Premier Foods plc, the UK's largest food group, has become the latest manufacturer to commit to sourcing palm oil more sustainably and sent a signal that CSR issues remain important to the company despite the challenge of doing business in a recession. In this month's Sustainability Watch interview, Ben Cooper spoke to Premier's CSR manager Ian Bowles about the Hovis maker's move on palm oil - and the company's moves on to cut waste, energy and water use.

"A step in the right direction" is how Premier Foods corporate social responsibility manager Ian Bowles described the company's entry into the GreenPalm palm oil sourcing programme last week.

And, in many ways, that sentiment, and Premier's announcement on palm oil itself, typifies Bowles' work in moving the UK's largest food producer's sustainability agenda forward.
 
The primary champion of a major company's corporate responsibility platform has to be a negotiator who can build relationships between different divisions within a company, as well as with important external stakeholders and suppliers. And while ensuring and retaining top-level executive support is vital in meeting or exceeding ambitious sustainability goals, this will often depend just as much on winning the hearts of employees at large.
 
The palm oil announcement speaks not only to the importance of discussions with external bodies but also to the value of having high-level executive support. The GreenPalm initiative will cost the company GBP500,000, Bowles states.
 
Premier had set a target of sourcing 100% certified sustainable palm oil by the end of 2011, but "didn't feel that that was really moving fast enough", Bowles says. The company's CSR steering committee, which is chaired by CEO Robert Schofield, discussed the idea of joining GreenPalm last year as "a stepping-stone" to achieving that aim.
 
While Bowles admits that being mentioned in a WWF report last month as one of 14 companies that does not source any sustainable palm oil helped to "focus the mind", Bowles points out that this had been a standing agenda item for the past 12 months. "Obviously we've got to take feedback from important external stakeholders," Bowles says. "We talked with WWF and asked if this is the right thing to do and got a positive response back." WWF endorsed Premier's announcement last week.
 
Bowles points out that the problem for Premier is that it uses blended palm oil in bread production and as yet there is no supply of the product it requires from certified sustainable sources. However, he says that the company's latest move "sends out a signal to plantation owners processors that there is a demand", which "should encourage people to move a bit faster". He continues: "It's sending a message out to our suppliers that this is the direction we're going in. If you want to supply us in the future, you'll have to come on that journey with us."
 
Bowles believes that the senior executive support being given to the company's sustainability platform is vital. Not only does Schofield chair the CSR steering committee but a number of other executives chair sustainability working groups.
 
The transport working group is chaired by Tim Kelly, CEO of Hovis, the packaging working group by Will Carter, managing director of Premier's ambient business, and the energy working group by Bob Spooner, director of operational excellence. "So we've got very senior managers on the exec team sponsoring these working groups and chairing those groups which is important because it gives a focus to the KPIs that we set for the business," Bowles explains. 
 
These relate to areas such as energy reduction, carbon, waste management, water and transport. Grappling with complex problems on environmental issues or in supply chains requires that level of commitment. Middle management, he says, are less likely to take a strategic view. "If you don't have any kind of 'top-down' sponsorship, you're really on to a beating," Bowles notes.
 
Senior executive engagement is key to Premier meeting some publicly stated sustainability targets such as its commitment to send zero waste to landfill by 2015. The company sent some 30,000 tonnes of waste to landfill in 2008, representing a 21% drop from 2007. Bowles says Premier had set a target of a 20% reduction this year, but has in fact reduced waste to landfill by 31%. It has set a target of a 20% reduction for 2010. Another key goal was a 10% energy reduction in 2009, which Bowles says has been achieved.
 
The company has also committed to reducing its water usage by 20% by 2020 from a 2007 baseline. However, Bowles candidly concedes that the company will not meet its water usage reduction target for 2009 of 5%. The reduction is expected to be around 3%. "Water has proved quite a challenge this year," Bowles says, pointing to the difficulty in changing well-established practices "at site level".
 
This is an area where winning over hearts and minds of ordinary employees is so vital. "Everyone needs to understand the direction," Bowles says, adding that CSR issues are now given two full pages in the employee newsletter sent out every quarter. The approach has to be both "top-down" and "bottom-up", Bowles states.
 
The same can be said for influencing thinking in the supply chain. The palm oil initiative is one recent example. Another achievement Bowles is proud of is Premier's recent announcement that, from early next year, the Hovis range will be made using only flour milled from British wheat. Once again, the move was welcomed by external stakeholders with NFU president Peter Kendall hailing it as "fantastic news", showing "real commitment to UK farming".
 
Premier currently does not market any Fairtrade products but is expected to announce the launch of what Bowles describes as "a new business model" with suppliers in Africa, which has also been devised in consultation with external stakeholders.
 
Whether it is liaising with NGOs in Africa or engaging with employees in one of Premier's 70 production sites, Bowles describes his as an "influencing role". He also manages the company's charitable giving activities.

"It's a very wide remit, and there are many, many issues that you need to address on a daily basis," Bowles says. "It's a very challenging role. Then again it's a great job because you think you're doing some good."