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Fi Europe 2021

Soft drinks sector targets sustainable transition, healthier lifestyles [Interview]

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There is consensus in both policy making and industry circles on the need to build sustainable food systems. Facilitating this transition however remains a complex and multifaceted challenge. Here, Nicholas Hodac, Director General of UNESDA Soft Drinks Europe, discusses the sector’s commitments to create more sustainable packaging and encourage consumers towards healthier drink options, as well as the challenges and opportunities posed by the legislative environment.
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Current food sector challenges are numerous, covering everything from climate change and accessibility to affordable products, through to health and obesity. This has led to a fundamental reflection about what food systems of the future should look like. “The common denominator in all this is sustainability,” says Hodac. “How are we going to transition to a healthier, more sustainable food system that is affordable to consumers and offers a return of investment to industry?”

Part of the solution

The starting point for UNESDA’s reflection on this issue, says Hodac, has been an acceptance that the industry has a role to play, and should continue to be proactive in driving positive change and contributing to a more sustainable food environment and healthier lifestyles.

“Six months ago, we decided to take our commitment to the next level,” he explains. “First, we announced a Circular Packaging Vision for 2030, and then a set of new Health & Nutrition commitments.”

On packaging, the key issue has been to recognise that it can form part of the circular economy and how the sector can achieve full circularity in packaging; that is, packaging that is fully recyclable, collected and recycled.

“Our commitment is to make sure that our packaged products are 100% recyclable, with 100% recycled content and/or renewable PET, and that at least 90% of this packaging is collected by 2030. We need to change our mindset from packaging as waste, and therefore as something ‘bad’, to packaging as a valuable resource that should never end up as litter.”

On health and nutrition, Hodac points out that the soft drinks sector has been reducing the average amount of added sugar in its products over the past two decades. Between 2000 and 2015, the soft drinks sector reduced average added sugars in its soft drinks by 13.3% and between 2015 and 2019, it achieved an average reduction of 14.6%. With this milestone, the soft drinks sector was the first and only sector to have responded to the EU call for a 10% added sugars reduction by 2020.

“We need to continue this trend,” he says. “This is why we have committed to an additional reduction of 10% by 2025.”

Linked to this is the sector’s acceptance of its responsibility to children. Since 2006, UNESDA Soft Drinks Europe has taken the decision not to sell any soft drinks in EU primary schools, and to only sell no- and low-calorie drinks in EU secondary schools. These actions will be intensified to ensure full compliance. Furthermore, the sector has enhanced its responsible marketing and advertising practices to children by committing to not advertise any soft drinks to children under the age of 13. This means no marketing and advertising across all media channels where the audience comprises of more than 30% children.

“We recognise that soft drinks can form part of a diet when consumed moderately,” says Hodac. “This is what we are trying to promote.”

Working with legislators

The soft drink sector of course does not operate in a vacuum, and the legislative context presents both opportunities and challenges to the sustainable transition and product reformulation.

“There is certainly a lot going on,” says Hodac. “The EU Farm to Fork Strategy, for example, underpins much of this trend towards sustainable food systems. This is about making everything – from production through to consumption – sustainable.”

To turn such aspirations into action, policy makers need to enable industry to adapt and change. A good example of this is recycling. In order to achieve circularity, collection schemes and recycling technologies need to be put in place. Banning all single use plastic bottles, as some countries have proposed, would undermine investments towards making packaging more circular.

On health and nutrition, a key area for discussion surrounds labelling, and the best way of providing consumers with clear and easy-to-understand product information. “Another issue is the use of sweeteners,” says Hodac.

“For some products, reducing sugar means reformulating with authorised ingredients. If the sector was unable to use such sweeteners, this would have an impact on our capacity to reformulate. There is also a danger, I think, in making soft drinks the scapegoat for all excessive sugar intake, as data shows that the sector is not the main contributor to sugar consumption.”

Ultimately, what industry needs, says Hodac is a long term, coherent, and consistent policy environment.

“This goes back to the issue of packaging,” he says. “Industry cannot invest millions in building circular packaging production lines, to then find these investments wasted.”

On the issue of health and nutrition, Hodac would like to see greater understanding from policy makers on the need to take consumers on a journey towards healthier diets.

“There is an assumption that we can somehow impose behaviour on consumers,” he says. “But consumers are all different and taste remains a key issue.”

Gradually moving consumers towards healthier options is not something that can be done overnight. This is something that policy makers should keep in mind as they work with industry on the sustainable transition.

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