In Conversation:

Nestlé & Unilever

By Matt Loose & Denise Delaney

We invited two of the largest global food companies to discuss how they are working towards a more sustainable food system. The conversation highlights areas of convergence as well as the companies unique approaches to their sustainable food work.

Anne Roulin, Head of Sustainability & Nutrition in Research & Development Health, Nestlé: Nestlé has been working in the area of sustainable nutrition for several years now. We have developed tools that allow us to calculate the environmental impact of a product right at the beginning of the development cycle and also tools to calculate the overall nutritional value within a diet. Now we can really bring this together to optimise nutrition and sustainability in the initial product design – to act on the two together.

Roland Sieker, VP Global Strategy and Business Development Foods, Unilever: Triggered by the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan we came to realise that you cannot separate our food strategy and sustainability strategy. To be successful sustainability cannot be an add-on but needs to be fully embedded in the core business strategy. It has to be one and the same, which is summed up in our mission statement: “Food that tastes good, does good and doesn’t cost the earth”.

Product of course is important, as Anne said, but we are convinced we need to lead our agenda through brands. We have created our stable of sustainable brands, led by our core global leaders, Knorr and Hellmann’s, taking sustainability into the heart of the business.

quote quote_mobile

Where do the biggest challenges lie? One of them is certainly the increasing demand for animal proteins and the spiralling demand in developing countries as income levels rise.
Anne Roulin, Nestlé

Shifting Diets

AR: Where do the biggest challenges lie? One of them is certainly the increasing demand for animal proteins and the spiralling demand in developing countries as income levels rise. We are working very intensively on different protein solutions.

RS: Agreed, the big challenge though is to shift consumer diets overall; reduce the negative impact of animal based diets globally. That shift needs to happen. We acknowledge that the food system, as we know it, is broken. And animal-based agriculture is one of the major culprits of an increasingly unsustainable planet.

Nicki Lyons, Senior Director, Global Foods and R&D Communications, Unilever: We have invested in our recipes for our biggest brands, and through our commitment to ‘good for people, good for the planet’ we are encouraging consumers to think about different kinds of protein sources. As part of our ambition to be a more progressive food company, we are confident in the role that food companies can play to develop a better food system that is fit for the future. As massive marketing companies, we can use our power and influence to change consumer behaviour for the better.

RS: When it comes to plant-based foods, to alternatives to meat and dairy, the thing many mass-market consumers lack is inspiration. I think that is a marketing challenge for all of us.

quote quote_mobile

As massive marketing companies, we can use our power and influence to change consumer behaviour for the better.
Nicki Lyons, Unilever

Leadership and Collaboration

AR: No one organisation can do what needs to be done at scale alone. We have been active since the beginning in the UN 10 year Framework Programme on sustainable food systems – this brings together civil society, governments, academics, and the private sector as well as international organisations. These types of platforms are absolutely crucial. The other example is the more recently created group which is a collaboration between WBCSD and the EAT Forum – FReSH – (Food Reform for Sustainability and Health) and the aim is to work towards systemic change of the food system.

NL: Change4Life is an example of a collaboration that we can learn from. The biggest problem was they never quite got the tone of voice right. It started from a belief that consumers were the passive recipients of food from the industry, but consumers have every desire to take control over their own eating habits and in order to do so they want information. Sometimes they make the ‘wrong’ choices from a nutrition perspective, but it’s our job to help them make the right choice become the easy choice.

quote quote_mobile

I have been part of many working groups and because you don’t want to isolate anyone, inevitably you arrive at a lesser solution that is not good enough.
Roland Sieker, Unilever

RS: I have been part of many working groups and because you don’t want to isolate anyone, inevitably you arrive at a lesser solution that is not good enough. It is a question of leadership we need to lead by example. You need to put the consumer first, and you need to put the planet first. And align what you do, credibly with your own growth agenda. If you do that properly you will be successful and encourage competition to follow – and then you will hopefully change the system via market forces.

