Food corporations & sustainability: all talk or true commitment?

Food corporations & sustainability: all talk or true commitment?

By
Louise Burfitt
December 21, 2020

With the climate crisis occupying ever more headlines - and popular awareness - 2020 has seen many more food, beverage and consumer goods companies committing to industrial decarbonisation. Sometimes, it seemed barely a month went by without a new announcement from a major brand related to achieving net zero emissions or similar. But to what extent are the environmental commitments of big food brands likely to bring about genuine change, and can companies really be held to account?

For some years now, the big players in the food & beverage industry have been accused of greenwashing – the act of spending more time and money on marketing themselves as environmentally conscious than on actually taking concrete steps towards sustainability. But this autumn, the EU voted to make the bloc’s commitment to net-zero emissions by 2050 a binding one. The UK also announced its intention to make climate disclosures by 2025 mandatory for companies. These changes are forcing companies who may have had their head in the sand on sustainability to take concrete action, and encouraging those who have already done so to strengthen and report on their commitments.

Explaining the lingo: net zero, zero carbon and carbon neutrality

So what exactly does it mean to reach net-zero emissions? Or carbon neutrality, for that matter? Striving for net zero means cutting greenhouse gas emissions, particularly heat-trapping carbon dioxide, to as close to zero as possible. A food manufacturer that generates enough renewable energy from, say, solar panels on its factory roof to equal the amount of energy it takes from the grid would have achieved net zero.

Zero carbon means no carbon was produced in the first place. A food manufacturing facility that does not take electricity from the grid and is powered entirely by renewable energy would count as a zero-carbon facility. Carbon neutrality, meanwhile, means that while some emissions are still being generated by the company, the emissions are offset to such a degree that the overall net emissions stand at zero. So let’s see which factors are driving these targets...

Trend drivers: the climate crisis, financial risks and a sense of responsibility

The climate emergency is, of course, the fundamental driver pushing companies to strive for net zero emissions. As awareness about the urgency of the need for change grows, accelerated by high-profile climate strikes around the world, there is swelling public demand for as rapid as possible a transition to a zero-carbon economy. Resulting in the push for legislative actions - like the EU’s drive for carbon neutrality by 2050.

Beyond the direct risks that climate change presents to our planet, companies are also realising the real threats a warming world poses to the viability of their businesses. In 2019, the U.S. regulator Rostin Behnam compared the financial risks linked to climate change to those linked to the subprime mortgage mess that led to 2008’s financial crash. The climate emergency and dramatically altered weather patterns also poses real risks to international supply chains and food production. On the positive side, the financial benefits of a sustainably-run operation range from increased market value to a higher bottom line.

And as the catastrophic impact of intensive agriculture on the climate becomes clearer than ever, could corporate executives be experiencing a growing awareness of their companies’ actions? Agriculture accounts for more than one-fifth of greenhouse gas emissions, most of these linked to the meat and dairy industry. The food industry as a whole contributes a staggering 37% of all greenhouse gas emissions. With size and scale comes responsibility and it’s becoming increasingly clear that without dramatic action by the food industry, devastating climate change will be unavoidable.

Exploring the trend: the positives

This year has seen a wave of commitments from multinational food and beverage corporations. Swedish-Swiss food and drink packaging company Tetra Pak has set the ambitious goal of achieving net zero emissions within its own operations by 2030, and across its entire value chain by 2050, while UK supermarket Tesco has fitted solar panels in stores and rolled out electric vehicles to bring forward its zero carbon commitment to 2035 instead of 2050.

This summer multinational consumer goods company Unilever also revealed its target to achieve net zero emissions for all products it manufactures by 2039. Good news, too: its most sustainable product ranges, such as Knorr (stock) and Hellmann’s (mayonnaise and dressings), experienced 46% higher growth in 2017 than the rest of the business. These brands form part of Unilever’s Sustainable Living Plan, which came into force in 2010, and aims to untangle the company’s growth from its environmental impact.

Across the pond, Walmart is aiming for net zero emissions slightly sooner – by 2040. The sprawling corporation hopes to utilise enough renewable energy to provide power to all its facilities by 2035. Meanwhile, PepsiCo is aiming to source 100% renewable electricity across all its operations worldwide by 2040 - a change that will have an impact equivalent to taking 0.5 million cars off the road for a year, given the corporation’s size and scale.

Across the board, many major food companies are also investing in sustainable packaging and plant-based products. Half of major food companies now have dedicated plant-based departments. Tesco, Kroger, Unilever, and Nestlé have been hailed as particularly committed to the development of meat-alternative products, while Nestlé just announced its investment in a startup investigating tech that minimises the effect of toxins in plastic packaging.

Exploring the trend: the negatives

Unfortunately, it would be false to describe the environmental future as all rosy when it comes to the food and consumer goods industry. The sector’s biggest companies have form when it comes to backtracking on environmental pledges.
Back in 2010 the world’s largest consumer goods companies, including Nestlé, Mondelez and Unilever, signed a pledge to commit to zero net deforestation by 2020 through responsible sourcing of commodities like palm oil. But by 2019, it had become clear that many of the corporations would not meet these commitments in time for the deadline. Nestlé has now pushed back its commitment to zero deforestation to 2022.

