Foodservice Footprint NZ2 Net-zero notebook: Promises, promises  Out of Home News Analysis

Net-zero notebook: Promises, promises 

This month’s carbon copy features a confused CEO, strategic CSOs and the countdown to COP. By David Burrows.

Let’s ease ourselves in this month, before we get critical or technical. First up is news that Hilton is expanding its carbon labelling project to 30 hotels across the UK. The chain claims this is a UK first for a hotel given the “scale” of the initiative (we can neither confirm nor deny this as our emails for more details remain unanswered). An initial trial (reportedly) showed the ‘low’, ‘medium’ and ‘high’ impact labels – developed with the help of Klimato – shifted behaviour towards dishes with fewer emissions. 

With just three weeks until the COP28 climate talks, stories of sustainable diets, and in particular livestock emissions, have inevitably begun to snowball. An exclusive in The Guardian details how the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) censored the work of officials who were working on methane emissions. 

Beef will be in the spotlight but so too will dairy. Oatly has been ramping up its campaigning activity on this front with more calls for dairy companies to take a climate footprint test with the oat-based alternative. Changing Markets meanwhile (still) has Nestlé in its sights: the campaigners claim that the world’s largest food company has a “methane blind spot”, and have been running a high profile campaign for a few months now called “Nestlies”. 

Demand and suppliers

Attention is turning – fast – to action. Commitments are not enough. Neither are carbon footprints. The United Arab Emirate’s ambition for its presidency of the COP talks is to move on from net-zero promises and towards actual progress. Reductions appear hard to come by, mind. 

The New York Times recently picked through some of the latest climate reports from some of the world’s largest food companies, and found emissions were rising rather than falling. Chipotle (up 26%), McDonald’s (up 12%), PepsiCo (up 7%) and Starbucks (up 12%) were all critcised. All said they were working with their suppliers to reduce emissions.

On that front, Sodexo has drawn a line in the sand: by 2030 the contract caterer will only partner with suppliers who can demonstrate tangible progress through published reporting. It says it isn’t leaving them high and dry though, with clear expectations and support available. Around 70% of Sodexo’s supply chain in the UK and Ireland is made up of small and medium enterprises (SMEs) and voluntary, community and social enterprises (VCSEs), most of which “cannot be expected to have teams dedicated to sustainability or afford consultancy support”, reads a statement. The caterer has already begun working closely with a number of its suppliers to support them in formalising and documenting expectations to reduce carbon emissions, including via a new supplier mentoring programme.

One company that has managed to reduce emissions is Mars. The New York Times’s analysis showed total emissions are down 8% on its 2015 baseline, while revenue is up 60%. “We’ve had five years of companies making promises and being celebrated for the quality of their promises and not their performance,” said the manufacturer’s chief procurement and sustainability officer Barry Parkin. “This isn’t a trade-off for us,” he added. “It’s a goal that is as important to us as our financial performance.”

C-suite spot

Chief sustainability officers (CSOs) will have a tough job on their hands at COP28, explaining why their companies are (largely) making little headway in reducing emissions. Still, the CSO is a pretty attractive position, with big companies increasingly employing one. With such power should come great responsibility; yet CSOs can often complain of having little of the former, while too much of the latter ends up on their plate. 

Indeed, CSOs to date have tended to be masters in the art of communication, rather than climate experts. But perhaps neither are the right fit for the job as reductions top the to-do list. Companies are now recruiting strategic CSOs, it seems, with more experience of business and investor relations, plus more clout in the c-suite. “Moving the focus from feel-good corporate social responsibility to hard-nosed sustainable value creation requires pragmatic leaders who are willing to admit that not all ESG measures are win-win – that is good for the planet and good for the bottom line,” write the academics Robert Eccles and Alison Taylor in a paper for the Harvard Business Review

Their article is a fascinating analysis of how the CSO’s role is changing from “stealth PR executive” – focused on optics and reputation, to one that has them interacting with investors and helping to set strategy. “The CSO should have the same stature as other members of the c-suite, such as the CEO or general counsel,” they propose. 

Having the ear of the CEO also helps. A number of CEOs appear to have enjoyed the spotlight of making carbon commitments (mostly around COP26 in Glasgow) but have shrunk into the shadows as data on total emissions comes in. Research published by the Net Zero Tracker today shows 94% (72/77) of the largest UK-based companies (within the Forbes2000) have set net-zero targets, while only two have not set emissions reduction targets. But many of these promises “lack integrity”, with only around one in three (37%) fully covering scope 3 emissions.

Camilla Hyslop, co-data lead for Net Zero Tracker at the University of Oxford, said companies “should be in no doubt as to what ‘good net zero’ looks like. The UN Expert Group’s guidelines have become the yardstick against which pledges are measured. For regulators and journalists alike it’s now clearer than ever which companies are attempting to garner credit with weak pledges.”

Gelles v Gilberto

Sometimes it’s easy to identify puff and other times it takes skill. Consider David Gelles’ interview of Gilberto Tomazoni, CEO at JBS, the world’s largest meat producer. Gelles, a writer on the New York Times’ climate desk, ties Tomazoni in knots with a series of to-the-point questions that a company with annual revenues of over $50bn and a huge climate footprint should be able to answer by now. I say ‘huge’ rather than putting a specific number on it because accurately measuring scope 3 is something JBS hasn’t yet done, at least with any clarity. Which is in part why it’s been in hot water with advertising regulators of late.

Tomazoni offered little to assuage the critics who say the company is talking about net-zero but so far hasn’t actually done anything. There is no plan, no strategy, not even any decent data. His response was basically: we are big and sell a lot of different meats in a lot of different countries so this is all pretty tricky. Still, he made much of bringing forward its net-zero target by 10 years to 2040 “because we recongise the emergency”. There was mention, too, of regenerative farming, as he talked of regenerating land and “bringing it back to life”, with trees, grain and animals farmed together apparently producing 40% more food and less carbon. 

Such claims are easy to say but hard to prove. The likes of JBS appear to be hung on selling more meat without a thought for the science showing consumption will need to fall. For the first time at the upcoming COP, the FAO will outline what food production looks if temperatures are to stay within 1.5°C. There is also a dedicated food day. “I’m very glad agriculture is part of the discussion,” saidTomazoni. Will he feel the same come mid-December when the talks close?