4 themes to watch in food CSR

Water management issues are bubbling up, plus you'll hear more about sustainable agricultural practices in the year to come.

Not that I really mind, but there have been many weeks this spring when I received notice about far more corporate social responsibility or corporate sustainability reports than I could possibly hope to cover in the average work day.

Because I believe that corporate sustainability initiatives have a definite competitiveness angle across industry, I'm trying to look at some of the ones I have collected on a sector-by-sector base. Since we all have to eat to live, what better sector to start with than the big consumer food companies?

The month of May was a particularly busy month for report publications by some of the biggest of the big, including Campbell Soup, Hormel Foods, Kraft Foods and Nestle. I also reached back into March, though, because that is when General Mills reported some of its latest goals for environmental sustainability and sourcing. As I poked through the report summaries, some common refrains were sounded. Here are three that really stuck with me.

#1: Water reduction and consumption management strategies will continue to gain more visibility, even though progress is mixed.
I'll start with Nestle, because the company obviously has a really vested interest in the water issue, as I reported back in March , since it is one of the companies that sells bottled water. During 2010, the company's overall water usage rose by 2.1 percent, according to the Nestle "Creating Shared Values" report. The amount it is using per metric ton of product, however, was down by 2 percent. Which means the company is doing a better job with its product metrics. From an environmental impact point of view, water discharge is another metric you need to watch, and Nestle didn't do as well here: the rate was up by 5.5 percent between 2009 and 2010.

Hormel Foods, maker of brands including Farmer John, managed to reduced water consumption by 30 million gallons in its latest reporting year, which means it hit its water goal one year early. The reduction in percentage terms was 11 percent.

Likewise, Campbell managed to reduce water usage by 3 percent in absolute terms and according to cubic ton of food produced. For its most recent reporting year 2009, it used 9.35 units of water per cubic tone, compared with 10.33 in the previous year. I'm curious to see what 2010 will bring, since 2009 was still (technically) in the recession and these numbers seem a bit old to me. Its goal by 2020 is to cut water consumption by 20 percent.

Kraft Foods, known for the Nabisco, Oscar Mayer and Oreo brands (among others) cut incoming water usage by 30 percent between 2005 and 2010; it has set a new goal to reduce water consumption in manufacturing plants by 15 percent between 2010 and 2015.

#2: Sustainable packaging innovation is ongoing.
The statement I really noticed here was from General Mills, which has committed to selling more than 40 percent of its global product volume in "improved" packaging by 2015. General Mills is the maker of mega brands including Cheerios, Betty Crocker, Pillsbury and a zillion other names you would know. There are four main drivers for the work the company plans to do in this area, according to its latest corporate social responsibility report: packaging weight, recycled content, renewable content and trucking load efficiency. Two examples of things that the company has already done: Smaller cartons for its Nature Valley granola bars and lighter plastic in the icing containers sold with Pillsbury Grands! Sweet Rolls.

Kraft's new packaging goal is to eliminate more than 200 million pounds in packaging between 2010 and 2015, while Cambell has taken a somewhat different stance. It has pledged to produce 75 percent of its product packaging from sustainable materials (defined as renewable, recycled or from recycled content) by 2020.

Hormel reduced its packaging by 5.6 million pounds in 2010, which beat its goal to cut 3 million pounds per year.

#3: Energy reductions are coming more slowly than some companies would hope.
Campbell missed here, with energy consumption increasing on both an absolute and per-unit basis. In 2009, the company using almost 10.3 million British Thermal Units. By 2020, the company hopes to reduce energy use by 35 percent and source close to 40 percent of its electricity from renewable or alternative energy sources.

Hormel reported an increase of almost 6 percent in its energy consumption, a fact that is noted in a comment by Hormel Chairman Jeffrey Ettinger in the introduction to the company's report: "We have made significant capital investments to increase energy efficiencies, which have offset increased energy use in our facilities. With one year remaining to meet our goal, I can assure you we are working hard to determine how we can meet the goal we originally established."

That goal is to reduce energy consumption by 10 percent for manufacturing facilities by the end of fiscal 2011, using 2006 as the benchmark year.

#4: Expect more noise around sustainable agriculture.
Kraft has established itself as a supporter of organizations including Fairtrade, Rainforest and 4C, pledging to source items such as cocoa, coffee and cashews through these and other sources that offer certification that crops are being harvested with regard to certain social, environment and economic conditions. During 2010, as an example, the company bought almost 50,000 metric tons of coffee certified by the Rainforest Alliance. By 2015, Kraft has pledged to increase its sustainable sourcing of agricultural commodities by 25 percent.

During 2010, Campbell began focusing on a number of sustainable agricultural practices including a reduction in synthetic pesticide usage and the documentation of initiatives that help reduce the amount of water needed to product tomatoes. It has set specific goals to cut the water and energy needed to produce certain major crops by 20 percent and 30 percent, respectively. The targeted crops include tomatoes, carrots, celery, mushrooms and jalapeno peppers.

Related posts on SmartPlanet:

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com