The Grocery Manufacturers Association, which represents US food companies, has just published a report highlighting achievements in environmental sustainability by its members. Ben Cooper spoke with GMA sustainability director Meghan Stasz about the initiatives and the potential for further progress.

The publication earlier this month of a report showcasing environmental achievements by members of the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA), which represents US food companies, underlines the “broad commitment” to environmental stewardship across the entire membership of the organisation, says GMA sustainability director Meghan Stasz.

The report, entitled Environmental Success Stories in the Consumer Packaged Goods Industry, was compiled by PricewaterhouseCoopers and highlights initiatives undertaken by GMA member companies in both the food and non-food sectors. It features case studies across three categories, namely emissions, water and waste management.

Stasz points out that these categories also reflect where the GMA is placing the priorities in its approach to sustainability. Two of the three working groups the organisation has convened around sustainability issues are concerned with packaging and food waste respectively, while the third looks at sustainability issues more broadly.

Stasz’ appointment as the GMA’s first sustainability director in September 2010 was in itself a catalyst for change in the GMA’s approach to environmental sustainability, which she says “has come a long way”.

Environmental sustainability is one of five areas of strategic focus for the organisation, along with product safety, health and wellness, global commerce and value chain optimisation, and the role of director of sustainability was created to centralise management on environmental issues.

“In the early stages of the programme it was spread out throughout the organisation with individuals with specific expertise working on sustainability as part of their jobs, and with me coming on as director of sustainability we’ve really pulled all that knowledge together and housed it in one place, which really helps demonstrate not only GMA’s commitment to environmental sustainability but also the whole sector’s commitment.”

Among the contributions from food and drink companies in the report, Stasz highlights the case studies on initiatives undertaken by Coca-Cola, PepsiCo and Unilever featured in the section on water as “great examples”, though as one might expect she is tactful about singling out individual projects for praise.

Indeed, selecting which projects to include in the report was in itself a problem. “We had so many to choose from,” Stasz says. “It was a great problem to have.”

Stasz also points out that noteworthy innovations are not just coming from the large companies. “There are some phenomenal examples of real innovation from companies of all sizes. Large companies with lots of resources are wonderfully innovative but that doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to be a big company with lots of resources in order to come up with some creative solutions to environmental challenges.”

She adds: “In the report we work hard to showcase the efforts of both big companies and small companies, [in] food, beverage and consumer products. We really wanted to show that broad commitment to environmental performance.”

As well as communicating how members are addressing environmental stewardship, the sustainability function within the GMA is focused on sharing best practice. How this can “help everyone move forward” is a theme Stasz returns to a number of times, and once again she acknowledges the contribution smaller companies are making.

Sharing best practice, she says, need not just be about smaller companies benefiting from the research and development resources of the larger firms. “I think the smaller and midsized companies are really benefiting from the sharing of information across the board, and actually I think that works both ways.”

For example, the GMA is also working to “identify how much voluntarily the industry has done around packaging redesign and packaging avoidance”, and will be releasing a set of best practice guides around sustainable packaging later this year.

Another priority for the sustainability function of GMA is building partnerships and collaborations, not only between members but externally.

Food waste is a case to point. The GMA has collaborated with the Food Marketing Institute (FMI), which represents food retailers, to execute a three-year project aimed at better understanding the sources of food waste, reducing the volume of food waste sent to landfill and increasing donations to food banks. 

As part of the initiative, a comprehensive survey of the sources and causes of food waste will be undertaken. The partners will seek to identify public policies that could expand the diversion of food from landfills to food banks and new technologies and industry practices which could support the project’s goals.  Stasz describes the project as “a significant cross-industry initiative to reduce food waste”.

Critically, in addition to working with the FMI on this project, the GMA is collaborating with NGO stakeholders in the anti-hunger community such as Feeding America.

Stasz sees fostering cooperation and building partnerships both within industry and with external stakeholders as a key part of her work. While someone working on environmental affairs for an industry trade body is almost bound to be involved in policy debates, and Stasz’ job is housed in the GMA’s federal affairs department, she plays down her involvement in government relations, stating that her role relates more to working with the member companies and facilitating collaboration both within the industry and externally.  

“It’s only through collaboration that we’re going to move the needle on environmental issues and so, whether it’s policy or science or education or sharing model practices across the industry, collaboration and coordination are really the most effective ways to do the right thing. Policy certainly comes into play, but my role at GMA is to really help the industry move forward on already very significant commitments to environmental stewardship.”

The fact that Stasz came from the NGO community arguably equips her well for the task of building those relationships, particularly with external stakeholders. And the fact that she previously worked on food and agriculture policy for the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), which takes a positive approach to partnership building with the corporate engagement, may also be helpful.