United Biscuits recently announced it was ahead of schedule on a number of key sustainability goals. Ben Cooper spoke with chief operating officer Jeff van der Eems about the company’s sustainability strategy and the reasons behind its progress.

It is said that the critical factor in driving progress on sustainability issues is executive will. The leaders in this area are companies in which senior board directors have engaged in and often led the sustainability strategy.

United Biscuits is a case in point. The UK snacks and biscuits producer does not have a dedicated sustainability director but this is only because the strategy is led by chief operating officer Jeff van der Eems. 

Speaking to van der Eems, it is clear that he is more than a notional figurehead for the company’s sustainability platform. He chairs the sustainability committee that reports to the board, but having the COO permanently involved on sustainability issues ensures an ongoing and direct engagement at board level.

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However, while directorial support is clearly critical, van der Eems believes a good sustainability strategy should not be too “top heavy”.

UB divides its strategy into six areas: reducing carbon emissions and energy use; reducing waste to landfill; reducing water use; reducing packaging waste; increasing use of environmentally friendly transport; and increasing sustainable sourcing. “We have a sustainability committee which I chair and I am an executive director of the company as well, but the most important thing we do is we have specific champions for each of the areas.”

For example, the company’s head of engineering is the champion for carbon emissions reduction and the head of packaging is the champion for packaging reduction because, as van der Eems puts it, “they’re the ones who can make it happen and actually know how to get these things done properly”. 

Van der Eems believes UB has found the right balance and can point to some impressive achievements on sustainability goals to back this up. The company launched its ‘Achieving Sustainability’ environmental programme at the beginning of 2008, published its first update at the end of that year and has recently published a second update on progress to the end of 2009.

Among its achievements, UB reported a 5% reduction in factory carbon emissions in 2009, and a 28% reduction since 1995, against the goal of a 35% reduction by 2020. It reached its target of zero food waste to landfill one year ahead of schedule. It also reported a 44% drop in non-food waste to landfill in 2009, and has brought forward its goal of zero non-food waste to landfill from 2015 to 2012. Packaging has been reduced by 13% since 2003, against a target of 20% by 2015. 

Van der Eems attributes the success to an “awareness as a business that environmental sustainability matters, not only for the planet but to the success of the business” and to the application of a rigorous target-driven approach.

“We have an expression here that what gets measured gets done,” van der Eems continues. “We know what motivates people, and what rallies them behind true initiatives is when you give them specific time-bound targets. So we took the six areas that the FDF [Food and Drink Federation] had identified and we put specific time-bound targets against all of them.”

On a practical level, van der Eems says the company’s approach is a combination of many small actions with some major initiatives. For instance he cites the investment in recycling water technology at its Teesside factory where its McCoy’s crisps are produced. Crisp production is the most water-intensive of UB’s operations. This has helped the company reach its target on water usage well ahead of schedule. Aiming for a 25% reduction by 2020, it reported that water use has already fallen by some 28% since 2007. The company has set a new target of a 45% reduction by 2020.

“Another target we’re ahead of our expected progress on is waste to landfill and waste to landfill’s quite different,” van der Eems explains. “There was no base technology investment; that was a whole series of actions at every single site. It was things like colour-coded bins, separating waste, driving awareness by poster campaigns; we took waste-bins away from under people’s desks and forced them to put things in the right recycling bins.”

UB has also recognised the importance of spreading good environmental practice back down its supply chain and has launched supplier forums to “brainstorm” sustainability solutions. “The best way to eliminate waste is to eliminate it upstream,” says van der Eems. “So rather than have waste brought into your factories, we work with suppliers to eliminate it from the source.”

He adds: “We’ve tried to work with suppliers right across the piece because you’re only going to be able to tackle part of the problem if you don’t go further up the supply chain.”

Another key supply chain initiative has been the company’s work on palm oil. UB is in the vanguard of the move towards Certified Sustainable Palm Oil (CSPO). It was one of the first food manufacturers in Europe to source sustainable palm oil that is segregated throughout the supply chain. In products where palm oil is used as an ingredient, UB will be using exclusively CSPO from mid 2010.

Van der Eems attributes the fact that it is “well ahead” of most companies on CSPO to hard work. “We worked very hard to find the source, and we worked hard to make sure it would work and we were able to secure it.” 

While it will still be using some derivative palm oil products which cannot yet be obtained on a segregated basis, van der Eems expects all these materials to be certified sustainable by the end of 2011.

The understanding with its supplier is critical. There had been some criticism from campaigners that while available volumes of CSPO had increased take-up had been disappointing as some companies were not prepared to pay the premium for sustainable product.

Van der Eems says the guarantee of volume purchasing and a multi-year commitment made for a mutually acceptable deal. “The supplier wanted some anchor customers that had scale purchases and we fit that quite nicely. I think we’ve created a good model. I would expect other suppliers and principals to follow it quite quickly.”

Partnering with suppliers has also contributed to UB’s achievements in reducing transport emissions. Load sharing with suppliers, retail customers and even competitors has helped the company take over 9m lorry miles off the road since 2005. Converting waste from frying processes to biodiesel has reduced transport emissions by 1,400 tonnes, the equivalent of 1m lorry miles.

On transport carbon emissions, it was targeting a 22% reduction by 2012 against a 2005 baseline. Having already achieved a 29% drop since 2005, it has set a new target of a 40% reduction by 2012.

Van der Eems points out that UB has raised targets or accelerated target dates in three of the six areas, adding that resetting targets in this way where it is “ahead of the game” was an important part of the strategy. Indeed, if the company’s only problem is over-achieving and reaching its objectives too quickly, one might conclude that the target-driven approach is working rather well.