Sector News

Roundtable question: The evolution of the chief sustainability officer

July 16, 2023

Sustainability is no longer a badge of honour worn to flaunt one’s credentials; it is a prerequisite, a necessity for safeguarding the earth’s natural resources, maintaining ecological balance, and ensuring economic health and vitality. As such, food and beverage companies are taking their role as sustainability guardians very seriously. Cue: the introduction of the ‘chief sustainability officer’ (CSO) – a strategic position that goes beyond traditional corporate social responsibility, focusing on long-term sustainability initiatives that align with ESG goals. In this roundtable, FoodBev’s Rafaela Sousa asked some of the industry’s most reputable players the following questions:

How has the CSO role evolved over the past two decades? How important is this role to the food and beverage sector, and what new areas should manufacturers be focusing on here?

Archana Jagannathan, CSO at PepsiCo Europe

Over the past two decades, the job of CSO has come into the foreground as we become increasingly aware of the role companies need to play in finding and implementing solutions that are more sustainable for the planet and its people.

Sustainability, and with it, the role of the CSO, is no longer a “nice to have” for companies. It’s now integral for future business success. Sustainability is a powerful value creator that will create new revenue streams and better product portfolios that help consumers to make better choices. At PepsiCo, this is reflected in PepsiCo Positive, our strategic end-to-end transformation that puts sustainability at the heart of everything we do. It’s my job as CSO to make sure that this plan is put into action, and that we remain on track to meet – or even exceed – our goals across our end-to-end value chain – right from the farm to the fork.

For our suppliers and manufacturers, the answer is collaboration. We need to foster a culture and the right framework for cross-industry alliances – only in doing so will we be able to transform into a circular economy at the rate we need to.

Janelle Meyers, CSO at Kellogg Company

The role of the CSO has evolved from a compliance/do less harm focus to growth-enabling and step-change in impact and ambition. This evolution was spurred by many forces and trends, including consumers and customers, as well as the need for companies to deliver on their vision and purpose in an ever more sustainable and responsible way.

My role as Kellogg’s CSO is to lead the development and implementation of our global sustainability strategies. I work closely with other internal functions and external partners to help drive the company’s Better Days Promise global purpose platform and to fulfil our company’s environmental and social sustainability commitments.

In the food sector, the role of CSO is to ensure that companies are meeting the growing need for sustainable and responsible practices. This includes engaging teams across the enterprise to enable everything from reducing greenhouse gas emissions to promoting sustainable agriculture and reducing food waste.

Jason Weller, Global CSO at JBS

Sustainability in the agri-food sector has evolved more in the past few years than it has in the preceding 20 years. There has been a global convergence of food companies, consumers and stakeholders’ expectations for supply chain transparency; deepening public concern about environmental challenges, especially in the face of a changing climate; and advancements in technology to improve agricultural productivity and reduce natural resource impacts.

No one has all the answers, but at JBS, we understand that to be a successful business, we must be sustainable. Simply put, we must strive for better futures in terms of economic viability, environmental quality and resilience, improved quality of life for workers, global food security and affordable food choices.

While the role of a CSO may have started by focusing on building internal alignment around environmental and social goals and helping the executive team achieve progress, today, that role has significantly expanded. Sustainability teams are heavily engaged with external stakeholders to build partnerships and identify and unlock innovations. We are helping to quantify and act against what was previously hard to account for: the financial, operational and licence-to-operate risks connected with environmental quality.

As CSO at JBS, I collaborate across our global network of businesses and supply chain partners to address sustainability opportunities. We operate in over 20 countries and five continents. Together, we develop projects and co-invest in our most important sustainability priorities, such as our aspiration to reach net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2040.

Henri Bruxelles, Chief sustainability and strategic business development officer at Danone

Whereas 20 years ago sustainability was seen as an isolated function, today it has become instrumental in operating and shaping business models that are both resilient and future fit. What has changed is the need for fully connecting sustainability to the business strategy in a win-win relationship, where economic performance serves positive societal impact and sustainability becomes a driver of consumer preference.

In this new landscape, the CSO has a key role to play within the company to clarify sustainability priorities, ensure these are strategic imperatives for impact, that they are fully embedded in categories and brand roadmaps, and that progress is delivered year after year.

