How are food and drink manufacturers adapting to Industry 4.0?

EXCLUSIVE: As the fruits of the Fourth Industrial Revolution continue to alter how businesses operate within society, how are some of the world's biggest food and drink manufacturing firms adapting, growing and using new technologies to minimise their environmental footprints?

That was one of the key discussion points for a panel of sustainability experts from Mondelez International, Quorn Foods, Policy Connect and Centrica Business Solutions, who last week discussed the steps sustainability and energy professionals within the industry can take to create ambitious action towards sustainable development in all its forms during an edie webinar.


During the webinar, Mondelez International’s director of sustainability Jonathan Horrell explained that the businesses would continue to seek opportunities for energy reduction before implementing technologies that would enable it to mitigate variable outputs from renewable generation, in a bid to maximise its positive impact. 

“A lot of the CO2 reductions that we’ve driven to date have been through using energy better in our plants, which will continue to be a significant thing to do as we modernise our manufacturing network,” Horrell said.

“Secondly, there is a transition underway in regard to forms of energy, from which opportunities vary from market to market. We are finding that the transition to new technologies and renewables moves at a different pace in different markets and, therefore, we are starting to see highly efficient pricing on renewables in some markets. We are hoping, from there, to spread best practice across the piece.”

Mondelez, widely known for its biscuit and confectionary brands including Oreo, Cadbury and Belvita, is notably rewarding farmers who grow cocoa in a sustainable way through its Cocoa Life programme in order to boost supply chain efficiency and minimise its indirect water, waste and energy footprints.

Within factories, the firm is targeting a 20% reduction in its manufacturing waste, a 10% reduction in water use in water-scarce areas and a 15% reduction in its absolute CO2 emissions by 2020. These three targets have been set against a 2013 baseline.

During the webinar, Horrell echoed the sentiments of Policy Connect’s manufacturing policy manager Ben Carpenter Merritt, who urged corporates to avoid investing in innovations which could be classed as “sticking plasters” and “quick fixes” rather than setting long-term energy strategies.

“I think there is an opportunity to shift our mentality from how to buy the best energy on the best basis for the current year for each factory, to something that says ‘can we, by taking a longer-term view, build in something which is more renewable, sustainable and predictable?” Horrell added.

Meat-free manufacturing

Horrell’s points were reiterated by Quorn Foods’ sustainability manager Louise Needham, who argued that the fact her business is growing at a rate of 20% year-on-year provides “significant opportunity” for energy innovation.

“With that growth comes a brilliant opportunity to review our culture in terms of our current energy strategy and how we can push that into longer-term thinking,” Needham said. “We absolutely cannot rest on our laurels.”

Quorn Foods, which employs more than 800 staff across three UK-based manufacturing facilities, is currently aiming to halve its operational carbon emissions by 2022, against a 2012 baseline. With 55% of these emissions accounted for by production and manufacturing, Needham emphasised the importance of technologies which will boost energy efficiency in this area.

She additionally highlighted Quorn Foods’ progress towards decarbonisation so far – the company has achieved Carbon Trust certification for 47% of its product by volume since 2012 and reduced its overall carbon footprint by 15% since 2016.

Away from emissions, Quorn Foods is aiming to halve its pre-retail food waste by 2030 – in line with Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 2 – and to make all of its plastic packaging recyclable by 2025. Needham admitted that avoiding knee-jerk reactions when trying to balance these ambitions was a challenge, particularly amid heightened consumer awareness of plastics waste.

“Our customers, quite rightly, have high expectations of us in these categories,” Needham said. “But I am challenged with communicating the need for plastic within the food industry with our customers, which can be really tricky.”

Barriers to leadership

The webinar also saw speakers discussing what the key barriers to business leadership on energy efficiency, renewable power sourcing and carbon reduction were.

Panellists concluded that proving the business case for such initiatives was no longer their biggest concern, with many studies concluding that energy and resource efficiency boots productivity and minimises costs in recent times.

Instead, Centrica Business Solutions’ UK and Ireland director Ian Hopkins suggested that historically low energy costs had previously placed such efficiencies “low-down” on the boardroom agenda.

“There’s been a situation in the past where energy cost hasn’t grabbed attention in the way that it should – certainly in places like the US,” Hopkins explained. “But as we’re seeing prices – particularly for electricity – increase with no sign of relenting, I think [energy efficiency] will naturally move up the agenda in parallel with carbon.”

Hopkins’ comments come after Centrica Business Solutions’ energy advantage report concluded that businesses with an “advanced” approach to energy management and strategy are 2.5 times more likely to be “financially successful” than their competitors.

Horrell, meanwhile, added that it was sometimes challenging for Mondalez’s sustainability team to secure boardroom-backed funding for costly projects. 

“When you take a project to the board, you are fighting with core business for the same capital, at the same time, from the same board members,” he said.

“You have to make sure that the business case is concise and has the right impact. It also must be open to challenges and you must be able to answer those questions – so homework has to be done in advance.”

The discussion formed part of edie’s Sustainable Manufacturing: Learning from the Leaders webinar, which is now available on demand. Hosted in association with Centrica Business Solutions, the hour-long webinar saw panellists debate how food and drink manufacturers can best prepare for Industry 4.0 and make a name for themselves as energy and sustainability leaders, after edie’s own sector insight report revealed that several key sustainability trends are now gathering traction within the industry.  


Sarah George

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