Oliver Balch meets Rob Cameron, spokesman for the world's biggest packaged food company, and asks him about the company's recipe for reaching net-zero emissions
Rob Cameron is only too aware that the clock is ticking. He and his colleagues at Nestle, the world's biggest packaged food brand, have fewer than 1,200 days to slice 20% off the company’s carbon footprint. Suppose they manage that 2025 deadline, then they have another 1,865 days to achieve the 2030 target of halving their emissions, compared with Nestle’s 2018 base year.
Miss those deadlines, and the Swiss-based company's much-vaunted goal of achieving net zero by 2050 will likely melt faster than a KitKat on a hot summer’s day.
Even so, Cameron, the British-born head of public affairs and ESG engagement at Nestle, strikes a confident tone: “We've passed peak carbon, so in absolute emissions terms, emissions are now trending downwards – that's in absolute terms, so even as we grow.”
Last year, Nestle, which recently posted its strongest nine-month sales growth in 14 years (read more), managed to reduce its total greenhouse gas emissions by 4 million tons, in part by investing heavily in renewables and by electrifying its fleet.
I'm not going to sit here and say ‘it's all going to be absolutely fine’, we’re going to have to make an effort
But its ambitious science-based target commitment, in line with keeping global temperature rises to 1.5 degrees Celsius by the end of the century, extends beyond those direct emissions, known as scope 1, to its entire footprint (scopes 1, 2, and 3) so the reduction is a fraction of the 65.6 million tons of emissions linked to Nestle’s agricultural procurements.
The scale of that challenge is not lost on Cameron. "I'm not going to sit here and say, ‘Oh, yeah, well, it's all going to be absolutely fine,’” he says. “We're going to have to make an effort. That's for sure.”
So how will Nestle pull it off? And, with 80% of the world’s top 250 companies now having public carbon reduction targets, according to KPMG, what can they learn from its net-zero strategy?
Nestle’s recently published net-zero roadmap flags three main solutions: boost renewable thermal energy in manufacturing; shift its agricultural supply chain towards regenerative farming; and give a massive push to tree planting (the goal is 200 million trees by 2030).
As for lessons for other companies, it is still early days, but Cameron has been in the sustainability game long enough (he is a former chief executive of London-based consultancy firm SustainAbility and, before that, of Fairtrade International) to have a good sense of what doesn’t work.
He points to the spectacular failure of the 2014 New York Declaration on Forests, which saw more than 470 corporations pledge to eliminate deforestation from global agricultural commodity chains by 2020. To call it a flop would be polite (Cameron’s preferred term is “pitiful”).
While Nestle wants to see companies across the board commit to net zero, “we want all businesses … not to make the same mistake as was made with forests, where the commitments were easily made but, frankly, have not been followed up on.”
After a decade’s work, Nestle says its five "highest-risk" raw materials ‒ meat, palm oil, pulp and paper, sugar and soy – are now deforestation-free. Yet notable exceptions include products for which it is best known: cocoa and coffee. In 2021 its coffee brands, including Nescafe, Starbucks and Nespresso, contributed more than a quarter of sales. Nestle's Forest Positive strategy calls for all its supply chains to be deforestation-free by 2025.
I feel like the more that we're out talking about it … it creates a permission space for others to move into
For net zero, success will require more than ticking “achieved” against an interim target or two. A 1.5C future demands multiple targets to be met, over multiple timeframes, until, as a collective whole, we succeed in decarbonising the global economy.
As big a player as Nestle is, its carbon footprint of 92 million tons of greenhouse gases per year represents 0.001% of that of the global farming sector, to which it is inextricably attached.
The same goes for PepsiCo, Coca-Cola, Unilever, other consumer goods giants with impressive climate-action plans, Cameron says. But he believes they can collectively use their clout to leverage greater ambition for the entire industry.
“I feel like the more that we're out talking about it … it creates a permission space for others to move into,” he states. “And I think that this permission space will very soon become a responsibility space.”