Then there’s the controversy surrounding carbon offsetting. Striving for carbon neutrality via carbon offsetting, as explained above, allows big corporations to appear as if they are doing the right thing and reduce their carbon footprint. Many companies do this by paying millions to preserve large swathes of forestland. But most of the time, this land was never in danger of deforestation in the first place. And by paying to ‘protect’ it, companies are absolved of their responsibilities in other areas - with many of the biggest firms involved in damaging deforestation elsewhere. Critics describe carbon offsetting as an ‘easy win’ that absolves them of true responsibility, with many carbon credits famously ineffective at delivering the carbon reduction they claim to.

Coca-Cola, PepsiCo and Nestlé have also been accused of their complete lack of progress on reducing plastic waste, after being named the top plastic polluters in the world for the third year running. These examples show the downfall of corporate social and environmental responsibility: when a company is in charge of setting and regulating its own sustainability goals, there’s very little external bodies can do to hold them to account.

Case Studies: Nestlé & NoCOé by Mondelez

The world’s largest food company Nestlé is a brand that has attracted its fair share of controversy along the way. There’s even an 60k+ strong subreddit for self-declared ‘Nestle Haters’ who actively seek out to avoid any products manufactured by the company. Can a multinational that’s been linked to nutrition scandals and modern slavery be trusted on its environmental commitments? Many critics say not. Still, the company is taking concrete action on widening its plant-based offering and committing to get its customers eating a healthier diet by moving away from its focus on sugary snacks and drinks production. The company has committed to net zero emissions by 2050, and to halve them by 2030. It plans to return carbon to the atmosphere through agroforestry and use renewable energy to manufacture products while sourcing ingredients sustainably. Nestlé’s future plans also include exploring alternative packaging  and moving towards carbon-neutral brands.

In December 2020, another food giant Mondelez International launched NoCOé, a carbon-neutral cracker, to the French market. Mondelez itself, like Nestlé, does not get an environmental free pass either: one recent report suggested that among nine of the largest food and drink companies, Mondelez was one of the worst performers on environmental sustainability measures. It’s also attracted criticism for its use of unsustainable palm oil. The new, unique snack is a step in the right direction: sourced locally and packaged using only compostable or recyclable materials. Any emissions related to its production and distribution are offset by Mondelez through their partnership with Rainforest Action. Aimed at the ‘climate generation’, NoCOé is also low in salt and sugar. Its messaging targeted at ‘millennial eco-conscious consumers’ will be analysed to see the extent to which it resonates, and whether customers are willing to pay more than the average for a truly sustainable food brand.

Food businesses & sustainability: what does the future hold?

The good news is that research indicates that turning a profit and operating sustainably are far from mutually exclusive. The flood of environmentally-conscious startups in the food world, many of them experiencing mega-growth, are proof of this alone. And studies have shown that customers are more likely to buy from brands that they perceive as being sustainable. Shares in companies seen as environmentally conscious also markedly outperformed those of companies that were not, said a Deutsche Bank study this autumn.

The fact that many market-leading companies are choosing to bring forward their commitments to carbon reduction or neutrality by several years is also a sign that things are changing. Take Unilever who recently brought forward their aim of carbon neutrality to 2039, by more than a decade. Brands are realising that greenwashing without firm commitments is no longer a strategy that works, or one that they can live with. As awareness of the urgency of the climate crisis continues to grow, not taking steps to address carbon reduction will become its own taboo topic. Customers, and stakeholders, and governments will demand commitment - and food and drinks businesses will have to show it.

The 30-second pitch: Food companies & sustainability

♻️ What

  • Food and drinks corporations have long been accused of greenwashing, but with many major food and beverage businesses announcing new sustainability targets in 2020, just how realistic and genuine are these new commitments?


🤷‍♂️ Why

  • The climate emergency and resulting consumer demands for more sustainable food and drinks products and brands is driving the wave of new sustainability commitments by major companies, bolstered by increased legislation around net zero targets and climate reporting.


🌎 How

  • Net zero emissions targets
  • Carbon neutrality/carbon offsetting
  • Zero carbon targets
  • Other sustainability targets and initiatives, such as plant-based products and use of renewable energy
  • Carbon-neutral products


👀 Who

  • Kroger (plant-based products)
  • Nestlé (net zero by 2050, plant-based products, sustainable packaging)
  • NoCOé by Mondelez (carbon-neutral cracker)
  • PepsiCo (100% renewable electricity by 2040)
  • Tesco (net zero by 2035, plant-based products, renewable energy)
  • Unilever (plant-based products, net zero by 2039)
  • Walmart (net zero by 2040, renewable energy)


👍 The good

  • Achieving net zero emissions or hitting similar sustainability targets would have a significant impact on the planet. Currently, agriculture and food manufacturing exert an outsized negative influence on the health of the climate - and reducing their impact would make a marked difference.
  • Eco-conscious consumers are keen to put their money where their mouths are when it comes to sustainability: new options for carbon-neutral products will offer greater options to this demographic.
  • Due to new legislation, many large companies have brought forward their environmental targets and re-committed to making big changes to achieve them. Many trends, including plant-based food and sustainable packaging, are linked to this shift towards ever greater sustainability.


👎 The bad

  • Due to the nature of corporate social responsibility, it is extremely difficult to hold companies to account on their own sustainability targets. These are often set years into the future, which also makes them difficult to keep track of.
  • Many of the biggest food and drinks businesses are still major contributors to global emissions, deforestation and plastic waste - despite previous commitments to do better.


💡 The bottom line

  • While the rash of environmental and sustainability targets set by big food and drinks brands are undoubtedly a step in the right direction, only time will tell whether companies stick to their commitments.

