The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) has launched a new sustainability roadmap for the soft drinks industry. Annual UK consumption of soft drinks (including bottled water) is a massive 14.68 billion litres, bringing with it 4.5 million tonnes of greenhouse gases. Various sustainability initiatives already exist in the sector, including The Courtauld Commitment which counts Britvic and Innocent amongst its signatories. But none of these have focused on the sector as a whole, tracing its impacts from the sourcing of raw materials right through to disposal. Recognising that this holistic approach was needed to create meaningful sustainability goals, DEFRA tasked green consultancy Best Foot Forward with a deep dive into soft drink sustainability. Recommendations from their detailed analysis weren’t just the usual reduction-focused suspects: finding alternative uses for sweetener by-products and improving the sustainable procurement of oranges were more inventive suggestions.
This robust research process has led to strong sector uptake of the Roadmap with 50% of the UK soft drinks industry already signatories at its launch and a further 25% expected to join shortly. Unveiled by the Food Minister David Heath last week, the Roadmap positions itself as a practical programme of action to enhance the sector’s environmental credentials. Over the next year, it suggests signatories tackle four key areas: water, packaging, carbon and raw materials. It’s good to see a commitment to provide guidance for small businesses in there too, which might otherwise find the resources needed for an intensive sustainability programme restrictive.
Undoubtedly the Roadmap should be welcomed. Undertaking a holistic analysis should be the standard approach, enabling intelligent sustainability to be realised by targeting action at areas with the most environmental impact. But the elephant in the room remains: this is a voluntary agreement, and the food and beverage sector’s performance on these has been mixed so far at best. In 2012, signatories to The Courtauld Commitment failed to meet targets on reducing product and packaging waste in supply chains. They managed a paltry 0.4% against an original target of 5%. Cutting transport emissions and diverting waste from landfill have fared better, but NGOs like This Is Rubbish continue to criticise the sector for a lack of urgent action. Civil society calls for regulation on nutritional issues and junk food advertising have also focused on the poor impact of the government’s voluntary responsibility deal. Leading medical figures have used tobacco as a comparison, stating that regulation is the only effective way forward. The industry is clearly under pressure from multiple angles to improve its sustainability practices, both in terms of human health and the environment. It will be interesting to see if the new Soft Drinks Sustainability Roadmap can encourage action ambitious and rapid enough to avoid criticism. There is no timescale given for an impact assessment, though the end of 2014 seems a likely time for it. If the numbers don’t provide hard evidence of action, the soft drinks giants may find that they haven’t just failed to meet targets but to stave off regulation too.
Emily Kenway works in the third sector promoting responsible practices by companies and investors. Prior to 2011, Emily was a professional opera singer before following her passion for sustainability into this new career. Her particular interests include the circular economy, environmental impacts, and the food industry.