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Squeaky green? Symrise says its sustainability strategy is substance over spin

By Lynda Searby , 28-Oct-2016
Last updated on 02-Nov-2016 at 09:44 GMT2016-11-02T09:44:18Z

© iStock
© iStock

Symrise has been nominated as Germany’s “most sustainable large corporation”, but can this be taken as proof that the flavours and fragrances firm is not just paying lip service to green issues? 

Symrise has been shortlisted for the 2016 German Sustainability Award in the ‘most sustainable corporation’ category for its work on resource protection and biodiversity conservation. But with a plethora of corporate ethical awards popping up, are such awards challenging and progressing the sustainability agenda or are they just an excuse for some positive PR?

As far as environmental awards go, the German Sustainability Awards are pretty heavy-weight. The scheme is endorsed by the German government, UNESCO (the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization) and UNICEF (the United Nation’s children’s fund), and bases its interpretation of sustainability on the United Nations’ definition.

Chris Huxdorf, environmental scientist with Greenpeace Germany, told FoodNavigator what she would look for in a ‘sustainable’ company.

“To be truly sustainable, companies must demonstrate careful use of resources, non-polluting activities and fairness to and respect for people and the environment,” she said.

“Companies who really are improving their green records should be rewarded with this type of accolade - it’s the corporations who do good things to cover up for not-so-good practices who don’t deserve them.”

In March of this year, PepsiCo was named ‘one of the world’s most ethical companies’ by the Ethisphere Institute. Yet in a Greenpeace report published the same month, the food and beverage multinational was accused of ‘failing’ to take steps towards cutting deforestation out of its palm oil supply chain.

As a business-to-business operator, Symrise isn’t on the consumer radar in the same way as the likes of PepsiCo, Nestlé and Unilever, whose practices are often under scrutiny by environmental groups, consumer watchdogs and the media.

Nevertheless, the flavours firm still faces stakeholder pressure to run its business sustainably.

“Customers and consumers increasingly pay attention to how companies incorporate sustainable development processes into their core businesses. This means that creating ecological and social value and communicating transparently about sustainability are factors that contribute to our economic success,” said Sascha Liese, manager of corporate sustainability at Symrise.

Not guilty of greenwashing

Asked how he could demonstrate that Symrise’s nomination for the German Sustainability Award wasn’t just another example of ‘greenwashing’, Liese responded: “At Symrise, we do not only talk to internal and external stakeholders about sustainability but we also provide evidence of the functionality of our management system and regularly report on our sustainability performance.”

Since 2014, Symrise has been reporting on its sustainability performance via the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI), an independent organisation that provides standards for reporting that are used by hundreds of companies world-wide.

Liese provided a number of practical examples of how the company has improved its sustainability credentials in areas spanning raw material sourcing through to resource use.

When sourcing raw materials, Liese said Symrise applies “recognised sustainability standards and certification schemes that put special emphasis on social and environmental aspects as well as ethical trade principles”, such as Rainforest Alliance, Fairtrade, ECOVERT, UTZ and UEBT.

In some countries, Symrise sponsors projects that support small-scale farmers in applying sustainable cultivation practices.

“For instance, in Madagascar we are collaborating with 7000 small-holder vanilla farmers we have integrated into our supply chain. Besides paying fair prices for precious raw materials, our engagement includes the transfer of technical skills for sustainable land management practices or raw material processing, technology transfer, provision of micro-credits and investments in local infrastructure and ecosystems,” said Liese.

He added that similar principles are applied in the Amazon region, where Symrise, together with key customer Natura, is working with local communities to source raw materials whilst preserving the local ecosystem and protecting local livelihoods.

A vanilla plantation. ©iStock/abadonian

Symrise has also introduced a sustainability criteria catalogue for evaluating suppliers. To date 82% of its suppliers have been assessed and Liese said Symrise had worked with several identified as ‘low performers’ so that they now achieve good performance levels.

The sustainability impacts of each ingredient supplied by Symrise are shown on product-specific ‘sustainability score cards’ available to customers.

“The scorecard provides customers with information on the sustainability performance of our raw materials and products in terms of water intensity, biodiversity, CO2, (eco-)toxicity, land use, e-factor, renewability and biodegradability,” explained Liese.

“To our best knowledge, this engagement is unprecedented within our industry,” he added.

Symrise also cites progress in the areas of resource use and waste. It said its new plant for producing synthetic menthol had halved process water and fresh water usage and reduced steam by 30% versus its previous plant. In addition, the company said that between 2010 and 2015 it had reduced its sensitive waste by 26% and its effluent load by 33%.

Symrise’s efforts in emissions reduction were acknowledged this week, when it was awarded an ‘A’ rating by the Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP) for the German-speaking region (Germany, Austria and Switzerland).

The winners of the German Sustainability Awards will be announced on 25th November.

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