The smartest businesses will continue to invest in green improvements despite the downturn, says Fiona Dawson

With commentators predicting the worst is yet to come for an already fragile economy, you could be forgiven for thinking tackling environmental issues is the last thing embattled manufacturers should be worrying about.

There are signs some sectors of the UK business community may be thinking about scaling back their plans to go green. However, I am confident the food and drink manufacturing sector will continue to show genuine leadership on these issues, building on the sterling work that has been achieved by members of the Food and Drink Federation since autumn 2007 under the Five-fold Environmental Ambition.

You could argue that we have little choice but to continue embracing this agenda, partly because the Climate Change Act came into effect in November and the new Committee on Climate Change has published the UK’s first carbon budgets.

Industry leaders can either choose to ignore the long-term policy goal of moving towards a low-carbon economy as they grapple with today’s operational realities, or they can accept that such thinking must be hard-wired into future business planning if their companies are to remain sustainable (and viable). 

Let’s not forget another important fact: doing this ‘green stuff’ is not only good for the environment, but also makes sound business sense. Take the FDF’s targets to reduce CO2 emissions 20% by 2010 and 30% by 2020, compared with 1990. We have set these because climate change is mankind’s biggest challenge.

The latest figures available under our voluntary Climate Change Agreement with Government show our members reduced their carbon emissions by 17% in 2006 compared with 1990, saving 58,000 tonnes of CO2 emissions a year – the equivalent of taking 22,000 cars a year off UK roads. Impressive stuff.

These reductions have been achieved through efficiency measures and investment in renewable sources of energy, which are not only making a real difference to the environment, but helping food and drink companies reduce operating costs.

In a newly published report, the FDF lists a number of investments that show our members are serious about hitting their collective targets on CO2 emissions. McCain Foods, for instance, will meet 70% of its electricity needs at its Whittlesey site from renewable sources following a £15m investment. A biomass boiler will allow Macphie of Glenbervie to reduce emissions by 2,100 tonnes a year and Burton’s Foods has reduced CO2 emissions 10% since 1999 thanks to plant and baking equipment.

Our members have made good progress against the other pillars of the FDF’s Environmental Ambition. They recycled or recovered more than 82% of food and packaging waste created in factories in 2006, and last year doubled their participation in the Courtauld Commitment to cut packaging reaching households, and 237 sites are saving water under The Federation House Commitment.

This all goes to show smart businesses understand what’s good for the environment is usually good for their bottom lines as well. I am confident that this smart thinking will continue through the turbulent times ahead, ensuring our sector remains on the front foot as we build a low-carbon economy in the UK.n

Fiona Dawson is managing director of Mars UK Snackfood and chair of the FDF’s Sustainability and Competitiveness Steering Group.