Alpro has recently conducted a pilot project in collaboration with WWF and IUCN to set targets in line with planetary boundaries for a number of environmental areas, including biodiversity conservation. As Alpro begins the next phase of the project, Stefan Jimenez spoke with Sustainability Manager Greet Vanderheyden to discuss the project and the company’s approach to biodiversity.
SJ: Alpro has recently released its work setting out science-based targets for a number of environmental areas, including biodiversity, could you tell us a bit about the report?
GV: We did this project to make sure what we were doing was good enough. We were already familiar with the Science-Based Target initiative through our work on carbon and we know the biggest impacts from our products are not just from energy, but also the agricultural side, so it was a logical step to extend this way of thinking. Our ambition in the long term is to be able to offer our customers “one planet products” that are made within the carrying capacity of the planet.
We chose to start with almond and soya farms because these are the primary ingredients for our main products, and from our previous footprint exercises we know that agriculture is the phase with the greatest impact in our supply chain.
In terms of biodiversity, what were the main findings and what are the next steps now the report is published?
We started by applying mean species abundance to measure biodiversity, and although insightful this didn’t allow us to link our own target to a broader planetary boundary, so we evolved towards using land use as a proxy for biodiversity and defining the boundary with the half-earth approach, or that at least 50% natural vegetation is required for healthy ecosystems.
We cannot be responsible on our own to restore the landscape in the whole region, so we asked ourselves “what is our role?”
In the Mediterranean area where we source our ingredients, the average is well below this tipping point, at just 4.4% of land area. We cannot be responsible on our own to restore the landscape in the whole region, so we asked ourselves “what is our role?” We decided to take a landscape approach, basing our interventions on where a farm is located and what makes sense in that area.
So, for the farms in the pilot located near hotspots of intact natural vegetation of around 75%, our role is to ensure we do not jeopardize biodiversity any further. Meanwhile, on other farms with less potential for rich biodiversity nearby, a higher input/output model, within the capacity of the planet of course, allows us to keep yields the same for the farm cooperative as a whole, and still have greater biodiversity overall. This is why we really want to continue to work with farm cooperatives, so there is room for varied action on individual farms. Our next steps this year are to implement these biodiversity-enhancing measures based on each farms’ context and measure the results.
You’ve said before that at Alpro you have questioned whether you are “doing enough”. Considering the earth has already crossed the planetary boundary for biodiversity loss, what does this mean for Alpro in setting its targets?
It’s very early to say. Through this one-year pilot we eventually arrived at defining a planetary boundary as 50% natural vegetation, but to translate that into a company target is work that still has to be done. Keeping in mind that results show we are below a tipping point, very large-scale restoration is the only approach that will be meaningful.
Keeping in mind that results show we are below a tipping point, very large-scale restoration is the only approach that will be meaningful.
The philosophy right now without an official target is that our own responsibility is to not further jeopardize, and indeed to promote and increase, biodiversity on farms. In biodiversity-rich areas this means not increasing almond farming for instance. The question is still “how much is good enough?”, but the ambition is to have quantitative targets linked to a planetary boundary goal. We do not want fluffy qualitative measures.
Plant-based alternatives to dairy are perceived by most consumers as better for the environment than conventional products but they are not necessarily benign. How does Alpro set its level of ambition when it is easily applauded today just for producing plant-based products?
If you look at our communications over the past decade, the cornerstone has been talking about the resource efficiency of plant-based products. While plant-based products are relatively resource efficient, focusing on how they compare with conventional products is a bit flawed because it doesn’t address what we are doing with our own products. Also, environmental impacts are often so local that it’s not useful to compare water use, let’s say, because what is sustainable in one basin is not in another. So just saying a product is more resource efficient is part of the message but it’s not good enough, and this is why we set out to do this project.
While plant-based products are relatively resource efficient, focusing on how they compare with conventional products is a bit flawed because it doesn’t address what we are doing with our own products.
Alpro has taken a local and operational approach to assessing and setting targets for biodiversity, do you think Alpro needs to also act to help conserve global biodiversity?
You have to start with the global problem, but then to make targets actionable you have to identify what they mean at a local level. To embed a project in a company and make it meaningful, you need to connect it to the supply chain without losing the global picture. For instance, Alpro doesn’t source from a global biodiversity hotspot like the Amazon, but the Mediterranean area where we do operate is a hotspot in our supply chain. Working there makes sense to colleagues and customers and it also means we share in the benefits such as better soil quality we help to create. If every company would address the hotspots in their own supply chain, the world would be a better place.
If every company would address the hotspots in their own supply chain, the world would be a better place.
What role does Alpro have in communicating its actions to consumers when it comes to commonly-held views? Does the science-based targets approach challenge Alpro and consumers’ thinking on what is most sustainable?
Communication is essential to what we are doing. This project, and sustainability as a whole, is complicated but what we tell consumers cannot be too complex. We do not simplify our messaging, but we have to be clear, and tell people what’s in it for them. Sometimes it’s good to use an emotional approach.
We see awareness is increasing in sustainability, but it’s not a driver in purchasing, not even in the top ten. The potential for this project is that we take away the complexity for consumers and allow them to trust that we provide “one planet products”. As a sustainability manager this is my absolute dream.
What are the challenges you have come across in measuring and acting to protect biodiversity?
The main challenge is to scale up, but this touches a number of areas, such as how to evolve from manual data collection and in-person agronomist farm visits in this pilot to an approach that will work for several thousand farms.
Today as a company you no longer get away with doing little bits here and there. If you don’t start doing this work right now you will not be in business in 30-40 years.
What are the greatest business opportunities you see in measuring and acting to protect biodiversity?
Apart from our philosophy and authentic belief that we don’t want to damage the planet for us or future generations, there are a few areas: securing our supply chain in the long term, improving and building our relationships with farmers and cooperatives and boosting our reputation and keeping our licence to operate are all key. Today as a company you no longer get away with doing little bits here and there. If you don’t start doing this work right now you will not be in business in 30-40 years.