Looking ahead, for companies that rely mostly on agriculture, one rising topic will be how we further embark and support our supply chain in the necessary transition towards sustainable, resilient and performant farming models of the future. This is what we are implementing in our dairy category, with the activation of a diversity of levers that allows farmers to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions – with a focus on methane – while creating co-benefits such as securing deforestation and conversion-free supply, improving animal welfare, restoring soil health, preserving water resources and biodiversity, strengthening farm resilience and attractiveness for future generations.

Anita Neville, Chief sustainability and communications officer at Golden Agri-Resources (GAR)

Within the palm industry, there has been tremendous change in the last 20 years from an almost exclusive focus on deforestation to tackling social issues, including labour rights, improving smallholder productivity, and now creating traceable, climate-friendly supply chains.

At GAR, a key part of my role is taking a holistic approach to ensure sustainability is at the heart of and integrated throughout our daily operations. Doing this well requires the support of the business, so communicating why sustainability is a business imperative and getting buy-in is essential.

Regulation is moving faster than ever before, and there is a big push for verifiable data on sustainability. Technology and data-driven decision-making have become increasingly important tools for the modern CSO. At GAR, technology has helped us map our diverse supply chain, allowing us to achieve 98% traceability to plantation across our Indonesian palm supply at the end of 2022. To give you a sense of scale, this includes more than half a million hectares of our own plantations, as well as more than over 135,000 independent smallholders as well as many small and medium-sized plantation businesses.

Stewart Leeth, CSO at Smithfield Foods

For many companies, the role of CSO focused initially on philanthropy and corporate social responsibility. While some companies’ CSOs still have that focus, for many others, the role has broadened considerably to encompass the long-term welfare of the business and the environment – often described as ‘ESG’.

Smithfield was the first in the protein industry to create the CSO role, reporting to the CEO. Early on, we articulated a very broad programme covering five areas of interest to our most important stakeholders: animal care, environment, food safety, worker safety and community.

The CSO role is extremely important at Smithfield because our underlying purpose is to build trust and transparency in what we do. There continues to be a lot of misunderstanding and misinformation about food production generally, and animal agriculture in particular. It’s important for our customers, which include retail and foodservice distribution and major restaurants, to know what our impacts are and what we actually do to address complex issues facing our industry and the planet.

Manufacturers need to be associating sustainability with compliance and risk management to address and prepare for future threats and interests of a variety of stakeholders. These include future resource and energy constraints, corporate reputation, resilience in the face of more extreme weather (such as drought, floods and hurricanes, for example) and climate change, consumer preferences, supply chain disruptions and many other factors.

Charles Greene, CSO at Sophie’s BioNutrients

The food and beverage sector has a huge role to play in supporting a sustainable society. Agriculture provides the backbone of our global food production system, and it directly places great demands on arable land, energy, fertiliser and freshwater.

The F&B industry is in the driver’s seat when it comes to promoting transformational changes in our global food production system. If this sector promotes foods and beverages that are healthier, more nutritious and more friendly to the environment, then the food production system will need to evolve in response.

I am especially excited about Sophie’s BioNutrients because it has so much potential to hit all of the right buttons when it comes to food security and sustainability. Microalgae are typically one to two orders of magnitude more productive than terrestrial plants, and that means we can reduce the land footprint of food production by ten to 100 times. Microalgae are also more complete nutritionally. Vegans and vegetarians cannot meet their full nutritional requirements by eating only land plants, whereas they can do so by eating microalgae. And, the wonders of modern food science enable us to provide consumers of meat and dairy products with algae-based food and beverage products that have the taste, smell, look, and texture we are expecting from the products we eat and drink.

John R Tyson, EVP, chief financial officer and CSO at Tyson Foods

The role of a CSO is always evolving, and the sustainability function of an organisation is increasingly tied to business strategy. It’s about creating value for the business while evaluating environmental and social factors in the same way as financial metrics.

Tyson Foods has made important investments to find new ways to help create a food system that is more sustainable and equitable, including working with strategic partners to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in our supply chain and finding solutions to drive product responsibility from farm to table.

To feed the world and future generations, we must take care of our planet and our resources. While the sustainability team plays an essential role in building a compelling business case for environmental and social progress, it is up to the entire organisation to deliver on these goals as part of its strategy.

Transparency and the understanding of data is the only way we can make real progress as an industry. More industry-specific areas of opportunity start at the farm and continue through to the consumer, through packaging and opportunities, including renewable energy, energy-efficient equipment and upcycling.

By Rafaela Sousa


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