Companies must work together rather than against each other on ways to alleviate their impact on the environment, US food giant Kraft Foods has said.

Tim Cofer, president of Kraft’s European operations, said it was in the interests of companies and governments to collaborate when working on sustainability projects.

“Sustainability, increasingly, cannot be thought of as a competitive advantage,” he told a UK government summit on the food, drink and retail sectors. Cofer, however, accepted there is “additional goodwill for those leading the way”.

Companies like Unilever have been at the forefront of building sustainability targets into their business strategy. However, Unilever has been critical of some in the investment community that it believes have failed to grasp the benefit of its work to its long-term financial health.

Speaking at the British Business Embassy’s food, drink and retail summit, Kraft’s Cofer said investors looking for short-term returns will be disappointed.

“I can’t tell you that our sustainability investment in year one brought glorious financial returns,” he said. “[But] we all need to be confident that the return on investment will be there in the long term.”

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An example of how sustainability projects can have a benefit on the finances of a company was outlined by Richard Gillies, director of corporate and social responsbility at Marks and Spencer.

“Last year, we had a net benefit of GBP100m (US$157m) from our sustainability initiatives,” he told the audience, citing lower energy bills as a major source of savings.

However, the industry was warned consumers will not accept paying higher prices for products even if they expect companies to build a more sustainable supply chain.

John Brock, CEO of Coca-Cola bottler Coca-Cola Enterprises, face a challenge to build sustainability into current margins.

“Even if consumers are interested, they’re not really interested in sustainability at a higher price,” Brock said.