Become a FoodHack+ member to get unlimited access

  • Access premium publications
  • Get listed on our directory
  • Join a Global Community

With the climate crisis occupying ever more headlines - and popular awareness - 2020 has seen many more food, beverage and consumer goods companies committing to industrial decarbonisation. Sometimes, it seemed barely a month went by without a new announcement from a major brand related to achieving net zero emissions or similar. But to what extent are the environmental commitments of big food brands likely to bring about genuine change, and can companies really be held to account?

For some years now, the big players in the food & beverage industry have been accused of greenwashing – the act of spending more time and money on marketing themselves as environmentally conscious than on actually taking concrete steps towards sustainability. But this autumn, the EU voted to make the bloc’s commitment to net-zero emissions by 2050 a binding one. The UK also announced its intention to make climate disclosures by 2025 mandatory for companies. These changes are forcing companies who may have had their head in the sand on sustainability to take concrete action, and encouraging those who have already done so to strengthen and report on their commitments.

Explaining the lingo: net zero, zero carbon and carbon neutrality

So what exactly does it mean to reach net-zero emissions? Or carbon neutrality, for that matter? Striving for net zero means cutting greenhouse gas emissions, particularly heat-trapping carbon dioxide, to as close to zero as possible. A food manufacturer that generates enough renewable energy from, say, solar panels on its factory roof to equal the amount of energy it takes from the grid would have achieved net zero.

Zero carbon means no carbon was produced in the first place. A food manufacturing facility that does not take electricity from the grid and is powered entirely by renewable energy would count as a zero-carbon facility. Carbon neutrality, meanwhile, means that while some emissions are still being generated by the company, the emissions are offset to such a degree that the overall net emissions stand at zero. So let’s see which factors are driving these targets...

Trend drivers: the climate crisis, financial risks and a sense of responsibility

The climate emergency is, of course, the fundamental driver pushing companies to strive for net zero emissions. As awareness about the urgency of the need for change grows, accelerated by high-profile climate strikes around the world, there is swelling public demand for as rapid as possible a transition to a zero-carbon economy. Resulting in the push for legislative actions - like the EU’s drive for carbon neutrality by 2050.

Beyond the direct risks that climate change presents to our planet, companies are also realising the real threats a warming world poses to the viability of their businesses. In 2019, the U.S. regulator Rostin Behnam compared the financial risks linked to climate change to those linked to the subprime mortgage mess that led to 2008’s financial crash. The climate emergency and dramatically altered weather patterns also poses real risks to international supply chains and food production. On the positive side, the financial benefits of a sustainably-run operation range from increased market value to a higher bottom line.

And as the catastrophic impact of intensive agriculture on the climate becomes clearer than ever, could corporate executives be experiencing a growing awareness of their companies’ actions? Agriculture accounts for more than one-fifth of greenhouse gas emissions, most of these linked to the meat and dairy industry. The food industry as a whole contributes a staggering 37% of all greenhouse gas emissions. With size and scale comes responsibility and it’s becoming increasingly clear that without dramatic action by the food industry, devastating climate change will be unavoidable.

Exploring the trend: the positives

This year has seen a wave of commitments from multinational food and beverage corporations. Swedish-Swiss food and drink packaging company Tetra Pak has set the ambitious goal of achieving net zero emissions within its own operations by 2030, and across its entire value chain by 2050, while UK supermarket Tesco has fitted solar panels in stores and rolled out electric vehicles to bring forward its zero carbon commitment to 2035 instead of 2050.

This summer multinational consumer goods company Unilever also revealed its target to achieve net zero emissions for all products it manufactures by 2039. Good news, too: its most sustainable product ranges, such as Knorr (stock) and Hellmann’s (mayonnaise and dressings), experienced 46% higher growth in 2017 than the rest of the business. These brands form part of Unilever’s Sustainable Living Plan, which came into force in 2010, and aims to untangle the company’s growth from its environmental impact.

Across the pond, Walmart is aiming for net zero emissions slightly sooner – by 2040. The sprawling corporation hopes to utilise enough renewable energy to provide power to all its facilities by 2035. Meanwhile, PepsiCo is aiming to source 100% renewable electricity across all its operations worldwide by 2040 - a change that will have an impact equivalent to taking 0.5 million cars off the road for a year, given the corporation’s size and scale.

Across the board, many major food companies are also investing in sustainable packaging and plant-based products. Half of major food companies now have dedicated plant-based departments. Tesco, Kroger, Unilever, and Nestlé have been hailed as particularly committed to the development of meat-alternative products, while Nestlé just announced its investment in a startup investigating tech that minimises the effect of toxins in plastic packaging.

Exploring the trend: the negatives

Unfortunately, it would be false to describe the environmental future as all rosy when it comes to the food and consumer goods industry. The sector’s biggest companies have form when it comes to backtracking on environmental pledges.
Back in 2010 the world’s largest consumer goods companies, including Nestlé, Mondelez and Unilever, signed a pledge to commit to zero net deforestation by 2020 through responsible sourcing of commodities like palm oil. But by 2019, it had become clear that many of the corporations would not meet these commitments in time for the deadline. Nestlé has now pushed back its commitment to zero deforestation to 2022.

