Guest Columns

Industry Issues

It takes a village for sustainability to succeed

Dave Chapman

Dave Chapman recently joined The Food Connector as senior vice president of marketing communications. He contributes this column exclusively for Cheese Market News®.

Sustainability programs are more commonplace than ever across every industry. Budweiser brews with 100 percent renewable energy. Patagonia pledges environmentally-preferred materials across its clothing lines. Kraft conserves impressive amounts of water with closed-loop reuse systems and global cleaning process updates. Reducing plastic waste, Adidas launched a shoe brand manufactured from ocean plastic trash.

Close to 1,100 wineries in Northern California have sought and earned sustainable certification status.

The dairy industry is certainly engaged as well — building out commitments to complex challenges ranging from air quality, water and energy to packaging, labor and community involvement. No longer limited to the territory of feel-good marketing impact, shrewd businesses in the dairy supply chain have recognized the material benefits of a sound sustainability platform. We deliver benefits to the planet and our communities, but also to our bottom lines — improvements in return on investment (ROI), energy and water efficiency and revenue streams from re-used or recycled waste.

But how many of us are going it alone? Looking primarily — or even exclusively — at the efforts under our own roofs? Are we listening only to immediate stakeholders rather than reaching out to our ingredient sources and seeking perspectives from our end consumer? Are we asking the tough questions? That approach is not only leaving a lot of opportunity — and benefit — on the table, but it may also be leaving us vulnerable from weaknesses we don’t even expect.

By working more closely together, dairy farmers, cheese processors and both commercial and consumer cheese buyers can all win the sustainability game. We could be building on each other’s strengths, sharing best practices, singing our collective praises, and protecting each other from — and remedying — our weaknesses.

Situated mid-stream, cheese manufacturers and retailers can play a big role — both upstream and down — in creating a cheese supply chain that meets consumer expectations, delivers ROI to producers, minimizes or solves problems, and builds dairy’s reputation as a sustainably responsible industry. Reach out. Keep asking questions. Convene discussions between the good players and those running behind. Mediate the pros and cons of competing practices. Demonstrate value — in dollars and reputation — to be created from efficiencies, savings and innovations. Celebrate accomplishment. Share stories.

Every segment has a role to play:

• Producers

Producers may have the heaviest — and most challenging burden. To no one reading CMN’s surprise, dairies are rife with tough environmental responsibilities — water use and waste water, energy, dairy cow food sources and herd waste to name but a few. But for each of these challenges, there are opportunities. Strong stewardship and conservation processes can yield impressive and compelling results — and deliver a return on the investment. New technology — especially in a cooperative framework — can turn waste into energy.

Investments in feed choices open doors to certifications that yield higher returns. Healthy practices lead to healthy cows, increased production and reduced vet care. None of this is easy. Much of it requires both financial investment and a leap of faith. While working with the California dairy industry, I saw how outcomes were starting to demonstrate a pattern of payback and even profit.

• Processors

For processors, definitely continue to look at your own footprint. Don’t take on only the easy tasks that are built around cost savings. Embrace — and invest in — the innovations that could be higher risk but could also have results that are game changing. And don’t forget the concept of the “Walmart effect.” Use it in your own sphere of influence. Set goals for your own organization and ask your producers and suppliers to build on them. Measure and share your results and then combine them with your suppliers’ results. The outcome could be surprising. Celebrate, and then go back and add another challenge. Continuous and diverse improvement is the key.

• Retailers

Retailers have a multi-tiered responsibility as well. In addition to looking at your own considerable footprint — energy, waste, recycling, water (yikes), retailers have an opportunity to be the greatest communicators. Take responsibility for bringing cheese producers and their dairy sources’ challenges, efforts and achievements to life. Share an understanding of the real benefits of on-dairy practices, of feed protocols, packaging innovations with consumers. Tell the industry’s stories on your company website, in your flyers and newsletters. Bring them to life in your aisles and on your shelves. On the flip side, share your learnings from your consumers with cheese processors and suppliers. Help them understand the expectations that consumers have when it comes to sustainability.

When I did communications work for a Fortune 100 global retail chain, we helped create a blog that rapidly became a public forum. On the one hand, we shared the company’s massively impressive sustainability endeavors, while providing its supply chain network with an outlet to tell its rich environmental and social accomplishments. Ultimately it has evolved into an open source for industry best practices.

• Consumers

To consumers, I’d say get real. A recent study (Shelton Group, 2018) found that 88 percent of Americans believe that the average person should be taking concrete steps to reduce their environmental impact. And 78 percent feel responsible to change purchase habits to make a positive impact on the environment. At the same time, another study (QuadPackaging, 2018) shows that 92 percent of consumers do not even notice sustainability logos on packaging while shopping. So, there is obviously a divergence between what consumers say and what they do.

With that said, even if their principles don’t seem to be completely backed up by purchase behavior, eventually consumers will be voting with their wallets. This is especially true of millennials as their growing buying power starts to shift into high gear. According to a 2014 NMI study, millennials (age 21 to 34) represent 51 percent of respondents who will pay more for sustainable products in a nine-country study. If we are smart, we’ll be ready for it.

At the end of the day, I’d say, let the brands beware. The pros of an aggressive sustainability platform far outweigh the challenges. The financial rewards are built in at every level before we even start talking about the positive impact on reputation. And most importantly, end user demand is coming, so I would recommend getting ahead of the curve. Build a foundation and tell your stories. Those of us with the ability to demonstrate commitment and showcase progress are going to fare the best. In the end, sustainability means a healthier world and a healthier, stronger business.


The views expressed by CMN’s guest columnists are their own opinions and do not necessarily reflect those of Cheese Market News®.

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