Earlier this month, Dole Food Co. announced the creation of an office of corporate responsibility and sustainability “to build on its existing environmental initiatives at company-owned farms around the world”. Ben Cooper asked director of worldwide corporate social responsibility Sylvain Cuperlier why he feels Dole’s approach to corporate sustainability represents a good model and why the recent organisational changes have further strengthened the company in this area.

It is no surprise that the world’s largest fruit and vegetable supplier, Dole, is an American company, and that in this area as in so many others a US corporation leads the way. What comes as a genuine surprise, however, is that Dole’s corporate responsibility and sustainability function is not based at its California head office but in Paris.

Given that Dole is a truly international company operating in 90 some countries, perhaps it should not be all that surprising. Sylvain Cuperlier, vice president, director of worldwide corporate social responsibility at Dole, points out that his department is in “daily contact” with Dole’s head office, but says locating the CSR function at the company’s European HQ offered some inherent advantages.

“Having the department based in Europe allowed us to understand quicker the new stakeholders’ expectations and trends in the corporate responsibility and sustainability area, since historically Europe has had the reputation to be in the vanguard in these areas,” says Cuperlier, a native Frenchman who joined the company in 1998.

Cuperlier also stresses that the CSR team mirrors Dole’s international profile, with team members in Latin and North America, Europe and Asia representing all the major business units. This serves to “facilitate dialogue and interaction across geographical boundaries, and maintain on-the-ground relationships with internal and external stakeholders”, he says. “The department relies on a team of individuals around the world who hold responsibilities for the implementation of our corporate responsibility and sustainability programmes.”

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Earlier this month, Dole announced some organisational changes intended to reinforce that global approach and intensify its focus on sustainability. Changing the name of its corporate responsibility function to ‘corporate responsibility and sustainability’ may seem a small detail of nomenclature but it is similar to moves made by a number of other companies as environmental debates have taken centre stage.

As part of the move, Dole said additional focus would be given to three priority initiatives, carbon footprint reduction, soil conservation and water management, which it sees as the “three pillars” of sustainable agriculture.

Prioritising these areas seems sensible. With its reliance on sourcing produce from so many developing countries, Dole cannot help but find itself at the centre of global debates over issues such as sustainable agriculture and climate change.

There are more pragmatic reasons too. “By addressing the three pillars of sustainable agriculture, the company is reducing not only its impact on the environment but also some costs,” says Cuperlier, citing its precision agriculture and control released fertilizer programme which helped decrease fertilizer use by 45%, while lowering greenhouse gases emissions “in a substantial way”. Dole’s new Millennium packing plant has reduced water usage by a factor of 10 and energy use by 50%, in comparison with a traditional packing plant, he adds. 

Sustainability efforts can also help forge links with commercial partners. “Some retailers, who recognise our leading role in tackling those issues, expressed interest in partnering with us in some projects focusing on our three priorities. This interest for future partnerships also represents a good opportunity for us to strengthen our business relationship with some of our clients.”

As market leader, Cuperlier believes Dole also has a responsibility “to define the key priorities we believe the sector will have to increasingly focus on in years to come”, describing the creation of this new office as “an invitation to the industry and the stakeholders involved in the agricultural sector to join us in our endeavours to overcome these issues”.

The appointment of Roberto Vega as director of sustainability, reporting to Cuperlier, announced with the name change earlier this month, is significant as he has been given specific responsibility for driving initiatives addressing carbon footprint, water management and soil conservation.  

Vega joined Dole’s CSR team in 2008 having spent ten years working for the company in Latin America, holding several positions, including banana farm controller, manager of strategic business analysis and controller of the organic and exotic fruit programme. 

As corporate social responsibility has risen up the corporate agenda, those working in this area have felt passionately that it needs to represent more than an extension of the corporate affairs or communications function of a company, and recruitment into the CSR function of people with practical experience of challenges on the ground is seen as vital. Vega’s appointment appears to represent that approach in action at Dole.

Cuperlier says Vega has brought “his extensive knowledge of the responsibility and sustainability challenges that our production areas are facing, and has successfully contributed to ensure consistency between, on one hand, our stakeholders’ expectations in the countries of distribution, and on the other hand, the programmes implemented in production”. 

Dole has already measured and certified the carbon footprint of the bananas produced in Costa Rica and distributed in Germany. “We are now rolling out the process to some other origins and destinations,” says Cuperlier. “The next step is to quantify the overall environmental impact of our products and to continue decreasing it.”

Food processors sourcing from a wide range of agricultural sources have found quantifying environmental impact along the supply chain a complicated challenge. But as a vertically integrated company, Cuperlier feels Dole may have an advantage over companies with more complex supply chains.

“One of the challenges we faced when we started looking at our carbon footprint was to clearly define the scope of the measurement, select the most appropriate methodology and get access to data.  However, Dole is a vertically integrated company, involved from production to distribution.  Our structure provides us with a key advantage, compared to some of our competitors: we can rely on first-hand and real, versus secondary and estimated, data.”

Where arguably some work needs to be done is in communicating all this to a wider audience. The company published a Corporate Social Responsibility Report some years ago, and its prime vehicle for communicating sustainability initiatives since then has been the www.dolecsr.com website, though Cuperlier says this is going to be reviewed. “We are looking at developing new indicators to report more extensively on the three priorities we selected, through regular reports or our website. We will share our performance and seek collaborative feedback from governments, customers and other stakeholders, including investors.”

With regard to NGO engagement, he points to Dole’s long-term relationship with US-based multi-stakeholder organisation Social Accountability International, links with Fairtrade organisations and membership of the Water Footprint Network and the World Banana Forum, a multi-stakeholder initiative focusing on sustainable banana production launched last year.

“The area of sustainability generates many emotions because it is about people, about the environment and in the end, about our future,” says Cuperlier. “This is one of the reasons why there are many expectations attached to this area.”

There is more than a hint of personal as opposed to corporate responsibility here, as he continues: “One could become frustrated thinking that ‘whatever we do, it will probably never be enough’.  However, this is also the exciting aspect of working in the sustainability field:  the scope of our responsibilities becomes every day more extended and there are always new challenges to take up.  The sustainability field is in the end a continuously moving area, which requires companies, and the people who work in this area, to ‘think-out-of-box’.”