As the economic downturn bites, the importance for food manufacturers investing in reducing their impact on the environment and embracing the sustainability agenda is, in some quarters, being called into question. The UK's Food and Drink Federation, however, believes such issues remain as vital as ever for the food industry. Callton Young, director of sustainability and competitiveness at the FDF, outlines why.

In the current tough economic climate, some may be tempted to think that environmental issues have dropped down the food industry's agenda. However, the environment remains a priority for members of the Food and Drink Federation as they recognise that adopting best practice and pursuing further efficiencies in their business can actually lead to a win-win in terms of the environment and vital cost savings.

Nothing demonstrates this ongoing commitment to the environment more than the results contained in a report we published yesterday.

Last October, our members launched an ambitious plan to make a real difference to the environment in five key areas: reducing CO2 emissions by 20% by 2010 compared with 1990 and aspiring to 30% by 2020; seeking to send zero food and packaging waste to landfill by 2015; significantly reducing the level of packaging reaching households; achieving significant reductions in water use; and achieving fewer and friendlier food transport miles.

Our report demonstrates the seriousness with which FDF members have tackled these aims, with solid progress being made against all the ambitions set in 2007.

Take climate change. The latest figures available under FDF's voluntary Climate Change Agreement with Defra show that our members collectively achieved a 17% absolute reduction in CO2 emissions at their production sites in 2006 compared to 1990. This amounts to an average saving of 58,000 tonnes of CO2 per year, the equivalent of taking 22,000 cars off UK roads each year.

Better still, our figures show that economic growth has been decoupled from CO2 emissions as manufacturers continue to improve energy efficiency through combined heat and power plants and investment in new equipment such as baking ovens. Increasingly, improvements are also arising from investments in renewable forms of energy such as biomass boilers and wind turbines.

McCain Foods, for instance, has invested GBP15m (US$23m) in renewable energy sources at its factory in Whittlesey, while Tate & Lyle is building a new biomass boiler at its Thames Cane Sugar Refinery and British Sugar continues to improve the efficiency of the combined heat and power plant at its Wissington factory. These are huge projects. But such investment is not just for the big boys: Macphie of Glenbervie will reduce its emissions by 2,100 tonnes per year from 2008 following investment in a 1.2MW biomass boiler.

Our leadership on this important issue will put us on the front foot as the drive towards a low carbon economy gathers pace, spearheaded by the Climate Change Bill and Climate Change Budgets.

Solid progress has also been made in the other four areas of our Five-fold Environmental Ambition. FDF's members prevented more than half a million tonnes of food waste being created in 2006 by, for example, ensuring that by-products from food production were used in animal feed. Müller UK has reduced food and packaging waste to landfill by one third since 2006 and has invested GBP800,000 in new equipment to increase this to a 60% reduction in 2009. PepsiCo UK prevented about 24% of solid waste during 2007 compared to 2006 and recycled 90% of the solid waste that could not be prevented - some 30,000 tonnes.

In terms of minimising packaging reaching consumers, FDF members have doubled their participation in the Courtauld Commitment this year and now account for over half of all signatories working with WRAP to reduce packaging reaching households. For example, Britvic has reduced the amount of packaging it uses for its Robinsons squash bottles, saving 1,670 tonnes of plastic overall; and Mars UK is saving 450 tonnes of glass per year through its work under Courtauld and 720 tonnes of packaging materials per year on its large confectionery tub, partly by switching from tin to plastic.

To encourage water efficiency best practice, FDF launched the Federation House Commitment in January, which sets out five steps for success for signatories to take to improve water efficiency, including developing site-specific action plans - 237 manufacturing sites across the UK are now working on saving water under the Commitment. Some examples of members' work in this area are Wrigley, which is converting waste water into green electricity at its Plymouth site; and Dairy Crest's Severnside site, which has saved some 54 million litres of water since signing up to the Commitment.

Finally, in the area of achieving fewer transport miles, FDF launched its Checklist and Clause for Greener Food Transport in July and 47 companies with a combined turnover of GBP17bn have now signed up. Manufacturers' work in this area includes Cadbury, which is avoiding 4.7 million road miles each year by outsourcing its haulage and rationalising its warehousing; General Mills now sends 80% of its shipments to the UK by sea; Danone Waters UK now uses rail for 83% of its food transport miles between factories and warehouses; and Premier Foods has invested GBP1.3m in its transport fleet to increase the number of double deck trailer units from 30 to 55 overall.

When FDF launched its Five-fold Environmental Ambition in October 2007 we set out to be bold in making a real difference to the environment and our 2008 Progress Report is testament to how seriously our members have taken this commitment, despite the tough economic climate. To get a full flavour of the work undertaken to date why not visit www.fdf.org.uk.