People and Leaders

Interview With Corbion Sustainability Director

“We are becoming ever-more ambitious as regards sustainability”. Diana Visser, director sustainability at biotech company Corbion, about dealing with the SDG's

PwC’s specialist Linda Midgley talks with Diana Visser, directeur sustainability Corbion

It is now clear to many companies that sustainability must become a strategic pillar. But where do you start and how do you deal with the sustainable development goals (SDGs) of the United Nations?

Linda Midgley, PwC’s specialist in Sustainable Strategy and SDGs, talks about this with Diana Visser, Corbion’s Sustainability Director.

Corbion produces sustainable food and biochemical ingredients, and brings innovative biotechnological solutions onto the market.

The company has a sustainability programme for that purpose and is participating in the Science Based Targets initiative.

The initiative helps companies to define, on a scientific basis, the approach and methods that help to set targets for lower CO2 emissions.

Linda Midgley: “What is Corbion’s ambition when it comes to sustainability and the SDGs?”

Diana Visser: “As a company, you need to look at the material issues that you deal with directly and with which you can make a positive impact – or reduce a negative impact – by helping solve important problems in the world.

If you can bring what you want to achieve as a company into line with the SDGs, then you’re well on the way. Corbion’s focus is on SDG 2 (no hunger) and SDG 12 (responsible consumption and production).

Those two SDGs fit in well with our business operations. Almost all of our raw materials originate from agriculture, so it’s important for us to look at how agriculture can be made more sustainable, because if that doesn’t work, it’ll have an effect on us too. In our cooperation with suppliers within the chain, we look at how we can help and challenge them to become more sustainable.

In addition, our products can contribute to reducing food wastage, dependence on fossil fuels, and CO2 emissions.

Together with our customers, we consider how our products can help them make a positive impact, so that we can make a joint contribution to achieving the SDGs.”

Companies are often reluctant to set ambitious goals because they’re afraid of being penalised if they then fail to meet them. What’s the situation as regards Corbion?

“When you set goals, you need to be realistic but at the same time ambitious. Maybe you don’t know exactly how you’re going to achieve a certain goal yet.

Or what about if a goal is too ambitious and you fail to achieve it? The key is to be transparent: a reasonable explanation can make up for a lot if a goal isn’t met.

What I also see happen is that after you’ve set a goal, so much gets moving that you could probably have been even more ambitious. Corbion has deliberately chosen to define long-term goals.

By doing so, we’re demonstrating to the outside world our ambition in the areas that we consider important.

Sustainability is about the long-term health of the company. Defining long-term goals also helps us with our internal innovation, because the goals clearly indicate where you aim to go.

They give direction to our entire organisation.

We link up the impact we make with the use of our products to the SDGs. By doing so, we’re taking the first steps to measuring the impact of our products on the SDGs.

That’s important because it enables us to translate our business objectives into the impact on people and the environment, including in the longer term.”

Companies sometimes find it difficult to get their employees on board where their higher ambitions are concerned. What about Corbion?

“We want to reduce our CO2 emissions in line with the Paris climate agreements.

We expressed that as an ambition so that we could get to work on it, even though we didn’t yet know exactly how we would go about doing it.

That’s why we linked up with the Science Based Targets initiative (SBTi). Among other things, the SBTi helps companies to define, on a scientific basis, the approach and methods that help to set ambitious targets for lower CO2 emissions.

That scientific basis really suits a technically innovative company like Corbion, and that’s helped get our people on board.

What’s also helped is that participation in the SBTi meant that we had two years to work out the goal. We used that time to draw up a roadmap for achieving it, which generated confidence as to whether it was feasible. A lot of our customers, particularly in the food sector, are also participating in the SBTi.

Talking to them about their experience helped motivate our employees.

The fact that companies similar to Corbion were involved was also important because some employees thought it was only big companies like Nestle and Unilever that were participating in the SBTi.”

So you had two years to develop the roadmap and the target. Tell us something about that process.

“We held workshops to collect all kinds of ideas internally, and then ultimately – under the leadership of a project leader within our R&D department – a roadmap was drawn up for new projects in the field of sustainability. It was crucial for it to extend beyond just the Sustainability department, because that meant it could be fleshed out in actual practice. Some of the ideas are already ripe for implementation, while others still require research and (further) development.

Over the next five years, we intend implementing investment projects to save energy so as to achieve a further reduction in our CO2 emissions.

