Companies including Nestlé and Tetra Pak are scaling up intrapreneurship to boost innovation and drive new, sustainable solutions.
Brands in the highly competitive and fast-paced global food and beverage industry must continually innovate to better serve the changing wants and needs of consumers. Innovation is key in maintaining both a competitive advantage in the marketplace and in ensuring the sustainability of food companies and the wider food system.
Key industry stakeholders and innovation experts gathered recently at the World Food Forum in Rome to discuss the strategies used to drive innovation and sustainability within businesses. Speakers shared their actionable insights for food industry professionals looking to implement similar practices within their own organisations.
The UN taps into the power of young professionals
According to Bruna Elias, manager of the SDG Innovation Accelerator for Young Professionals at the United Nations Global Compact (UNGC), a global sustainability initiative that aims to bridge the gap between the private sector and the UN, there is “one very simple call to action to businesses” - to align their strategies with the UN’s 10 Sustainable Development Goals (SDG).
To support them in doing this and promote learning and collaboration between different stakeholders within the food ecosystem, the organisation offers various opportunities, initiatives, and capacity building programmes.
One example is the SDG Innovation Accelerator for Young Professionals, a programme designed to harness the creative potential of young minds aged 35 and below within the UN Global Compact network of over 23,000 business and 60 local networks. Over a nine-month period, participants work towards identifying a real-world challenge within their industry or organisation and propose a viable solution or product that offers to sustainably solve this challenge.
“[It is important] that the solution also has a dollar value as we know that businesses are really capitalising on this element and that it is very important to them,” Elias said.
The programme encourages a design thinking, bottom-up approach to innovation involving participants from diverse backgrounds and departments, many of whom are often working together for the first time.
“We really teach them sustainability one-on-one with the SDGs. Sometimes teams work within corporations that are committed to sustainability, however they know nothing about [sustainability] or the SDGs,” Elias said.
Successful solutions that emerged from last year’s programme involve a project that converted close to 10,000 acres of unused mining plants into agricultural lands and farms in China, as well as an initiative in which teams worked directly with cardamom farmers in Indonesia to improve harvesting and pricing in aid of maximising profits and engaging younger generations of farmers in the trade.
“These are examples of circularity through simple innovations that emerged within the businesses and through the intrapreneurial aspect of innovation,” Elias said.
Nestlé: innovating for a more sustainable dairy industry
One of the world’s largest food manufacturers, Nestlé, was a recent participant in the UNGC sustainable innovation initiative. For its project, the team chose to focus on SDG goals 12 and 13 — responsible consumption and production, and climate action — innovating by rethinking how cows eat.
“What excited me about this programme was three things: sustainability, innovation, and creating something new and doing it fast. In big companies sometimes it can be a little slow in getting things going,” said Julia Mahon, global digital marketing and digital manager at Nestlé and recent programme alumni.
Used in the company’s dairy and infant nutrition products, ice cream, confectionery, and beverages, dairy and livestock ingredients are Nestlé’s largest single source of greenhouse gas emissions, accounting for 34.2 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent (CO2e) in 2018, according to a company report. Taking on this challenge, the team collaborated with colleagues in Singapore, Brazil, and various European countries to formulate a new recipe for cow feed in Brazil, which had the capacity to reduce the company’s carbon footprint by almost 40%, Mahon explained.
“We started thinking about product innovation with the consumer and then we realised: why not do it differently? Why not think about the farm and why not think about the cow? We decided to innovate and rethink how the cow eats,” Mahon said.
Several months on, the team has met with key decision makers in Nestlé and is beginning to test their solution in the market. According to Mahon, creativity, passion, and cross-functional collaboration were vital to the success of their project.
“Alone, we had an idea. Together, we had a voice, and we were able to take this idea and deliver transformational change. It was a really powerful experience,” Mahon said.
“I'm happy to say that in the private sector on a larger scale, we also can drive change.”
Tetra Pak’s multipronged approach to driving sustainable food system change
Multinational food processing and packaging company Tetra Pak is another company that has recently taken steps to decarbonise and increase the sustainability of its operations and impact in the global food system.
Using a multistakeholder approach spanning business geographies and divisions, the company has developed four pathways to help scale the impact of its sustainability efforts. These include enabling the transition towards more sustainable dairy; reducing food loss and waste; scaling access to safe nutrition through sustainable packaging; and innovating for new food sources.
“We really feel that it is important to involve everyone in the process, not only to fight climate and nature crisis, but also to do it in an equitable way,” said Rita Lousa, corporate affairs manager, stakeholder relations, and partnerships at Tetra Pak.
Last month, Tetra Pak announced a new partnership with Lund University in Sweden. Both parties will work together to launch a new research centre for innovative sustainable food and new materials that will rely on bioprocessing, Lousa said.