Then there’s the controversy surrounding carbon offsetting. Striving for carbon neutrality via carbon offsetting, as explained above, allows big corporations to appear as if they are doing the right thing and reduce their carbon footprint. Many companies do this by paying millions to preserve large swathes of forestland. But most of the time, this land was never in danger of deforestation in the first place. And by paying to ‘protect’ it, companies are absolved of their responsibilities in other areas - with many of the biggest firms involved in damaging deforestation elsewhere. Critics describe carbon offsetting as an ‘easy win’ that absolves them of true responsibility, with many carbon credits famously ineffective at delivering the carbon reduction they claim to.

Coca-Cola, PepsiCo and Nestlé have also been accused of their complete lack of progress on reducing plastic waste, after being named the top plastic polluters in the world for the third year running. These examples show the downfall of corporate social and environmental responsibility: when a company is in charge of setting and regulating its own sustainability goals, there’s very little external bodies can do to hold them to account.

Case Studies: Nestlé & NoCOé by Mondelez

The world’s largest food company Nestlé is a brand that has attracted its fair share of controversy along the way. There’s even an 60k+ strong subreddit for self-declared ‘Nestle Haters’ who actively seek out to avoid any products manufactured by the company. Can a multinational that’s been linked to nutrition scandals and modern slavery be trusted on its environmental commitments? Many critics say not. Still, the company is taking concrete action on widening its plant-based offering and committing to get its customers eating a healthier diet by moving away from its focus on sugary snacks and drinks production. The company has committed to net zero emissions by 2050, and to halve them by 2030. It plans to return carbon to the atmosphere through agroforestry and use renewable energy to manufacture products while sourcing ingredients sustainably. Nestlé’s future plans also include exploring alternative packaging  and moving towards carbon-neutral brands.

In December 2020, another food giant Mondelez International launched NoCOé, a carbon-neutral cracker, to the French market. Mondelez itself, like Nestlé, does not get an environmental free pass either: one recent report suggested that among nine of the largest food and drink companies, Mondelez was one of the worst performers on environmental sustainability measures. It’s also attracted criticism for its use of unsustainable palm oil. The new, unique snack is a step in the right direction: sourced locally and packaged using only compostable or recyclable materials. Any emissions related to its production and distribution are offset by Mondelez through their partnership with Rainforest Action. Aimed at the ‘climate generation’, NoCOé is also low in salt and sugar. Its messaging targeted at ‘millennial eco-conscious consumers’ will be analysed to see the extent to which it resonates, and whether customers are willing to pay more than the average for a truly sustainable food brand.

Food businesses & sustainability: what does the future hold?

The good news is that research indicates that turning a profit and operating sustainably are far from mutually exclusive. The flood of environmentally-conscious startups in the food world, many of them experiencing mega-growth, are proof of this alone. And studies have shown that customers are more likely to buy from brands that they perceive as being sustainable. Shares in companies seen as environmentally conscious also markedly outperformed those of companies that were not, said a Deutsche Bank study this autumn.

The fact that many market-leading companies are choosing to bring forward their commitments to carbon reduction or neutrality by several years is also a sign that things are changing. Take Unilever who recently brought forward their aim of carbon neutrality to 2039, by more than a decade. Brands are realising that greenwashing without firm commitments is no longer a strategy that works, or one that they can live with. As awareness of the urgency of the climate crisis continues to grow, not taking steps to address carbon reduction will become its own taboo topic. Customers, and stakeholders, and governments will demand commitment - and food and drinks businesses will have to show it.

The 30-second pitch: Food companies & sustainability

♻️ What

  • Food and drinks corporations have long been accused of greenwashing, but with many major food and beverage businesses announcing new sustainability targets in 2020, just how realistic and genuine are these new commitments?


🤷‍♂️ Why

  • The climate emergency and resulting consumer demands for more sustainable food and drinks products and brands is driving the wave of new sustainability commitments by major companies, bolstered by increased legislation around net zero targets and climate reporting.


🌎 How

  • Net zero emissions targets
  • Carbon neutrality/carbon offsetting
  • Zero carbon targets
  • Other sustainability targets and initiatives, such as plant-based products and use of renewable energy
  • Carbon-neutral products


👀 Who

  • Kroger (plant-based products)
  • Nestlé (net zero by 2050, plant-based products, sustainable packaging)
  • NoCOé by Mondelez (carbon-neutral cracker)
  • PepsiCo (100% renewable electricity by 2040)
  • Tesco (net zero by 2035, plant-based products, renewable energy)
  • Unilever (plant-based products, net zero by 2039)
  • Walmart (net zero by 2040, renewable energy)


👍 The good

  • Achieving net zero emissions or hitting similar sustainability targets would have a significant impact on the planet. Currently, agriculture and food manufacturing exert an outsized negative influence on the health of the climate - and reducing their impact would make a marked difference.
  • Eco-conscious consumers are keen to put their money where their mouths are when it comes to sustainability: new options for carbon-neutral products will offer greater options to this demographic.
  • Due to new legislation, many large companies have brought forward their environmental targets and re-committed to making big changes to achieve them. Many trends, including plant-based food and sustainable packaging, are linked to this shift towards ever greater sustainability.


👎 The bad

  • Due to the nature of corporate social responsibility, it is extremely difficult to hold companies to account on their own sustainability targets. These are often set years into the future, which also makes them difficult to keep track of.
  • Many of the biggest food and drinks businesses are still major contributors to global emissions, deforestation and plastic waste - despite previous commitments to do better.


💡 The bottom line

  • While the rash of environmental and sustainability targets set by big food and drinks brands are undoubtedly a step in the right direction, only time will tell whether companies stick to their commitments.