Brands should also use their corporate clout to try to shape policy, he says. If a corporation of Nestle’s size, for example, starts advocating for a treaty on single-use plastics (which it is), then progressive policymakers feel emboldened to push for the same. The same is true for carbon pricing, of which Nestle is also a vocal supporter (albeit on a country-by-country basis).
More important than words, of course, is what action Nestle is taking in its own operations. Take plastic packaging. Nestle has committed to make 100% of its packaging either recyclable or reusable by 2025, and to reduce its use of virgin plastics by one-third in the same period, compared to 2018. Its latest sustainability report, however, says that only 49% of its plastic packaging is recyclable or reusable, while virgin plastic use has decreased by only 8.1%, leaving a huge gap to fill to meet its 2025 deadline.
A Reuters investigation last year identified nine collaborations between consumer goods companies, including Nestle, with major cement makers to burn plastic waste in their kilns, a practice that critics say contributes to emissions of harmful air toxins. At the time, Nestle did not respond to Reuters' queries about health and environmental impacts of the practice (read more). Asked by Sustainable Business Review to comment on the year-old Reuters report, its press office again chose not to discuss the cement industry collaboration.
If the company is to convince investors about achieving net zero by 2050, they will need more detail
In our interview, Cameron was keenest to talk about the 1.3 billion Swiss francs ($1.3 billion) the company will be spending up to 2025 trying to convert the 600,000 or so independent farmers it procures from into adopting regenerative farming practices.
That sum accounts for more than a third of the 3.2 billion Swiss francs Nestle has committed to its climate programme through to 2030. Earlier this month, it became clear that the bulk of that money will be channelled into its coffee supply chain, with an announcement that it would spend more than a billion Swiss francs on regenerative agriculture and halving CO2 emissions by its fast-growing coffee brands by 2030.
Will it be enough? Not according to the non-profit financial think-tank Planet Tracker. Earlier this year, it published analysis saying Nestle would need to spend at least $3.2 billion until 2030 to reverse growing emissions in its supply chain, which increased by 9% between 2016 and 2020.
“Based on our findings, Nestle lacks a well-grounded plan. Instead, it presents a series of intentions and initiatives which cannot demonstrate whether net-zero will be reached,” Planet Tracker said. “If the company is to convince investors about achieving net zero by 2050, they will need more detail and the company will need to increase the investment in its suppliers.”
It also says Nestle’s climate intentions risk being undermined by its membership of “multiple industry groups with mixed positions on climate policy, including the Confederation of Employers and Industries of Spain and the Kansai Economic Federation in Japan”.
Cameron is dismissive of Planet Tracker’s assessment, which it says “completely misses the point” by focusing on past performance, most of it pre-2018. He says it also doesn’t take into account that the company has yet to announce spending plans for 2025-2030, which it will decide after assessing results from the first round of funding. “We’re perfectly well aware” that more investment will be needed, Cameron said.
However, he readily accepts that time is racing along, and easy wins are increasingly scarce. He uses the analogy of an investment bank to describe Nestle’s regenerative agriculture efforts: i.e. an entity that the company pays into now in the hope of it paying out big time in the years ahead.
Net zero matters a lot to human civilisation, it matters a lot to the environment
If Cameron has a message for other companies, it’s not to beat about the bush. Nestle’s public affairs chief talks of net zero being “mission-critical”, and about how “we’re running out of time” when it comes to global climate talks. Meanwhile his boss, Nestle’s chief executive Ulf Mark Schneider, is out there banging the drum for an urgent low-carbon transition.
“I was pleasantly surprised … that our chief executive started talking about the just transition. He goes out and speaks to farmers. He hears it first-hand that farmers are eager to try these (regenerative) techniques and that they want to shift their practices,” Cameron says.
“It (net zero) matters a lot to human civilisation, it matters a lot to the environment,” he says. “We have to keep hammering that message home.”
This article is part of the November 2022 issue of the Sustainable Business Review. See also:
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