A recipe for success

8th April 2015

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Tracey Ferguson

Paul Suff discovers how 2 Sisters Food Group reached out to the profession to help develop its first sustainability plan

How can a business developing its first sustainability plan ensure it is on the right path? That was the question facing environment and sustainability director Andrew Edlin and his team at 2 Sisters Food Group, one of Europe’s leading food manufacturing businesses. The answer was to ask the profession for feedback on its draft plan through members of IEMA’s LinkedIn group and the 2degrees sustainability network.

More than 900 pieces of feedback were submitted through this crowdsourcing activity, helping the firm to finalise its plan, called Feeding our future. “All but two of the responses were constructive and we received comments from people around the world, including in Australia, New Zealand, Singapore and the US,” says Edlin. “The feedback made us rethink some aspects and resulted in us altering the structure and content of the plan for the better. I’m sure we’d have arrived at some of the same conclusions further down the road, but I think the crowdsourcing helped us to jump forward by at least 12 months.”

A growing business

2 Sisters started in 1993 as a poultry business and has grown over the past 22 years into a firm with an annual turnover of more than £3 billion. In 2010, it acquired Northern Foods for £342 million, adding Fox’s Biscuits, Goodfella’s Pizzas and a ready meals business to its mainly meat processing operations. 2 Sisters operates 43 production sites, owns 700 farms, employs more than 23,000 people, mostly in the UK but also in the Netherlands, Poland and the Republic of Ireland, and processes around 9 million chickens each week.

The company has three main business units – protein (meat), chilled and branded – and many of its sites are, in effect, medium-sized operations, with annual turnovers of more than £100 million and their own dedicated team of directors and capital budgets.

The rapid expansion of the business called for an overarching environmental policy and sustainability strategy. Putting in place a sustainability plan was in Edlin’s remit when he joined the company in 2013. He recalls: “I started by getting a group of people together from across the business, including from finance, procurement, operations, communications, technical [mainly food standards] and HR, to work on developing a plan.” He says the workshops identified an initial list of 350 issues on which to work. These were reduced over time to the 30 to 35 most important ones. It was at this stage that Edlin decided to share the working group’s emerging outcomes with other people.

Getting feedback

“The first step was to ask people in the business,” says Edlin. About 200 people in 2 Sisters were selected to act as “internal consultants” to examine what the group had come up with. At the same time, the working group, which numbered 15, discussed letting 2 Sisters’ key stakeholders, mainly its major customers, see the document. The team identified about 200 external people and sought help from the 2degrees sustainability network to make contact with others. In the event, more than 2,000 individuals were contacted through the network. The draft sustainability plan was also posted on IEMA’s LinkedIn page, which is accessed by more than 9,000 members.

“We wanted to get as many people as possible to look at the plan and let us know if we were focusing on right things; if anything was missing; and if we should consider a different approach in some areas,” he says.

A number of retailers, including Asda, operate their own communities on the network and this provided a starting point for identifying suitable potential reviewers. “We were able to select people in the network from relevant role groups that fitted our profile, while the IEMA LinkedIn group is a self-selected group of environment and sustainability practitioners,” says Edlin. People were contacted anonymously through
2degrees, although most of those replying provided their contact details.

2 Sisters worked with 2degrees to design a questionnaire for people to complete, although some chose to provide comments directly. The 15 questions varied: some asked respondents to rate the content of a section of the draft plan from one to five; while others were more open ended, allowing participants to elaborate on a topic. To encourage input, 2 Sisters offered prizes, including tickets to an England international football match.

Over a month, the food group received more than 900 pieces of feedback. “Most were constructive, not all were positive, and the comments led to an awful lot of change,” says Edlin, who read every comment and developed a spreadsheet to track feedback in six categories. These are:

  • climate change and energy;
  • innovation;
  • procurement;
  • responsible business – covering people, safety, technical issues, community and charity.
  • waste; and
  • water.

“People were very helpful, offering a lot of advice on technical issues, such as climate change adaptation,” says Edlin. He also reports that there was a big debate about whether to use an absolute or normalised [intensity] measure of carbon. “The feedback was split evenly,” recalls Edlin. “We’ve decided to adopt a normalised metric because that is what is required by our climate change agreements.” Several sections of the draft came in for criticism. The draft innovation section was described by many respondents as “weak” and attracted a lot of feedback. “We completely rewrote the section,” Edlin says. The key performance indicator suggested for measuring “responsible business” also drew flak. “It was universally hated,” Edlin concedes.

Edlin and his team also suffered a “duh moment” when it was pointed out by several people that they had forgotten to include any reference to the sustainability requirements of customers. “How did 15 people in the group, including myself, and 200 people internally not spot that omission?” he says. The feedback also highlighted the difficulty of bundling everything into six key performance indicators (KPIs). “It simply didn’t work, so we’ve had to settle for 10 KPIs,” says Edlin.