Packaging, for instance, is a huge issue in food and more generally. Shockingly I just read that by 2050 there will be more plastic in the oceans than fish. Recently we have found a solution to sachets, to make the plastic recyclable, which is a breakthrough in itself. But another breakthrough is the fact that we will open source this technology i.e. make it available to competition. Giving up a first mover advantage and inviting our competition to also use it. The jury is out to what extent it is creating system change, but I think it is a very important signal that we have to work together towards the same agenda.

Raising the Bar

AR: Packaging is a really good example of where cross-sector collaboration is crucial. To cope with the problem of littering – which is the root cause of plastic getting into the ocean – whilst it may be frustrating to be around the table with so many different parties, it is absolutely essential to do that. We are also in favour of more food legislation. With more legislation you have a level playing field.

quote quote_mobile

We are in favour of more food legislation. With more legislation you have a level playing field.
Anne Roulin, Nestlé

RS: I would agree. It is about levelling the playing field on the one hand, but it is also about raising the bar in a number of areas where the standards are just too low. The policies are not aligned and the messaging is not aligned. I think industry, government and civil society need to work together. Set a common agenda, raise the standards and then it will be a survival of the most committed.

AR: We are working in the European Commission on sugar reduction across different categories and businesses – this is an example of a collaboration bringing together the inputs from industry with developments in legislation.

quote quote_mobile

Led by millennials and enhanced by social media connectivity a global movement is demanding better, more transparent behaviour from big companies
Nicki Lyons, Unilever

Social Media Enables Transparency

NL: There is a seismic shift in consumer behaviour and demand across the world. What we are seeing, led by millennials and enhanced by social media connectivity, is a global movement that is demanding better, more transparent behaviour from big companies and a genuine demand for products that are healthier and more sustainable.

AR: Consumers are confused – there have been so many conflicting messages – but with the new digital tools that allow people to capture what they are eating and with recommendations – this can be one of the triggers that can change behaviour. There is such a huge change required in the value chain; upstream agriculture is only focused on yield and hasn’t considered nutrition at all. The environmental impact of agriculture is the biggest of all the impacts.

quote quote_mobile

Our global food supply chains are built for resilience and for efficiency but not for change.
Roland Sieker, Unilever

RS: I would echo that. If you look at the food system, I am concerned the supply side is not able to respond fast enough, because our global food supply chains are built for resilience and for efficiency but not for change. Nestlé is big; Unilever is big. But we are small in the scheme of things. Unilever is the biggest purchaser of palm oil, but we buy less than 3% globally; 3% is not going to change the global palm oil supply agenda – that is where there is probably more intervention required. Many policies and incentive schemes are not in tune with what needs to be done. We need systemic change, which can only be delivered via partnership and collaboration.

Final Thoughts

NL: What is interesting for me is that we are talking now about different types of collaboration and a wider spectrum of skills and expertise focussed on fixing a ‘broken’ food system. One of the interesting aspects of the FReSH collaboration is that it includes companies like Google and Syngenta, focusing in on system-wide change for the benefit of consumers.

quote quote_mobile

The case is made. We know what is going wrong. I invite everyone to take the lead, and I think in a highly competitive industry like food, competition will follow suit.
Roland Sieker, Unilever

RS: It comes down to leadership and action. The case is made. We know what is going wrong. I invite everyone to take the lead, and I think in a highly competitive industry like food, competition will follow suit. Let’s do something and get on with it.

AR: It is really about collaboration across the entire value chain; not talk, but action, from farmers through to consumers, and this is the only thing that will induce the systemic change that is required.

About the authors

Matt Loose

@matt_loose

Matt is a Director in the London office. A seasoned sustainability professional he helps major global companies advance their sustainability performance.

Denise Delaney

@delaneydenise

Director in London leading sustainability strategy and engagement projects and tracking international development. She has an MSc in Forced Migration from Oxford’s Refugee Studies Centre and is a pro bono consultant for Breaking Barriers.