Industry environmental strategies can be accused of greenwash, of lacking transparency and of having more to do with enhancing a lobbying position than genuine engagement. As the Food and Drink Federation (FDF) publishes its third sustainability report, Ben Cooper spoke with Andrew Kuyk, the FDF’s director of sustainability, about the organisation’s Five-fold Environmental Ambition sustainability strategy and the value of such industry platforms.

In the discussion of the true value of industry-wide sustainability strategies, Andrew Kuyk, director of sustainability at the UK’s Food and Drink Federation (FDF), makes a compelling case for the defence. As well he might, given that he has responsibility for the FDF’s Five-fold Environmental Ambition strategy launched three years ago.

There are a number of criticisms levelled at industry initiatives. They are sometimes viewed as greenwash and are criticised for a lack of transparency which allows industry-aggregated performance to provide cover for laggard companies. Campaigners are also suspicious of the links between such strategies and industry lobbying.

This is arguably a good juncture to examine the FDF’s own strategy in this context. The food industry’s representative body has just published its third sustainability report at what it describes as a “key developmental stage” in the strategy. In response to progress already achieved and stakeholder consultation, it has upgraded or developed its original aims and targets, setting the strategy in a “new context” which takes account of the changing sustainability landscape over the past couple of years. 

Specifically, it has increased its 2020 carbon emissions target, accelerated progress to its 2015 zero landfill waste target contributing for the first time to a supply chain waste prevention target, and taken WRAP’s Courtauld 2 Commitment as the basis of a new packaging target with a new aim to engage with consumers.

The FDF says it will build on the success of the Federation House Commitment on water efficiency to develop guidance on water use and management in the supply chain, and continue to embed environmental standards through its ‘fewer and friendlier’ transport commitment, contributing for the first time to the IGD’s Sustainable Distribution initiative.

Kuyk singles out the progress on carbon emissions as the “biggest single achievement” to date. Aiming for a 20% reduction by 2010, the FDF achieved a 21% reduction and has accordingly increased its 2020 target from 30% to 35%, against the same 1990 baseline. This puts the FDF’s target slightly ahead of the government’s own aim of a 34% reduction set under the 2008 Climate Change Act.

It is in the interface with government that industry platforms clearly hold considerable value. But Kuyk believes a developed sustainability strategy offers more than simply showing the industry in a good light and assisting with the lobbying process.

“It gives us a real credibility and it also demonstrates that we can effectively organise an industry response and certainly under this coalition government if we’re looking at responsibility deals, big society approaches and so on, I think that’s quite a telling argument,” Kuyk says. 

As government looks to enact policy to tackle climate change, the “balance between carrot and stick”, as Kuyk puts it, is critical. Being able to demonstrate commitment and achievement gives the industry a credible collective voice in discussions around incentives to invest “where we want to have a grown-up discussion about what makes sense for us as an industry”.

This is also important when discussing how climate change policies affect the broader competitiveness of the UK food industry, for example when they lead to higher energy prices. “A trade association, particularly one that has credibility and a track-record of actually delivering real improvements in this area, does then have a platform and a basis for having a discussion with government about the things which particularly affect that sector.”

Kuyk believes that its sustainability work allows the industry to be viewed as a partner with government, for example contributing to framing policy on food security.

The issue of food security is another development in the sustainability area that has largely come to the fore since the FDF first launched its strategy, and Kuyk believes the industry’s work with the government on this issue, for example on Defra’s Food 2030 strategy, further underpins the idea of partnership.

James Paice, Minister of State for Agriculture and Food, provides the Foreword for the FDF’s latest report in which he applauds the industry’s achievements and adds: “I am very happy to take up your invitation to work with the industry, and others, to help turn the aspiration in your vision into a concrete programme of actions.”

It is not just liaison with government that is bolstered by an industry programme. Indeed, the New Context for the FDF’s Five-fold Ambition has in part been borne out of dialogue with a range of external stakeholders. 

Kuyk describes the New Context as a “broader positioning” which addresses “the whole question of sustainable food production across the entire value chain”, citing the FDF’s commitment on water use as an example.

The Federation House Commitment (FHC), launched in 2008, is a responsibility deal to improve water efficiency in the food and drink sector. Published in September 2010, the second annual FHC report showed that the 42 signatory companies had reduced water use by 5.6% since 2007 despite a 4.2% increase in production over the same period. In 2011, the FDF plans to develop guiding principles on water use and management in the supply chain, taking into account parallel work by IGD.

Kuyk cites industry bodies such as the National Farmers Union (NFU) and the British Retail Consortium (BRC) as key partners as it seeks to extend the FDF’s sustainability work into the entire value chain. “We recognise that we can’t do this on our own, it’s got to be a shared journey. We’ve got to involve other players both in industry, in government and indeed NGOs as well.”

The FDF held a workshop in July to which were invited representatives from government, from organisations such as WRAP and the Carbon Trust and from NGOs, the objective being “to see where they thought we should be going”. 

While the FDF’s sustainability strategy is now undeniably more externally facing than it was at its inception, Kuyk stresses that the work within the industry will continue as before. 

Making sustainability a pre-competitive issue for member companies is critical to any industry initiative which seeks to spread best practice, and based on his experience of sitting in on working groups and workshops Kuyk believes FDF members have bought into that ethos. “There is a genuine sense that as an industry we have a responsibility, and people who have found good technologies that work in the food sector are happy by and large to share that information.”

So the strategy is certainly about more than bolstering the industry’s standing with government. However, in this regard campaigners may view the FDF’s appointment of Kuyk, a former career civil servant who worked primarily in Defra and its predecessor MAFF, as sage to say the least.

However, while Kuyk agrees that his knowledge of how government works is beneficial to the FDF’s sustainability project he sees this more in terms of assisting communication than offering the industry strategic advantage. “It cuts both ways. I think it is a benefit but I genuinely think it facilitates discussion in both directions.”