Become a FoodHack+ member to get unlimited access

  • Access premium publications
  • Get listed on our directory
  • Join a Global Community

With the climate crisis occupying ever more headlines - and popular awareness - 2020 has seen many more food, beverage and consumer goods companies committing to industrial decarbonisation. Sometimes, it seemed barely a month went by without a new announcement from a major brand related to achieving net zero emissions or similar. But to what extent are the environmental commitments of big food brands likely to bring about genuine change, and can companies really be held to account?

For some years now, the big players in the food & beverage industry have been accused of greenwashing – the act of spending more time and money on marketing themselves as environmentally conscious than on actually taking concrete steps towards sustainability. But this autumn, the EU voted to make the bloc’s commitment to net-zero emissions by 2050 a binding one. The UK also announced its intention to make climate disclosures by 2025 mandatory for companies. These changes are forcing companies who may have had their head in the sand on sustainability to take concrete action, and encouraging those who have already done so to strengthen and report on their commitments.

Explaining the lingo: net zero, zero carbon and carbon neutrality

So what exactly does it mean to reach net-zero emissions? Or carbon neutrality, for that matter? Striving for net zero means cutting greenhouse gas emissions, particularly heat-trapping carbon dioxide, to as close to zero as possible. A food manufacturer that generates enough renewable energy from, say, solar panels on its factory roof to equal the amount of energy it takes from the grid would have achieved net zero.

Zero carbon means no carbon was produced in the first place. A food manufacturing facility that does not take electricity from the grid and is powered entirely by renewable energy would count as a zero-carbon facility. Carbon neutrality, meanwhile, means that while some emissions are still being generated by the company, the emissions are offset to such a degree that the overall net emissions stand at zero. So let’s see which factors are driving these targets...

Trend drivers: the climate crisis, financial risks and a sense of responsibility

The climate emergency is, of course, the fundamental driver pushing companies to strive for net zero emissions. As awareness about the urgency of the need for change grows, accelerated by high-profile climate strikes around the world, there is swelling public demand for as rapid as possible a transition to a zero-carbon economy. Resulting in the push for legislative actions - like the EU’s drive for carbon neutrality by 2050.

Beyond the direct risks that climate change presents to our planet, companies are also realising the real threats a warming world poses to the viability of their businesses. In 2019, the U.S. regulator Rostin Behnam compared the financial risks linked to climate change to those linked to the subprime mortgage mess that led to 2008’s financial crash. The climate emergency and dramatically altered weather patterns also poses real risks to international supply chains and food production. On the positive side, the financial benefits of a sustainably-run operation range from increased market value to a higher bottom line.

And as the catastrophic impact of intensive agriculture on the climate becomes clearer than ever, could corporate executives be experiencing a growing awareness of their companies’ actions? Agriculture accounts for more than one-fifth of greenhouse gas emissions, most of these linked to the meat and dairy industry. The food industry as a whole contributes a staggering 37% of all greenhouse gas emissions. With size and scale comes responsibility and it’s becoming increasingly clear that without dramatic action by the food industry, devastating climate change will be unavoidable.

Exploring the trend: the positives

This year has seen a wave of commitments from multinational food and beverage corporations. Swedish-Swiss food and drink packaging company Tetra Pak has set the ambitious goal of achieving net zero emissions within its own operations by 2030, and across its entire value chain by 2050, while UK supermarket Tesco has fitted solar panels in stores and rolled out electric vehicles to bring forward its zero carbon commitment to 2035 instead of 2050.

This summer multinational consumer goods company Unilever also revealed its target to achieve net zero emissions for all products it manufactures by 2039. Good news, too: its most sustainable product ranges, such as Knorr (stock) and Hellmann’s (mayonnaise and dressings), experienced 46% higher growth in 2017 than the rest of the business. These brands form part of Unilever’s Sustainable Living Plan, which came into force in 2010, and aims to untangle the company’s growth from its environmental impact.

Across the pond, Walmart is aiming for net zero emissions slightly sooner – by 2040. The sprawling corporation hopes to utilise enough renewable energy to provide power to all its facilities by 2035. Meanwhile, PepsiCo is aiming to source 100% renewable electricity across all its operations worldwide by 2040 - a change that will have an impact equivalent to taking 0.5 million cars off the road for a year, given the corporation’s size and scale.

Across the board, many major food companies are also investing in sustainable packaging and plant-based products. Half of major food companies now have dedicated plant-based departments. Tesco, Kroger, Unilever, and Nestlé have been hailed as particularly committed to the development of meat-alternative products, while Nestlé just announced its investment in a startup investigating tech that minimises the effect of toxins in plastic packaging.

Exploring the trend: the negatives

Unfortunately, it would be false to describe the environmental future as all rosy when it comes to the food and consumer goods industry. The sector’s biggest companies have form when it comes to backtracking on environmental pledges.
Back in 2010 the world’s largest consumer goods companies, including Nestlé, Mondelez and Unilever, signed a pledge to commit to zero net deforestation by 2020 through responsible sourcing of commodities like palm oil. But by 2019, it had become clear that many of the corporations would not meet these commitments in time for the deadline. Nestlé has now pushed back its commitment to zero deforestation to 2022.

