Plastic a top priority as R&D budgets shift to sustainable innovation

By Katy Askew

- Last updated on GMT


Related tags Plastic

Big food is turning its innovation engine towards developing sustainable solutions - and plastic packaging is a top priority, representatives from Coca Cola Partners Iberia, McDonald’s, Capsa Food, Damm and Nomen Foods told a conference in Spain.

The second Congress on Sustainable Development, co-organised by the Spanish Federation of Food and Beverage Industries (FIAB) and the Association of Manufacturers and Distributors (AECOC), heard that sustainable strategies need to focus on three pillars: social, economic and environmental.

Pressure to act is coming from shifting consumer attitudes, Francesc Cosano, CEO of Coca Cola European Partners Iberia stressed. Companies need to meet these expectations and treat their ‘consumers like their investors’ who are increasingly looking beyond ‘economic results'.

Environmental commitments are necessary, Cosano continued, noting that investment is required to deliver ‘economic and social returns’.

Beyond consumer and investor pressure, Juan Verde, founder of Advanced Leadership, stressed that without sustainable production, long-term economic prosperity would be undermined. Setting out the business case for action, Verde flagged the need to address the ‘major global threats’ identified by the World Economic Forum – water, weather, natural disasters and the failure of mitigation and adaption to climate change.

"Without a planet there is no economy, so there is no choice,”​ Verde argued.

Plastics and packaging in the spotlight

Damm general director Jorge Villavecchia echoed this theme. “Sustainability is essential in any organisation and, right now, there is no debate about it cost effectiveness. Companies must [work together] and collaborate with legislators and suppliers against the ecological emergency... Innovation is essential to improve, for example in our case, packaging… Companies are part of the solution.”

Nomen Foods director Enric Batllé believes that the trend towards sustainable innovation has resulted in an increase in investment. Food and beverage companies are dedicating an estimated 50%-plus of R&D budgets to the creation of sustainable solutions, he suggested. "The industry is focused on investigating how to reduce the impact of its packaging, of plastics used and of all the processes that occur throughout the entire value chain.”

Coca Cola European Partners’ Cosano shared details on the beverage giant’s sustainable innovation priorities. He explained: “We prioritise reduction, then reuse and finally recycling. Under these principles we have gone from having an innovation team focused on creationing new products to one in which sustainability is a central axis to reduce costs and environmental impact.”

This sentiment was borne out in the results of AECOC's first sector barometer on sustainability, released at the event. 

Collecting the views of the near-200 attendees, the survey revealed 48% of participants pointed to the sustainability of packaging and plastic reduction as ‘priority measure’ in the environmental strategies of their companies.

Packaging placed ahead of the sustainable sourcing of natural resources (21%) and emissions reduction (16%).

Asked about how they measured CO2 emissions from their activity, 37% said that their companies measure their own emissions, 27% have plans to apply these measurements to the entire value chain and 10% already measure both.

A call for collaboration

The CEO of McDonald’s in Spain, John Alves, highlighted the “added responsibility that large companies have to reach solutions and be able to scale them”.

Stressing the importance of the UN’s SDG17, which focuses on collaboration, he continued: “We must bet on joint work. Until now, [national governments] have been the engine of change, but now companies must play that role through alliances.”

During the panel debate, Capsa Food CEO José Armando Tellado added that the role of legislators and the need for a regulatory environment that favours sustainable innovation should not be underestimated.

“We need greater legislative certainty… to develop solid strategies; also we need regulation to know how to measure [environmental data],”​ he suggested.

For Damm’s Villavecchia, it is also important to engage with engage with consumers and ‘send messages to a consumer who is super motivated with environmental issues, but requires information and tips [on how] to consume in a more sustainable way’.

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