Among other things, we also want to reduce the CO2 emissions associated with raw materials and transport. We’ve therefore been talking to our key suppliers so as to gather information and see what the opportunities and challenges are.

It wasn’t those discussions that determined our targets, because those targets are determined by (climate) science.

But our interaction with suppliers, peers, and other companies that are already involved in the SBTi has determined our route towards those targets.

Our customers are also ambitious and are also joining up with the SBTi. There are ‘engagement targets’ with which a company commits itself to persuading its suppliers to define science-based targets too.

If you’ve already defined them, like we have, then you’re immediately the preferred supplier. Customers are now increasingly asking about this when determining which suppliers they will allocate what volume.

During that process, a lot of questions are asked about sustainability. Being ‘best in class’ is an advantage, and it also helps the commercial teams.”

You often see companies making progress with the planning, but the implementation proves to be difficult. Sound familiar?

“When a company grows using old technology, it increases its CO2 emissions. But if you make smart use of new technology, you can invest in growth and at the same time reduce your carbon footprint.

Growth and CO2 reduction don’t need to be incompatible. One example is lactic acid, one of our key products, from which we make all kinds of derivatives.

A large part of the carbon footprint of lactic acid production relates to the use of calcium, because producing calcium releases CO2.

We’ve developed a new technology that eliminates the need for calcium through smart recycling, which significantly reduces CO2 emissions throughout the entire chain.

That technology is now ready to be implemented. Our next new lactic acid plant will be using the new technology, but setting up a new plant is only possible if you grow as a company.”

Could you give us some more examples of products that you can contribute with?

“I see Corbion as an enabler of the circular economy. We produce sustainable ingredients that can help extend the shelf life of food products. That’s a way to reduce food wastage.

Another important aspect of our products is promoting food safety. That also prevents food being wasted, because products contaminated with the Listeria bacterium, for example, are thrown away.

Another example is our biochemistry division, which produces environmentally friendly solvents for pesticides, and is researching how such solvents can improve pesticide effectiveness.

That can also contribute to making agriculture more sustainable. With our products we make a positive contribution to people and the environment, but at the same time it’s crucial to ensure that the chain is also performing up to standard.

In our responsible procurement programme, we focus primarily on the five main agriculture‑related raw materials that we use: cane sugar, palm oil, soy, maize, and wheat. We make use of certification, our own codes, and audits at our suppliers.”

I often hear companies say that the applications are there but the market isn’t yet ready for them. Or that other parties don’t want to cooperate. Has Corbion already worked with others to really push sustainable solutions?

“One good example is our sustainable product AlgaPrime DHA. It’s an alternative to the omega‑3‑rich fish oil contained in the feed for farmed fish.

We can produce this essential fatty acid from sugar using algae, rather than from large quantities of other fish. Our product has a link with SDG 2 and 12 because farmed fish will be an important factor in being able to feed the world sustainably in 2050.

We supply AlgaPrime DHA to producers of fish feed and they supply it to fish farmers. We work closely with the fish feed producers, but also with NGOs, universities, and sustainability experts so as to substantiate and communicate our story effectively.

Pressure exerted by a retailer can also help, as in the case of Tesco, which aims to make the customer’s shopping basket more sustainable.

As part of that programme, Tesco is now looking at how it can increase the use of algae oil. This is giving a boost to sustainability in fish farming.”

What impact is Corbion’s sustainability policy having on investors and financiers?

“Our sustainability policy has a positive effect in all kinds of ratings, and we’re getting more and more enquiries from investors. They often have only a small number of companies that meet their criteria and in which they can invest.

Corbion is one of them. We’ve also taken out a sustainable loan through Rabobank, and we get an interest rate discount if we meet our sustainability targets.

One of our suppliers now has such a loan too.”

To finish off: what is Corbion’s next step?

“We take sustainability very seriously. We don’t just say: ‘Our positive impact and reducing our negative impact result in a positive net result, so we don’t need to do anything else.’

That wouldn’t be plausible. We continue to set increasingly ambitious sustainability goals, we continue to investigate how our products and innovations contribute to the SDGs, and we continue to work with others to coordinate the supply and demand for sustainable products.

cThat also fits in very well with the growth of our organisation.”

Diana Visser Sustainability Director Corbion
Diana Visser Sustainability Director Corbion

REFS

Published on pwc.nl

“We are becoming ever-more ambitious as regards sustainability”

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