Then there’s the controversy surrounding carbon offsetting. Striving for carbon neutrality via carbon offsetting, as explained above, allows big corporations to appear as if they are doing the right thing and reduce their carbon footprint. Many companies do this by paying millions to preserve large swathes of forestland. But most of the time, this land was never in danger of deforestation in the first place. And by paying to ‘protect’ it, companies are absolved of their responsibilities in other areas - with many of the biggest firms involved in damaging deforestation elsewhere. Critics describe carbon offsetting as an ‘easy win’ that absolves them of true responsibility, with many carbon credits famously ineffective at delivering the carbon reduction they claim to.

Coca-Cola, PepsiCo and Nestlé have also been accused of their complete lack of progress on reducing plastic waste, after being named the top plastic polluters in the world for the third year running. These examples show the downfall of corporate social and environmental responsibility: when a company is in charge of setting and regulating its own sustainability goals, there’s very little external bodies can do to hold them to account.

Case Studies: Nestlé & NoCOé by Mondelez

The world’s largest food company Nestlé is a brand that has attracted its fair share of controversy along the way. There’s even an 60k+ strong subreddit for self-declared ‘Nestle Haters’ who actively seek out to avoid any products manufactured by the company. Can a multinational that’s been linked to nutrition scandals and modern slavery be trusted on its environmental commitments? Many critics say not. Still, the company is taking concrete action on widening its plant-based offering and committing to get its customers eating a healthier diet by moving away from its focus on sugary snacks and drinks production. The company has committed to net zero emissions by 2050, and to halve them by 2030. It plans to return carbon to the atmosphere through agroforestry and use renewable energy to manufacture products while sourcing ingredients sustainably. Nestlé’s future plans also include exploring alternative packaging  and moving towards carbon-neutral brands.

In December 2020, another food giant Mondelez International launched NoCOé, a carbon-neutral cracker, to the French market. Mondelez itself, like Nestlé, does not get an environmental free pass either: one recent report suggested that among nine of the largest food and drink companies, Mondelez was one of the worst performers on environmental sustainability measures. It’s also attracted criticism for its use of unsustainable palm oil. The new, unique snack is a step in the right direction: sourced locally and packaged using only compostable or recyclable materials. Any emissions related to its production and distribution are offset by Mondelez through their partnership with Rainforest Action. Aimed at the ‘climate generation’, NoCOé is also low in salt and sugar. Its messaging targeted at ‘millennial eco-conscious consumers’ will be analysed to see the extent to which it resonates, and whether customers are willing to pay more than the average for a truly sustainable food brand.

Food businesses & sustainability: what does the future hold?

The good news is that research indicates that turning a profit and operating sustainably are far from mutually exclusive. The flood of environmentally-conscious startups in the food world, many of them experiencing mega-growth, are proof of this alone. And studies have shown that customers are more likely to buy from brands that they perceive as being sustainable. Shares in companies seen as environmentally conscious also markedly outperformed those of companies that were not, said a Deutsche Bank study this autumn.

The fact that many market-leading companies are choosing to bring forward their commitments to carbon reduction or neutrality by several years is also a sign that things are changing. Take Unilever who recently brought forward their aim of carbon neutrality to 2039, by more than a decade. Brands are realising that greenwashing without firm commitments is no longer a strategy that works, or one that they can live with. As awareness of the urgency of the climate crisis continues to grow, not taking steps to address carbon reduction will become its own taboo topic. Customers, and stakeholders, and governments will demand commitment - and food and drinks businesses will have to show it.

The 30-second pitch: Food companies & sustainability

♻️ What

  • Food and drinks corporations have long been accused of greenwashing, but with many major food and beverage businesses announcing new sustainability targets in 2020, just how realistic and genuine are these new commitments?


🤷‍♂️ Why

  • The climate emergency and resulting consumer demands for more sustainable food and drinks products and brands is driving the wave of new sustainability commitments by major companies, bolstered by increased legislation around net zero targets and climate reporting.


🌎 How

  • Net zero emissions targets
  • Carbon neutrality/carbon offsetting
  • Zero carbon targets
  • Other sustainability targets and initiatives, such as plant-based products and use of renewable energy
  • Carbon-neutral products


👀 Who

  • Kroger (plant-based products)
  • Nestlé (net zero by 2050, plant-based products, sustainable packaging)
  • NoCOé by Mondelez (carbon-neutral cracker)
  • PepsiCo (100% renewable electricity by 2040)
  • Tesco (net zero by 2035, plant-based products, renewable energy)
  • Unilever (plant-based products, net zero by 2039)
  • Walmart (net zero by 2040, renewable energy)


👍 The good

  • Achieving net zero emissions or hitting similar sustainability targets would have a significant impact on the planet. Currently, agriculture and food manufacturing exert an outsized negative influence on the health of the climate - and reducing their impact would make a marked difference.
  • Eco-conscious consumers are keen to put their money where their mouths are when it comes to sustainability: new options for carbon-neutral products will offer greater options to this demographic.
  • Due to new legislation, many large companies have brought forward their environmental targets and re-committed to making big changes to achieve them. Many trends, including plant-based food and sustainable packaging, are linked to this shift towards ever greater sustainability.


👎 The bad

  • Due to the nature of corporate social responsibility, it is extremely difficult to hold companies to account on their own sustainability targets. These are often set years into the future, which also makes them difficult to keep track of.
  • Many of the biggest food and drinks businesses are still major contributors to global emissions, deforestation and plastic waste - despite previous commitments to do better.


