Separation from Dean Foods has allowed WhiteWave to "voice our vision in a stronger way", Brattner says

Separation from Dean Foods has allowed WhiteWave to "voice our vision in a stronger way", Brattner says

WhiteWave Foods, the US-based organic and natural foods specialist, was spun off from dairy giant Dean Foods last year. Deanna Bratter, senior manager of corporate sustainability at WhiteWave, spoke with Ben Cooper about the company's approach to sustainability as an independent operation.

Being backed by a large, powerful conglomerate offers a degree of security, protection and financial backing that smaller, stand-alone companies can only dream of. However, while the value of financial support and security should not be under-estimated, independence fosters creativity and ingenuity in ways that multinational behemoths may envy and, as their acquisition strategies demonstrate, covet.

In the sustainability arena, the merits of that freedom of spirit and individuality often come to the fore. In that respect, WhiteWave Foods, the US-based natural and organic specialist which was spun off from dairy giant Dean Foods last year, offers an interesting study.

Deanna Bratter, senior manager of corporate sustainability at WhiteWave, is careful not to denigrate the sustainability efforts of Dean Foods, which, she says, had "a lot of great programmes". Bratter "wouldn't want to give the impression that we were shackled"  but she does say being spun off has allowed the company to focus on developing not only its own corporate identity but its own "vision and mission". 

"The spin-off has just given us the opportunity to really voice our mission and our values in a stronger and different way," Bratter tells just-food. 

Bratter is in a good position to discern the difference. Having been with the company for nine years, she has witnessed its first manifestation as an independent company, the acquisition by Dean Foods and the years as part of that group and then its most recent return to being a stand-alone.

Reflecting the importance of its sustainability platform and a clear desire to place its sustainability mission centre stage, the company published its inaugural corporate social responsibility report in July, just 13 months after it separated from Dean Foods. Producing a sustainability report at an early stage in the company's new incarnation was important, says Bratter, both as an internal and external driver of its sustainability priorities.

The report embodies the opportunity the spin-off has allowed to "tell our story in a new way" but Bratter also stresses the benefits in employee engagement with sustainability. From an internal perspective, Bratter says, it is "helping us align our entire organisation behind these strategies". In the report, employees have "all this information at their fingertips where they can continue to be ambassadors of our organisation".

Bratter also highlights the company's decision to align its first sustainability report with Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) G4 Sustainability Reporting Guidelines as an important illustration of its direction of travel. 

She says opting to use the G4 guidelines has allowed WhiteWave to "set a standard for ourselves and maintain as much transparency as possible", while ensuring that "our next report builds on that, and we're creating the continuity of really showing people where we've come from and where we're going".

Of course, the new, independent WhiteWave is hardly a minnow. The owner of the Alpro, Earthbound Farm and Silk brands recently reported sales for the second quarter alone of US$838m, representing growth of 36% from the corresponding quarter last year, with adjusted operating income up 53% at $71m. Independence appears to agree with the Colorado-based company.

The company's sustainability report, meanwhile, shows progress on key sustainability metrics. Among the highlights in the report, WhiteWave states in its North American operations it reduced greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 32% per gallon of product between 2006 and 2012, in spite of an increase in production volumes of 57%. Waste to landfill fell by 28%, and the company has reduced transportation-related emissions by more than 40% since 2006.

In its Europe operations, the company has increased use of renewable energy in its production units by 30% since 2007, with emissions coming down by 39.5% per gallon of product and waste to landfill decreasing by 47%. The company has also already met its 2015 target for sourcing certified sustainable palm oil, with the purchase of mass balance certified sustainable palm oil for 100% of its liquid creamers.

Ploughing its own furrow as an independent company may be important to WhiteWave but Bratter stresses its new found autonomy does not diminish the part consultation with external stakeholders has to play in shaping its sustainability strategy. Understanding the views of the people "who influence and are influenced by our organisation and our products is very important", Bratter states. 

In the preparation of the new report, WhiteWave conducted its first formal materiality assessment in order to identify and prioritise its sustainability goals, at the same time determining the corresponding material aspects as outlined in the GRI G4 framework.

In prioritising its actions, WhiteWave sought to determine if these views reflected the company's significant economic, environmental or social impacts, and secondly whether they "substantially influence" stakeholders' assessments and decisions regarding the company. 

While the company did not publish a materiality matrix in its report, as some companies have chosen to do, it includes in tabulated form a list of material issues that were identified, and along with them the corresponding material aspects and reported indicators. These, Bratter explains, reflect the issues that fell into the "upper quadrant" in terms of being most important to those key stakeholders. 

In addition to community impact, animal welfare and employee engagement and wellness, other areas identified included waste and recycling, energy and emissions, sustainable agriculture, packaging, governance and board engagement,

While Bratter says the areas identified in this process were "all the things that we deemed as most material and important to us", she stresses the importance of being challenged by external stakeholders to do more, citing what the NGOs consulted had suggested with regard to waste and recycling and use of recycled content in packaging and sustainable agriculture.

"It does help us, when we're thinking about continuous improvement, in figuring out what are the next steps to our strategy to make sure we're looking at it as holistically as possible, to make sure you're not missing anything," Bratter says. 

Setting out a new sustainability agenda is clearly a key aspect to WhiteWave asserting its own identity as a separate company, though it appears this independence may be hard to retain. A little over a year since being spun off, WhiteWave is already being tipped as an acquisition target for mainstream food companies, such as General Mills, eyeing the growth in the organic and natural foods sector.

The growth potential in specialist product areas may be what primarily attracts the giants in these instances, but the ethos of smaller companies operating in niche sectors can be an equally compelling factor, whether it is Unilever and Ben & Jerry's or Coca-Cola and Innocent smoothies. And the smaller company's approach to sustainability is in most instances intrinsic to that ethos.