Starbucks, SABMiller take holistic approach to sustainability

Food and beverage companies don’t have it easy. Climate change, rapid population growth and competition for dwindling natural resources all pose huge threats.

Yet the industry is making the least progress in tackling these issues and reducing its environmental impact, according to advisory firm KPMG. At the same time, the financial cost of these environmental changes continues to grow at a rapid pace, hitting $200 billion in 2010, more than any other sector.

But a growing number of large multinational agribusinesses and food companies, including Starbucks and SABMiller, are facing these sustainability risks head-on using a large-scale approach that recognizes the interconnectedness of water, food, energy and climate, according to a new report from Landscapes for People, Food and Nature initiative, a collaboration of nine of the world’s leading anti-hunger, conservation and development organizations.

“We face some very complex risks along our supply chains, all connected in some way to climate change,” said Chris Brett, head of corporate responsibility and sustainability at Olam International, a company featured in the report. “Addressing them only at the farm level won’t work. These problems involve too many interconnected variables.”

The study, "Reducing Risk: Landscape Approaches to Sustainable Sourcing," analyzed how companies that rely on coffee, cocoa, water and other resources in developing countries are looking beyond their farms and taking a more holistic approach to sustainability.

The idea of looking at the whole landscape emerged out of the conservation and development community, but it is an approach that is slowly seeping into business, said Lee Gross, project manager at EcoAgriculture Partners and a co-author of the study. The majority of agribusinesses focus their sustainability programs on just their farms, but the landscape approach looks beyond the farm to encompass a much wider swath of the area such as forests, communities, biodiversity, transport networks and local government.

Gross and his team conducted an initial scoping phase between October 2012 and January 2013, which found 40 food and beverage companies that had adopted a landscape approach to sustainability. They then narrowed the list down, finally conducting case studies with just three companies that best exemplified the approach: SABMiller, Olam International and Starbucks.

SABMiller, one of the world’s largest brewing companies, faced water quality issues at its brewery in Bogota, Colombia. By adopting a landscape approach, the company discovered that the local community also was suffering from low water quality.

Taking team-ups into action

So SABMiller partnered up with the World Wildlife Foundation and the city of Bogota and engaged the community to address the issue and take action.

“We've found that the fundamental causes of water risk to our breweries are the same as the causes of water problems facing communities and ecosystems,” said Anna Swaithes, head of water and food security policy at SABMiller. “We recognize that these challenges can only be addressed through a landscape approach and multi-stakeholder collective action."

Next page: Starbucks looks to the future