💡 The bottom line

  • While the rash of environmental and sustainability targets set by big food and drinks brands are undoubtedly a step in the right direction, only time will tell whether companies stick to their commitments.

With the climate crisis occupying ever more headlines - and popular awareness - 2020 has seen many more food, beverage and consumer goods companies committing to industrial decarbonisation. Sometimes, it seemed barely a month went by without a new announcement from a major brand related to achieving net zero emissions or similar. But to what extent are the environmental commitments of big food brands likely to bring about genuine change, and can companies really be held to account?

For some years now, the big players in the food & beverage industry have been accused of greenwashing – the act of spending more time and money on marketing themselves as environmentally conscious than on actually taking concrete steps towards sustainability. But this autumn, the EU voted to make the bloc’s commitment to net-zero emissions by 2050 a binding one. The UK also announced its intention to make climate disclosures by 2025 mandatory for companies. These changes are forcing companies who may have had their head in the sand on sustainability to take concrete action, and encouraging those who have already done so to strengthen and report on their commitments.

Explaining the lingo: net zero, zero carbon and carbon neutrality

So what exactly does it mean to reach net-zero emissions? Or carbon neutrality, for that matter? Striving for net zero means cutting greenhouse gas emissions, particularly heat-trapping carbon dioxide, to as close to zero as possible. A food manufacturer that generates enough renewable energy from, say, solar panels on its factory roof to equal the amount of energy it takes from the grid would have achieved net zero.

Zero carbon means no carbon was produced in the first place. A food manufacturing facility that does not take electricity from the grid and is powered entirely by renewable energy would count as a zero-carbon facility. Carbon neutrality, meanwhile, means that while some emissions are still being generated by the company, the emissions are offset to such a degree that the overall net emissions stand at zero. So let’s see which factors are driving these targets...

Trend drivers: the climate crisis, financial risks and a sense of responsibility

The climate emergency is, of course, the fundamental driver pushing companies to strive for net zero emissions. As awareness about the urgency of the need for change grows, accelerated by high-profile climate strikes around the world, there is swelling public demand for as rapid as possible a transition to a zero-carbon economy. Resulting in the push for legislative actions - like the EU’s drive for carbon neutrality by 2050.

Beyond the direct risks that climate change presents to our planet, companies are also realising the real threats a warming world poses to the viability of their businesses. In 2019, the U.S. regulator Rostin Behnam compared the financial risks linked to climate change to those linked to the subprime mortgage mess that led to 2008’s financial crash. The climate emergency and dramatically altered weather patterns also poses real risks to international supply chains and food production. On the positive side, the financial benefits of a sustainably-run operation range from increased market value to a higher bottom line.

And as the catastrophic impact of intensive agriculture on the climate becomes clearer than ever, could corporate executives be experiencing a growing awareness of their companies’ actions? Agriculture accounts for more than one-fifth of greenhouse gas emissions, most of these linked to the meat and dairy industry. The food industry as a whole contributes a staggering 37% of all greenhouse gas emissions. With size and scale comes responsibility and it’s becoming increasingly clear that without dramatic action by the food industry, devastating climate change will be unavoidable.

Exploring the trend: the positives

This year has seen a wave of commitments from multinational food and beverage corporations. Swedish-Swiss food and drink packaging company Tetra Pak has set the ambitious goal of achieving net zero emissions within its own operations by 2030, and across its entire value chain by 2050, while UK supermarket Tesco has fitted solar panels in stores and rolled out electric vehicles to bring forward its zero carbon commitment to 2035 instead of 2050.

This summer multinational consumer goods company Unilever also revealed its target to achieve net zero emissions for all products it manufactures by 2039. Good news, too: its most sustainable product ranges, such as Knorr (stock) and Hellmann’s (mayonnaise and dressings), experienced 46% higher growth in 2017 than the rest of the business. These brands form part of Unilever’s Sustainable Living Plan, which came into force in 2010, and aims to untangle the company’s growth from its environmental impact.

Across the pond, Walmart is aiming for net zero emissions slightly sooner – by 2040. The sprawling corporation hopes to utilise enough renewable energy to provide power to all its facilities by 2035. Meanwhile, PepsiCo is aiming to source 100% renewable electricity across all its operations worldwide by 2040 - a change that will have an impact equivalent to taking 0.5 million cars off the road for a year, given the corporation’s size and scale.

Across the board, many major food companies are also investing in sustainable packaging and plant-based products. Half of major food companies now have dedicated plant-based departments. Tesco, Kroger, Unilever, and Nestlé have been hailed as particularly committed to the development of meat-alternative products, while Nestlé just announced its investment in a startup investigating tech that minimises the effect of toxins in plastic packaging.

Exploring the trend: the negatives

Unfortunately, it would be false to describe the environmental future as all rosy when it comes to the food and consumer goods industry. The sector’s biggest companies have form when it comes to backtracking on environmental pledges.
Back in 2010 the world’s largest consumer goods companies, including Nestlé, Mondelez and Unilever, signed a pledge to commit to zero net deforestation by 2020 through responsible sourcing of commodities like palm oil. But by 2019, it had become clear that many of the corporations would not meet these commitments in time for the deadline. Nestlé has now pushed back its commitment to zero deforestation to 2022.

