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How to prepare for a sustainable future along the value chain

January 23, 2022

Our lives have changed radically as a result of the pandemic. But as dramatic as the impact of COVID-19 has been, it has by no means eclipsed another topical issue: the need to shape a more sustainable economy. In fact, this task has attracted heightened public attention following extreme weather events such as the devastating flooding all over Europe last summer. Last fall, decision makers from around the world met in Glasgow, Scotland, for the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference to discuss the challenges ahead. Although the debate primarily focused on major emitters, such as the energy, steel, and construction industries, the consumer-goods sector is equally called upon to take action.

But what exactly do we mean by “sustainability”? In its broadest sense, the term covers three areas: environmental, social, and governance—or ESG for short. Specifically, ESG encompasses the degree of responsibility that companies assume—irrespective of what they are legally required to do—for sustainable development in the three areas mentioned.

80%: Share of consumer emissions that reside in supply chains. To meet the pathway to net zero, CPG companies need to work with their suppliers to secure green raw materials and supply

For many, sustainability is primarily about our use of natural resources and the climate impact of our actions. This is also highly relevant for consumer-goods manufacturers. As a rule, it is not enough to look only at one’s own value creation. After all, a typical consumer-goods company’s supply chain generates far greater environmental costs than in-house operations: for instance, it is responsible for more than 80 percent of greenhouse-gas emissions and more than 90 percent of the impact on air, land, water, biodiversity, and geological resources.

The consumer-goods industry is facing a huge environmental challenge: if it intends to meet the current EU climate targets, it will have to more than halve its greenhouse-gas emissions by 2030. Given that prosperity and consumption will continue to grow in the coming years, a fundamental change in thinking is required; new business models—especially those relating to the circular economy—will have to gain an increasingly firm footing.

Growing pressure and rising opportunities

Even beyond the climate targets that have been set, regulatory requirements for the economy are becoming more stringent—for example, through levies such as the “plastics tax.” The European Union’s Green Deal provides for all packaging in the EU area to be reused or recycled by 2030. The Circular Economy Action Plan also provides for products to have long life cycles and be repairable (“right to repair”).

But it’s not just from the regulatory side that pressure is growing. Other stakeholders are also demanding more sustainability from companies or setting their own new standards for sustainable business practices.

Consumers. Today’s consumers are another pressure point since they no longer see sustainable products as simply an alternative.

They are partly basing their purchasing decisions on the sustainability of products and companies. Granted, what some refer to as an “attitude–behavior gap” remains. In other words, consumers don’t always make purchasing decisions that are consistent with their sustainability preferences as expressed in surveys. That said, two-thirds of consumers now say they are changing their consumption habits in favor of a lower environmental impact1 —and are staying true to their word: brands, such as oat-drink maker Oatly, that promote the ecological benefits of their products are recording above-average growth rates.

Employees. Sustainability is already a top criterion in choosing an employer for two-thirds of those under the age of 34. Across all age groups, three out of four employees would like their company to place a greater emphasis on environmental and social issues.

Investors. The financial sector is, to some extent, already ahead of the real economy when it comes to sustainability. A survey of decision makers from more than 40 investment firms (including BlackRock, Vanguard, and State Street) shows that an ESG-oriented mindset is already an integral element of investment decisions.3
Increasing demands for sustainability stem partly from investors’ risk management and partly from the increasing incidence of loans linked to sustainability criteria. Furthermore, sustainability-oriented funds are more resilient, as studies show: on average, 77 percent of ESG funds established ten years ago continue to exist today. Compare that to only 46 percent of traditional funds that have survived over the same period.

New market entrants. “Green” start-ups are increasingly gaining market share in consumer-goods segments—be it in the footwear market, where the Californian–New Zealand start-up Allbirds has made a successful entry, or in the food segment, where products made from plant proteins (among others) are increasingly gaining popularity. According to the Green Startup Monitor 2021, three-quarters of all newly founded companies in Germany view their environmental and social impact as relevant to their strategy. In the consumer-goods sector, for example, 57 percent of all newly founded companies are now green start-ups.5 Take, for instance, the marketplace Cirplus, which has set itself the goal of simplifying the currently complex and confusing global trade in recyclates and plastic waste.

In view of the growing pressure from all sides, for established consumer-goods companies, it is no longer a question of whether or not they need to operate sustainably—and most are also clear about what they need to do; however, there is still great uncertainty when it comes to how. What is needed is a sustainability strategy and, above all, a road map to implement the strategy in the context of a transformation.

Moving toward action
Where do companies currently stand in their efforts to make their operations more sustainable? Rating agencies such as S&P try to answer this question systematically by referencing an array of sustainability criteria. As the ESG score of leading consumer-goods suppliers shows, the industry performs well on average (Exhibit 1). In the social dimension in particular, the consumer-goods sector almost universally earns high scores (As and Bs). This means good to excellent ESG performance and an above-average level of transparency in the disclosure of ESG data. The analysis shows that 30 percent achieve a score of A or A+ in at least seven out of ten ESG dimensions, and 52 percent achieve the same in at least five out of ten. There are also champions in individual disciplines: the consumer-goods companies listed below demonstrate strengths in certain sustainability dimensions—typically in areas that are particularly important for their business. READ MORE

By Jordan Bar Am, Nina Engels, Sebastian Gatzer, Jacqueline Lang, and Frank Säng


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