Progress on the sustainability agenda presents an opportunity to boost both the top and bottom line, delegates at a Sustainability Summit hosted by the GMA and FMI heard yesterday (4 October).

According to Dr Sally Uren, deputy CEO of sustainability think-tank Forum for the Future, consumer goods companies should “use their marketing power to create consumer pull for sustainability”.

In a presentation looking at consumer attitudes to sustainability to 2020, Uren said Forum the Future’s research suggested the sustainability agenda “will mainstream whether consumers demand it or not, so there’s actually a real business opportunity to get there first and create that market demand”.

The business case for a more sustainable approach was a theme echoed by Bob Willard, a speaker and author of resources on sustainability.

Willard suggested that sustainability could be viewed as “asset management”. Willard argued that in addition to financial capital a business has to think about “natural capital” – such as raw materials or energy – and “human or social capital” – principally the relationship it has with its important stakeholders.

Willard, who has developed a system to quantify the business benefit of sustainable innovation, pointed out that the human or social capital element is “very, very challenging” with regard to measurement but turns out to be “the most important part of all from a business perspective”. He added: “If you screw up on that you’re out of business.”

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Building on this theme, Brian Kelley, chief product supply officer at Coca-Cola Refreshments, emphasised that a more sustainable approach can lead directly to higher profits.

“Despite being passionate about sustainability I’m probably more passionate about profit,” Kelley said. “And we wouldn’t do it if it didn’t deliver both.”

As well as benefiting margins, Kelley said that sustainability offered companies an opportunity to connect with consumers, with obvious implications for revenues.

Coca-Cola believes that prioritising sustainability is a “fundamental way to connect with consumers around the world” thanks to shifting consumer attitudes to sustainability, notably among younger consumers, Kelley revealed.

He went on to outline a host of environmental innovations undertaken by Coca-Cola in recent years, including the introduction of its PlantBottle, a fully recyclable PET bottle made with up to 30% plant- based material.

However, Kelley said Coca-Cola wanted to take the use of bioplastics much further. “We won’t be satisfied until you can drink it and then eat it,” he said.