The plan

The 2 Sisters board signed off the sustainability plan at the end of February 2015. “It plots our journey up to 2020. This is where we think we need to go and some of the challenges we will face on the way,” says Edlin.

Each of the six sustainability issues is accompanied by a vision. The waste vision, for example, states that “reduced food waste and loss is embedded in our operations and supply chain, and we can create value through beneficial use of all wastes.”

This section describes the firm’s “simple goals” in this area, which include reducing the waste it produces, sending none to landfill and making beneficial use of what it does create. “Through our lean programmes, which integrate environmental measures and targeted waste teams in sites, we continue to make year-on-year improvements in this area,” states the company.

In the climate change and energy section, the company vision is focused on becoming a carbon-neutral business and a net provider of energy. “With a significant carbon footprint in our operations and a major internal and third party logistics operation serving our customers, this is one area where we can achieve significant success in sustainability,” it says.

Water is one area that Edlin acknowledges is key to the firm’s future success and which, until recently, was lower down its agenda. “We spend about £40 million a year on energy and around £10 million on water. Yet water is our most valuable commodity. If supplies were turned off, all our sites would shut down. If a site’s effluent treatment fails, it would close. From a risk perspective, water is a show stopper.” The sustainability plan’s vision for water acknowledges its primacy. It foresees a firm that is a net saver of the resource, using less at its sites than is saved through its supply chain.

Hidden benefits

Edlin reports that the focus on sustainability throughout the business, particularly asking 200 people internally to comment on the draft, has had the added benefit of identifying sites and engineers that have already been reducing environmental impacts. “We’ve discovered loads of examples of where equipment has been installed to reduce energy use, for example. It means that in many cases we’re not starting from scratch to achieve our visions under the plan,” says Edlin. Examples include installing solar panels on roofs, replacing conventional motors for inverted versions and swapping inefficient lighting with LEDs (see panel, p.43).

The fact that these examples were largely under the radar of head office was because of the autonomous nature of most sites, says Edlin. “Most sites have their own maintenance and capital budgets and are covered by climate change agreements, and they just got on and did things. There was no central diktat. Now that 2 Sisters has its sustainability plan in place, those examples of best practice and lessons learned will be shared across the whole business to help us achieve our visions.”

Reducing energy use at 2 Sisters

2 Sisters Food Group is covered by climate change agreements (CCAs), although responsibility for these has varied. In some cases, the sites were responsible, typically led by the general manager, while the procurement department or the finance function might be in control of other agreements. “This means there was no sharing of best practice and no learning from each other about what works and what doesn’t,” says Andrew Edlin, the group’s environment and sustainability director. That lack of joined-up working will change with the company’s sustainability plan. “There will be a league table published each month, so sites can see where they are in terms of energy and water consumption, waste, productivity and so on,” Edlin says.

The company is also planning to centralise action to reduce energy consumption at its head office in Nottingham. At the end of February 2015, 2 Sisters installed solar panels on its 73rd roof and is planning to fit more on other sites. “There is definitely scope for more,” says Edlin. “But whereas in the past sites were being contacted directly by solar companies, head office is using one contractor to visit all our sites to see which ones are suitable for solar. The same approach will probably be adopted for lighting and other efficiency opportunities.”

He also reports that 2 Sisters is looking at innovative solutions to reduce energy consumption. One example is the energy-from-waste agreement signed at the end of last year with Liverpool-based bioengineering company H2 Energy. Under phase one, the supplier’s biorefineries, which convert product waste to energy, will be installed at 10 of the company’s factories. Each year the deal will save 35,000 tonnes of carbon, 20,000 lorry journeys and cut 2 Sisters’ overall annual non-transport carbon footprint by 10%. Edlin says the deal with H2 Energy demonstrates 2 Sisters’ commitment to sustainability and innovation and highlights how the firm plans to engage with innovators to meet its sustainable development goals. The first project will be at the Cavaghan & Gray site in Carlisle, which manufactures ready meals. The biorefinery will produce up to 3,500 MWh/year of electricity and about 5,000 MWh/ year of processing steam – 20% of the site’s annual electricity consumption and almost all its steam. In this case, the plant will run on potato waste.

Edlin says that most of the energy projects at 2 Sisters are financed through third-party funding, so the company incurs no upfront costs but a share of the savings. This type of finance is particularly good for projects with relatively long paybacks, he says. “The forecast payback period for installing solar panels on a facility in Grimsby [pictured] is nine years. If I went to the board and told them that, I wouldn’t get funding. But if I say installation is free and will reduce the site’s annual energy bill by 20% over 20 years, I’ll get the green light. It’s a no brainer.”

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