizing the impact on the environment is important to today’s leading companies.”
At ORBIS, several key metrics are considered across the supply chain: reductions in greenhouse gas emissions (reduced by 4.21 percent since 2010), water use (reduced by 99 percent since 2010) and solid waste.
Sustainability and packaging
Sustainability doesn’t end when a product hits the packaging line. In fact, just the opposite is true. Consumers want to know that the packaging is just as sustainable as the contents. Often, this means that the packaging itself is recyclable or that it enhances product freshness and extends shelf life—or both.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, about 1.3 billion tons of food is wasted globally each year—about one-third of all food produced for human consumption. “We must look throughout the entire value chain for solutions to combat this ongoing issue,” says Jeff Wooster, global sustainability director, Dow Chemical Co., Midland, MI. “Food waste is an issue that cannot be solved by any single part of the food industry or by governments alone.”
At Dow, the focus is on high-performance plastic packaging that extends food freshness, improves product safety and provides convenience benefits. Trends that Wooster sees in the snack industry include packaging that reseals tightly, as well as single-serve, preportioned packages. Though these options may require more materials at the outset, they allow consumers to generate less food waste in the end because the product is consumed before it can spoil.
Dow’s Recycle Ready pouches incorporate multiple layers of material, but are only made of one material: polyethylene (PE). This means that, where facilities exist, recycling is much easier. “For example, a pouch containing cake mix offers up to 88 percent less total material weight, consumes 54 percent less total energy and allows for up to 90 percent post-consumer solid waste when compared to a bag-in-box cake mix,” Wooster says. “It is also fully recyclable in the pre-consumption stage or where there is a post-consumption collection chain such as the ‘return to retail’ collection system used for PE shopping bags and films.” This results in less packaging waste and more value returned to the circular economy overall, he adds.
At Crown Holdings Inc., Philadelphia, recyclability is also top of mind. “Our primary product—the metal can—is 100 percent and infinitely recyclable,” said Daniel Abramowicz, executive vice president of technology and regulatory affairs. “As recycling does not change the metal’s physical properties, recycled metal can stay in the system forever.”
This not only helps preserve raw materials and virgin metals, it also saves significant energy as compared to producing a new can from scratch. “This is critical to our business philosophy, and it is also important for consumers who favor sustainable practices and products,” Abramowicz says.
At ORBIS, clients have the option of using new resin or blending in a percentage of recycled materials. The Recycle with ORBIS program further focuses on the efficient recovery, reprocessing and recycling of customers’ obsolete and surplus packaging.
In the end, whether it’s packaging or ingredients, suppliers and brands that achieve balance will find success.
“Ideally, we strive to simultaneously increase performance and decrease resource consumption, but on occasion, those two goals can conflict,” says Wooster. “For example, if the amount of resources saved means a lower quality package is produced, then the goal of improvement has not been achieved. If the package fails because it has been simplified too much, the result is a decrease in overall sustainability performance because the product is wasted—despite the lower resource use for the packaging. So we must always work diligently to be certain that we use the right amount of resources to provide the best overall balance of resource efficiency.”