Then there’s the controversy surrounding carbon offsetting. Striving for carbon neutrality via carbon offsetting, as explained above, allows big corporations to appear as if they are doing the right thing and reduce their carbon footprint. Many companies do this by paying millions to preserve large swathes of forestland. But most of the time, this land was never in danger of deforestation in the first place. And by paying to ‘protect’ it, companies are absolved of their responsibilities in other areas - with many of the biggest firms involved in damaging deforestation elsewhere. Critics describe carbon offsetting as an ‘easy win’ that absolves them of true responsibility, with many carbon credits famously ineffective at delivering the carbon reduction they claim to.

Coca-Cola, PepsiCo and Nestlé have also been accused of their complete lack of progress on reducing plastic waste, after being named the top plastic polluters in the world for the third year running. These examples show the downfall of corporate social and environmental responsibility: when a company is in charge of setting and regulating its own sustainability goals, there’s very little external bodies can do to hold them to account.

Case Studies: Nestlé & NoCOé by Mondelez

The world’s largest food company Nestlé is a brand that has attracted its fair share of controversy along the way. There’s even an 60k+ strong subreddit for self-declared ‘Nestle Haters’ who actively seek out to avoid any products manufactured by the company. Can a multinational that’s been linked to nutrition scandals and modern slavery be trusted on its environmental commitments? Many critics say not. Still, the company is taking concrete action on widening its plant-based offering and committing to get its customers eating a healthier diet by moving away from its focus on sugary snacks and drinks production. The company has committed to net zero emissions by 2050, and to halve them by 2030. It plans to return carbon to the atmosphere through agroforestry and use renewable energy to manufacture products while sourcing ingredients sustainably. Nestlé’s future plans also include exploring alternative packaging  and moving towards carbon-neutral brands.

In December 2020, another food giant Mondelez International launched NoCOé, a carbon-neutral cracker, to the French market. Mondelez itself, like Nestlé, does not get an environmental free pass either: one recent report suggested that among nine of the largest food and drink companies, Mondelez was one of the worst performers on environmental sustainability measures. It’s also attracted criticism for its use of unsustainable palm oil. The new, unique snack is a step in the right direction: sourced locally and packaged using only compostable or recyclable materials. Any emissions related to its production and distribution are offset by Mondelez through their partnership with Rainforest Action. Aimed at the ‘climate generation’, NoCOé is also low in salt and sugar. Its messaging targeted at ‘millennial eco-conscious consumers’ will be analysed to see the extent to which it resonates, and whether customers are willing to pay more than the average for a truly sustainable food brand.

Food businesses & sustainability: what does the future hold?

The good news is that research indicates that turning a profit and operating sustainably are far from mutually exclusive. The flood of environmentally-conscious startups in the food world, many of them experiencing mega-growth, are proof of this alone. And studies have shown that customers are more likely to buy from brands that they perceive as being sustainable. Shares in companies seen as environmentally conscious also markedly outperformed those of companies that were not, said a Deutsche Bank study this autumn.

The fact that many market-leading companies are choosing to bring forward their commitments to carbon reduction or neutrality by several years is also a sign that things are changing. Take Unilever who recently brought forward their aim of carbon neutrality to 2039, by more than a decade. Brands are realising that greenwashing without firm commitments is no longer a strategy that works, or one that they can live with. As awareness of the urgency of the climate crisis continues to grow, not taking steps to address carbon reduction will become its own taboo topic. Customers, and stakeholders, and governments will demand commitment - and food and drinks businesses will have to show it.

The 30-second pitch: Food companies & sustainability

♻️ What

  • Food and drinks corporations have long been accused of greenwashing, but with many major food and beverage businesses announcing new sustainability targets in 2020, just how realistic and genuine are these new commitments?


🤷‍♂️ Why

  • The climate emergency and resulting consumer demands for more sustainable food and drinks products and brands is driving the wave of new sustainability commitments by major companies, bolstered by increased legislation around net zero targets and climate reporting.


🌎 How

  • Net zero emissions targets
  • Carbon neutrality/carbon offsetting
  • Zero carbon targets
  • Other sustainability targets and initiatives, such as plant-based products and use of renewable energy
  • Carbon-neutral products


👀 Who

  • Kroger (plant-based products)
  • Nestlé (net zero by 2050, plant-based products, sustainable packaging)
  • NoCOé by Mondelez (carbon-neutral cracker)
  • PepsiCo (100% renewable electricity by 2040)
  • Tesco (net zero by 2035, plant-based products, renewable energy)
  • Unilever (plant-based products, net zero by 2039)
  • Walmart (net zero by 2040, renewable energy)


👍 The good

  • Achieving net zero emissions or hitting similar sustainability targets would have a significant impact on the planet. Currently, agriculture and food manufacturing exert an outsized negative influence on the health of the climate - and reducing their impact would make a marked difference.
  • Eco-conscious consumers are keen to put their money where their mouths are when it comes to sustainability: new options for carbon-neutral products will offer greater options to this demographic.
  • Due to new legislation, many large companies have brought forward their environmental targets and re-committed to making big changes to achieve them. Many trends, including plant-based food and sustainable packaging, are linked to this shift towards ever greater sustainability.


👎 The bad

  • Due to the nature of corporate social responsibility, it is extremely difficult to hold companies to account on their own sustainability targets. These are often set years into the future, which also makes them difficult to keep track of.
  • Many of the biggest food and drinks businesses are still major contributors to global emissions, deforestation and plastic waste - despite previous commitments to do better.


💡 The bottom line

  • While the rash of environmental and sustainability targets set by big food and drinks brands are undoubtedly a step in the right direction, only time will tell whether companies stick to their commitments.