Dearden believes UK dairy companies needs to work together on sustainability

Dearden believes UK dairy companies needs to work together on sustainability

Arla Foods' UK arm published its first environmental report this month, setting out the company's achievements in reducing its impact on the environmen and targets for the future. Ben Cooper spoke with the dairy firm's environment, health and safety manager Robin Dearden.

just-food: What would you highlight as the most important achievements and most critical targets set out in the company's environmental report?

Dearden: I think it's got to be what we've achieved on carbon reduction. I think the most important achievement and critical target probably go hand in hand. That's the thing we've got to focus on and concentrate on.

just-food: Is that because carbon is a key marker that people are looking at?

Dearden: Yes. That's the thing that's got the focus at the moment. These things change over time. I think water is waiting in the wings, but at the moment carbon is the obvious one, from the Government's agenda, to the retailers' agenda, down to what the man in the street can see and gets reported on.

just-food: You also reported a 79.7% reduction in waste to landfill from 2005 to 2010. How significant is this area in your environmental strategy?

Dearden: We are very proud of what we've done on waste to landfill as well, because that's a very tangible one. Unlike carbon. that's something you can reach out and touch if you will. You can see the impact. So we are pleased with where we are to date on that. 

Since the report was published we've got a couple of sites through to zero waste to landfill, and we're well on track to hit our target for that. Hopefully in next year's report we'll be able to report that we've hit that, and that will be something we will be really very proud of. 

just-food: Is it particularly important for a dairy company to have a strategy like this in place, given the sector's exposure to environmental issues?

Dearden: Yes, it is, because dairy has got a big footprint when you look at the whole supply chain, in terms of carbon, in terms of water. Overall, it has a very large impact on the environment, and it's an easy one to pick on.

And for someone the size of Arla, the focus we've got, the exposure we've got to the major retailers, it's essential. If you look at our two other big competitors in the UK, they would probably say exactly the same thing.

just-food: And working with competitors on these issues is also critical?

Dearden: If you come back to how we work with Dairy UK and where the Milk Roadmap came from, yes we were heavily involved in that, yes Richard Laxton [sustainability manager at Arla] chairs the Sustainability Committee at Dairy UK who were key in drawing that together. But sitting round that table are Dairy Crest, Robert Wiseman Dairies, Müller, Milk Link, First Milk. All these are our competitors but I think we all realise that we've got to work together on things like sustainability. We've got to be seen to be moving forward together as an industry.

just-food: Are you finding the retailers' keenness to quantify impacts along their supply chains also necessitates this kind of work?

Dearden: Yes, we've got to be on the front foot with them. Pulling this strategy together has helped us with that. We're proactively talking with them, we're engaging with them and that's essential. 

just-food: You have said you plan to launch a full sustainability strategy next year. Does the environment strategy effectively form the first pillar of an overall sustainability strategy?

Dearden: Yes, it is the first element in the sustainability strategy. Perhaps when we were building the environmental strategy we didn't know it was going to turn into a sustainability strategy but it's become a natural progression and yes it's there, it's the first element. It will be one of the key building blocks within that. 

I think it is important to have this in place because that's where you have the good empirical measures. It's perhaps a little easier to show what you're achieving and what you're planning to achieve with the environment because you can put some numbers on it. You can say so many tonnes of CO2, and so much water that we've saved and fuel and energy, and waste diverted from landfill. It's a lot more tangible than perhaps some of the other things that we ultimately want to do. 

just-food: How does Arla's 'Closer to Nature' platform fit with these aims? To what degree is 'Closer to Nature' a consumer-facing, internal or trade communication initiative?

Dearden: It's something that we are maturing. It probably came about from the first part of that, the consumer-facing initiative. What we're realising now is – and this is where it links nicely back into sustainability – that it is a great brand for sustainability for us, both internally and externally.

We could just have this as a branding initiative but we actually want it to be holistic, bring it back into the business, to change the way we’re working. 

just-food: So this is about employee engagement too, both to implant the sustainability idea in the company and gain insight into how to go further? 

Dearden: Exactly.

just-food: Can you expand on the 'Closer to Nature' employee workshops you have just begun? 

Dearden: The guys on the shop floor are probably the ones with the ideas. The [Closer to Nature days] are just helping tease that out, and the plan is that we can take a lot of that and put it into what we've already established. It's a fun way to gather ideas rather than just bolting a suggestions box to a wall. It started with senior people just a couple of weeks ago and will be rolled out to all employees by the end of the year.

just-food: Is the sustainability strategy likely also to have the Closer to Nature tagline?

Dearden: Yes, definitely. 

just-food: So in a sense it's a sustainability platform already?

Dearden: It is, yes. Its general concepts are just that. How we then embed that, and then work with this idea, this brand, will then define what we do with sustainability going into the future, the next ten years and beyond.