For January’s Sustainability Watch, Ben Cooper spoke with Tanya Barden of the Australian Food and Grocery Council (AFGC) about the organisation’s new “sustainability commitment”.
The role grocery trade organisations are playing in the drive to make the food business more sustainable has developed considerably over the past few years, and the latest national association to step up its sustainability effort is the Australian Food and Grocery Council (AFGC) which unveiled its “sustainability commitment” late last year.
The commitment is more than simply a set of undertakings across key sustainability areas. It sets measurable targets against specific 2010-2011 baselines across criteria such as water and energy efficiency and waste, while also including commitments in other areas such as ethical sourcing. However, Tanya Barden, policy director, sustainability, trade and innovation at the AFGC, emphasises it is also aimed at enhancing external partnerships and collaboration and facilitating the spread of best practice within the sector.
Barden points out the organisation has been active in the sustainability field for more than ten years, but the commitment takes these efforts to a new level.
Two key aspects to the AFGC’s enhanced sustainability platform, Barden tells just-food, are that it goes beyond just environmental criteria, also taking in social and ethical elements, and also extends beyond the immediate scope of the member companies’ operations to look at the entire supply chain.
“There is a need to respond to new and complex challenges by going further than just dealing with environmental issues, by broadening our sustainability work to encapsulate social and ethical issues, and looking further than just our membership base to work across the whole supply chain,” Barden says. For example, this means working collaboratively with packaging suppliers, retailers and foodservice companies on issues that cut across the different sectors.
Barden says the AFGC looked at the sustainability missions of peer organisations in other countries when preparing the commitment but believes the approach it has taken is “somewhat unique”.
She also believes the approach embodied in the commitment has put the AFGC “at the forefront” among representative industry organisations in Australia in terms of providing a “comprehensive” strategic framework aimed at making collective progress on sustainability.
Perhaps that is only right given Australia’s food and grocery manufacturing sector, represented by the AFGC, is the country’s largest manufacturing industry, with a turnover in the 2010-11 financial year of A$110bn (US$114.3bn), accounting for 28% of its manufacturing industry.
A key strength of the commitment lies in the fact that it sets down some baseline figures on key sustainability criteria, derived from a survey of AFGC members, and sets targets for improvement. The intention, Barden explains, is to report progress annually against those key targets.
Barden says the intention was that the commitment should not be seen as “aspirational” or at worst “greenwashing”. The organisation wanted to be “ambitious and stretch ourselves” with a comprehensive framework of targets against specific baselines, while also presenting case studies of sustainability initiatives in action.
For example, the AFGC has committed to reducing water consumption by 20% by 2020 against the 2010-11 baseline of 3.13 kilolitres per tonne of production. The AFGC has also committed to making progress towards greater measurement and tracking of water by its members.
It is also targeting a 20% reduction in carbon emissions per tonne of production by 2020 from the 2010-11 baseline and aims to reduce energy usage per tonne of production by 10% in the same timeframe. According to the AFGC’s survey data, the industry consumed 2.94 gigajoules (GJ) of energy per tonne of production, in the form of electricity, natural gas, transport fuel and coal, and the aim is to reduce this to 2.65 GJ by 2020.
With regard to ethical sourcing, under the Sustainability Commitment the AFGC has set a target that all its members will have a sustainable sourcing (or equivalent) policy in place by 2015.
The AFGC is also aiming to reduce waste to landfill per tonne of production by 40% by 2020, against the 2010-11 baseline. Waste is precisely the kind of issue where the greater collaboration envisaged in the commitment is critical, Barden states.
The AFGC has been a supporter of the New South Wales government’s Love Food Hate Waste programme since 2010, but Barden believes there is much more potential for collaboration on the waste issue.
“I think what we’re becoming more aware of is that there is a real need to work collaboratively across the supply chain on this issue,” she says. “For manufacturers themselves they’ve got a real incentive to minimise food waste because it’s just lost profit, but there is a lot they can do in terms of working with packaging suppliers or retailers to try and undertake some of those broader issues across the supply chain and to be able to work more collaboratively.”
Barden continues: “It is not just a problem of too much food being manufactured. It is a general problem across the supply chain, so solutions really need to be found by partnership and collaborative efforts across the supply chain.”
The AFGC also aims to partner where possible with government and government agencies, and Barden believes the commitment has enhanced the industry’s credibility with policymakers, and bolsters the critical government relations function the organisation undertakes on behalf of Australia’s grocery manufacturers.
She says the commitment has attracted a lot of interest from government quarters because it shows that the industry is being “proactive” and “constructive”, with a “fact-based response” which aims to deliver concrete measurable progress.
In addition to the quantitative targets on waste reduction, energy and water, the commitment includes targets to improve tracking and reporting of key sustainability metrics within member companies. The AFGC is aiming for 50% of its members to have their own water reduction targets in place by 2015. It also aims for 50% of members to have their own energy and emissions reduction targets by the same date.
As Barden points out, many of the larger member companies already have extensive sustainability strategies of their own including quantitative targets. Indeed, Barden says researching what member companies were doing in this area played a part in developing the commitment.
While noting that there has already been a relatively strong showing from SMEs in terms of reporting, manifested in the number of companies participating in the initial survey, she believes the AFGC’s enhanced sustainability platform will help SMEs to make progress on sustainability.
Most crucially, it will allow SMEs, which account for around half of the industry’s turnover, to benefit from the expertise and resources the larger concerns can bring to bear in this area. “One of the things we really recognise is that real leadership role that the large multinational companies and the large Australian companies play,” Barden concludes. “It is in everyone’s interests that we all move down that same path.”