AB Sugar: Global Minds, Local Champions
We speak to Katharine Teague, Head of Advocacy at AB Sugar, regarding its extensive sustainability drive worldwide.
When it comes to sustainability, AB Sugar is quite clear about its objectives. “Our commitments are ambitious,” says CEO Dr Mark Carr, “but represent the next step of our journey towards becoming the world’s leading sustainable sugar business.”
Managing sustainability across such a large corporation can be as challenging as it is rewarding. Spread across 10 territories with over 30,000 workers producing 4.5mn tonnes of sugar each year, AB Sugar – part of Associated British Foods PLC – is a massively challenging operation when it comes to implementing genuinely sustainable change. However, small changes at companies as large as AB have dramatic effects across the end-to-end supply chain and associated communities.
Katharine Teague is Head of Advocacy at AB Sugar and oversees the company’s strategy in this space. “From an AB Sugar perspective, focusing on sustainability is how we've always run our businesses,” explains Teague. “We're always looking to do more with less. I think that's a fair thing to say. We don't talk about sustainability as a standalone factor. Instead, we look at sustainability through the framework that we've established around ‘Global Minds, Local Champions’ and we have broken it down into three pillars.”
The first pillar of AB’s sustainability strategy centres around both supporting rural economies and its commitment to building vibrant and diverse supply chains. Through this pillar, AB aims to increase the prosperity of local communities and change the influence of its supply chain from an agricultural base. “We’re looking at the kind of people we work with, whether they’re out-growers, or distribution, logistics, services or suppliers. How can we increase the prosperity of those people while at the same time partnering with them to make great changes in our supply chain and ultimately in some of our locations? How can we make sure our farms are the most effective and the most sustainable?”
AB is eager to bring smallholder farmers – through cooperatives, associations or in block farms – into its supply chain to ensure that it has sustainable cane for the future. Governments and international donors can then partner with AB to create real change on the ground, according to Teague. “We can then enable smallholder farmers and work with them on improving their yields. The way that they're farming now gives them greater food security and a profit share from the business. Those kinds of projects at the base of the supply chain are exceedingly ambitious, very rewarding and show how our supply chains are changing. It's not just about us, it's also about the communities where we operate.”
Each of AB’s businesses run as ‘local champions’, with a Managing Director who makes local decisions around what works for their market, customers and supply chain in the long-term. “Dealing with an issue like modern slavery requires cultural understanding,” Teague explains. “We've come to a point now after nearly five years of working with international donors, experts and INGOs where we've established land champions in each business. Alongside this, we have worked with our communities to make sure they understand what land is and that they have the right to own it. In Mozambique, there are 1,200 people who own land where they didn’t three years ago.”
The second pillar of AB’s sustainability strategy is concerned with nurturing thriving and healthy communities. AB and Teague are obviously aware of recent scientific and public discourse regarding the effects of sugar and rising levels of obesity, but they’re not avoiding the elephant in the room. “We are deeply understanding of the fact that we need to educate around our ingredient so there is an understanding of diet, the wider obesity crisis and the complexity that sits around that and our ingredients,” says Teague. “We've made a commitment to educate 25mn people by 2030. We have a big footprint in Africa where our businesses there provide healthcare, education, schools and clinics.”
As for the third pillar in AB’s sustainability drive, the company is increasing its focus on using resources responsibly. Its sustainability strategy aims to reduce its end-to-end supply chain water and CO2 footprint by 30%, while ensuring all plastic packaging is reusable, recyclable, biodegradable or compostable. “We have a large land footprint where we operate,” says Teague. “We use a lot of water and have factories which obviously emit CO2. One of the things we're always looking to do is make sure we only use what is needed. We make sure we have really substantive conversations about reduction. We're constantly looking at that balance and ensuring that at every point along our supply chain we are looking to reduce that impact. We've done a phenomenal job in each of our factories because that's where we've focused on reducing CO2 and our energy input, as well as how we use water.”
One of the headline-grabbing news stories of recent times involved plastics in the ocean, and AB is keen to outline its efforts to reduce its reliance in this area. “We are a biomass,” says Teague. “We could be used to make plastics, which are obviously more sustainable if you want to call it that, but we also have plastic in our end-to-end supply chain from the cartons and bags we send out. We're looking at how we reduce that down and ensure that all our plastics within our supply chain will be reusable, recyclable, biodegradable and compostable. We have conversations with all our partners around that.”
An initiative that Teague enthuses about relates to the company’s activities in Malawi and its innovation ‘in the field’. AB has a performance improvement programme that looks at roughly 1600 projects at any one time and identifies improvements from procurement through to the detail changes in factories. One of the key areas AB is looking at concerns the mapping of data on crop growth and water usage. “We create cane in Illovo both in our own plantation and with our out-growers, whether large or small. The decision we took in Charlo, which is one of our very large operations in Africa, was to look at 17,000 hectares of our estate before creating satellite-based data to deliver biweekly information and data that can then be delivered through a remote cane management website and system. This mapping improves agricultural productivity and gives agronomic support to those in the field. This new system also helps us support our irrigation management, getting water to the right place at the right time. Irrigation and the use of water in sub-Saharan Africa is obviously key. There is a lot less of it, but we still need water, so we need to be conscious of how we use it. That's another example of where we're using technology to really change our boundaries and our thinking about our business.”