Emma Keller is the Head of Sustainability for the UK and Ireland at Nestlé, the largest food and beverage company in the world. Previously working at the World Wildlife Fund, we discuss her desire to “drive change from the inside” and how empowering employees with a regeneration-first mindset is key to sustainable innovation.
Mark Schneider, chief executive at food giant Nestlé, opened his company’s 2021 Creating Shared Value and Sustainability report (PDF) with a note on aligning sustainability with profitability. It is a long process, but one where the manufacturer is making strides.
“Climate change actions can take time to take effect but, even as our company has grown and revenues increased, we are seeing a reduction in emissions,” Schneider wrote. “We have passed ‘peak carbon’ and decoupled our emissions from growth, charting an even more sustainable future for our company.”
The numbers over the past 12 months make for interesting reading. Nestlé claims to be more than 97% deforestation-free in its primary supply chains, concerning meat, palm oil, pulp and paper, soya, and sugar. Almost three quarters (74.9%) of its plastic packaging is designed for recycling, while 4 million tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions reductions have been achieved through Nestlé projects since 2018.
The key word for Nestlé is ‘regenerative’. Compared with a word like sustainable, it is more holistic, as well as being ‘inherently more inspiring and motivational’, according to research (pdf). Little wonder that senior executives use the term so frequently, as Dr Emma Keller, head of sustainability UK and Ireland, explains.
“Our goal as Nestlé, and our promise to society, is to advance regenerative food systems at scale,” Keller tells Sustainable Future News. “As a food business, we depend on nature for the very existence of our company. We rely on a healthy natural environment to be able to grow nutritious, high-quality ingredients so we can provide food to people all around the world. So being regenerative is about putting life at the centre of our decision-making – it’s a recognition that the food system for a long time has been part of the problem, but can play a unique role in being part of the solution.”
Keller’s background has been in environment and specifically food, having served at the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and doing a PhD in sustainable supply chains whilst in the sustainability team at Unilever, prior to joining Nestlé. The move made perfect sense given the WWF’s focus on the food sector as a major driver of biodiversity loss. “I decided it was time to get back into business and try to drive the change from the inside,” says Keller. “My passion is centred on systems change and global environmental change, which is what led me into the sustainability area and particularly the role that businesses can play as a force for good.”
“Today, being more sustainable is not just a tick-box exercise, but it’s essential for businesses that want to continue to exist and remain relevant in future, and there’s a huge amount of focus on it within Nestlé, from the top, right through the whole organisation.”
Nestlé’s targets are indicative of its message. The company has set ambitions to reach Net Zero emissions by 2050, with milestones to reduce by 20% by 2025, and 50% by 2030. Alongside this, the company announced in 2018 that it would make 100% of its packaging recyclable or reusable by 2025, whilst reducing use of virgin materials by a third in the same timeframe.
Compared with the figures from its report – which, crucially, has independently-audited KPIs from EY – it would seem progress is being made. Not everyone agrees, however. The Corporate Climate Responsibility Monitor report, published by not-for-profit Carbon Market Watch earlier this year, rated both transparency and integrity for Nestlé at ‘very low.’ The report argued the manufacturer used ‘potentially misleading terms’ regarding current and future carbon offsetting claims.
Nestlé published a rebuttal in which the company claimed its Net Zero roadmap does not rely on offsets but rather in-setting; ‘using natural climate solutions to increase the storage of carbon in land and soils in our own value chain.’
Taking a more wide-ranging view across the agricultural landscape appears to be key – and the key word appears again. “As a food business, 70% of our total footprint is in our upstream agricultural supply chain,” explains Keller. “So a major focus for us [is] to work with our farmers to support them to adopt more regenerative agricultural practices.
“[It’s about] really starting to ask ourselves … how do we put back more than we take out?” Keller adds. “How do we regenerate, replenish, renew and protect nature so that we can continue to operate as a business and provide nutritious, delicious, sustainable food, but also to restore the natural ecosystems that we depend on?”
The cultural aspect of this change is one Keller is keen to highlight. ‘We have commitment right from the top’. Schneider, she explains, talks about proactive leadership on sustainability as ‘almost the first sentence he’ll say in any correspondence that he sends out to the business.’ But it needs to go further.
“Increasingly, we recognise that sustainability can’t just be the job of just those with sustainability in their job title,” says Keller. “It really needs to be everyone’s responsibility. But to do that, we need people who are proactive, who are able to put their head above the parapet, ask the challenging questions. That needs to come from all corners of the company.”
Recognising the impact of the ‘great resignation’, Keller admits that future employees have plenty of questions to ask. “When they’re coming in the door, they’re challenging, ‘what are you doing?’ ‘How can I get involved?’ ‘Can I be confident that your business is doing the right thing?’ So, it’s absolutely essential that we have sustainability baked in,” says Keller.
“Being able to empower our employees to think differently, to think with a regeneration-first mindset, to ask those questions, to challenge the status quo, is helping our business to innovate,” adds Keller, “to look at new product development in a different way, to think deeply about our consumer base, and what they might be needing or wanting in the future.”
This emphasis on future leadership is exemplified through the One World programme in the UK, a youth movement of colleagues passionate about sustainability and delivering against the global sustainable development goals (SDGs). It is movements like this which help change a corporate mindset, Keller adds. “By putting our young One World colleagues face-to-face with the leadership teams and with sustainability as a key conversation starter, we’re encouraging intergenerational knowledge exchange and collaboration, which is helping to shift the culture and the ways of thinking of the organisation,” she says.
Keller’s responses portray an understanding of Nestlé’s position in the market, where it has been, and what it needs to do. She explains the company is ‘out of the honeymoon period’ where it can stand proud behind big sustainability commitments, and the next 12 months and beyond is about ‘getting our heads down and delivering.’
“Let’s be honest,” says Keller. “Many aspects of sustainability should simply become hygiene factors. Things like removing deforestation from products should just be a given, rather than it being a selling point. [As] organisations, we all need to be ready and willing to be more transparent about what we do and be able to disclose this in a way people can understand. We’re seeing things like the National Food Strategy, moving in that direction and talking about putting the onus on businesses to disclose and to report on what they’re doing. “So, to become more sustainable, we all need to buckle up for the journey and talk about what we’re doing in an open and credible way,” Keller adds. “It doesn’t mean we should wait until we’re perfect. But it means being really honest about where we are on that journey to help bring our consumers along with us.”
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