"We are beginning to turn the corner in decoupling environmental impact from growth," says Andrew Kuyk, director of sustainability and competitiveness at the Food and Drink Federation (FDF). "If we can do that in hard times it bodes very well for the future."
In fact, tough economic times are driving firms to maximise "resource efficiency", says Kuyk: "One winwin is that resource efficiency has bottom-line benefits, as well as environmental benefits. Why spend more on energy, packaging or materials than you need?"
But he admits the budget squeeze can spell trouble for green measures that need significant investment, and this might be where the government could step in with: "the industrial equivalent of the domestic boiler scrappage scheme or similar".
In any case, the latest report on the FDF's Five-fold Ambition targets showed that food firms are making progress in the key areas of carbon dioxide emissions, waste to landfill, packaging, water and transport.
Energy consumption at Edinburgh Haggis maker Macsween illustrates the progressive decoupling of output from environmental impact. The firm has grown rapidly in recent years, and that initially led to a significant overshoot of its emissions targets in 2007/8 and 2008/9 as new facilities were installed to meet demand.
An Energy Savings Trust audit in 2009 identified a raft of energy-saving measures and the firm slashed use from almost 2,500kWh/t to 1,800kWh/t by 2009/10.
United Biscuits (UB) is one of the poster boys in the FDF report, which highlighted a 28% reduction in UB's factory carbon emissions since 1995. But communications manager Bob Brightwell says performance has continued to improve significantly since the report emerged.
"In the UK our carbon emissions fell by 7.34% in absolute terms and by 8.4% on a carbon-emissions-per-tonne-of-product basis. This was due to a range of measures including the roll out of some lower energy oven burners and refined use of energy management systems. Since 1995 at a group level we have now reduced our carbon emissions by 32.5%."
The overall reduction in carbon dioxide reported from FDF members was 25%, and the target is to cut absolute emissions by 35% by 2020, compared with a 1990 baseline.
Another FDF target is for its members to send zero food and packaging waste to landfill by 2015. Many food companies are also signed up to the Waste & Resources Action Programme's (WRAP's) Courtauld 2 target of reducing product and packaging waste in the supply chain by 5% by end of 2012, compared with a 2009 baseline.
FDF members are making faster progress than industry as a whole, reducing product and packaging waste in the supply chain by 6.9%.
This is another area where UB has been surging ahead since the 2011 report, when it revealed that 12 of its 16 UK sites were achieving zero waste to landfill. The remaining sites have now made the grade, says Brightwell: "We are we think the first major manufacturer to achieve zero waste to landfill across all of our UK sites (11 factories, a distribution hub and four offices). We have also achieved this for our manufacturing sites in France, Belgium, Holland and India."
Other major players are not far behind. Unilever reported in its Sustainable Living Plan that it sends zero 'non-hazardous' waste to landfill.
Macsween is typical of many companies, having made very good progress initially but only recently getting to grips with the final 10% of waste to landfill. This "difficult" waste is mainly plastics contaminated with food materials. However, the company says a commercial agreement will be in place in 2012 to send all the remaining material for processing.
Signatories to WRAP's Courtauld 2 agreement also aim to reduce the carbon impact of consumer packaging by 10% by the end of 2012, with a 2009 baseline. An absolute reduction of 5.1% has been achieved across all signatories so far, with FDF members contributing 1.2%. Kuyk cautions that assessing the ideal balance between the environmental cost and benefit of packaging is always tricky, because it's closely tied up with other parameters such as shelf-life and product waste.
Recyclability is another key issue. While chronic underinvestment is an obvious concern, the uneven provision of recycling facilities is a more intractable problem, according to Kuyk: "We think consistency is the bigger prize and we want uniformity of provision across the country."
That's down to patchy recycling provision. A firm may want to reduce packaging weight by replacing glass with paper or card, but that might have to be lined to maintain food safety. "Some of these [composite materials] are recyclable on the latest equipment but on older equipment they're not. If one local authority can recycle them and another can't, the manufacturer may inadvertently be causing a problem," argues Kuyk.
Attention is focusing on water. FDF members have reported a reduction of 5.3% in consumption, excluding water embedded in the product. This compares with a target of 20% by 2020, compared with a 2007 baseline.
Brightwell again says UB has gone further: "Water use in the UK fell by 14.4% in 2011, bringing our total reduction in the UK to 45% since 2007. While much of this is due to the installation of £2M worth of water recycling equipment at [Billingham], all of our manufacturing sites have made significant reductions."
Water shows why more firms are looking beyond their operations to reduce their products' impact, says Kuyk: "Manufacturing is a drop in the ocean compared with the total water footprint of almost any food most water is used in primary production."
Pressure for responsible sourcing is growing. Registration with the Supplier Ethical Data Exchange System (SEDEX) is a prerequisite for doing business with the likes of Tesco.
"85% of our raw material suppliers are now on the SEDEX system," says Brightwell. Palm oil is an especially sensitive ingredient for UB, which sources a 100% segregated supply from registered sustainable sources.
Other firms rely on the 'halfway house' of Green Palm certificates, which are designed to help users reward sustainable palm oil producers but do not require a segregated supply. Unilever, for instance, says all its palm oil will be covered by Green Palm by the end of this year, but wants to move to segregated, traceable sources by 2020.
Although it sources around 67% of ingredients from Scotland, Macsween's sources beef from Brazil. "Things like the minimum wage, welfare and contracts are all standard in Britain, but we need to take a lead role in how we deal with overseas suppliers," says Macsween's md, James Macsween. "We've had an ethical trading policy since 2009, and our 2011/12 sustainability report is the first to include responses to our supplier questionnaires."
Transport also extends beyond the factory gates. The FDF says manufacturers, retailers and wholesalers had saved 163M HGV road miles by late 2011 well on the way to the goal of 200M HGV miles in total between 2007 and 2012.
Tapping into cow power
Farm-based ice cream and crisp maker Mackies looks set to become one of the UK's largest firms running wholly on renewables by installing its own anaerobic digester (AD) to turn the slurry from its 400-strong herd of cows into biofuel.
The planned development of a 250kW AD facility at the company's dairy farm in Westertown, Rothienorman, would be the final element in making the firm entirely dependent on renewable energy.
The firm teamed up with Edinburgh Napier University's Biofuel Business Programme to plan for the plant, which will convert thousands of tonnes of slurry into methane for electricity. They hope AD will save up to £300,000 in fuel costs.
Mackies first introduced an 800kW wind turbine in 2005 to supply electricity for its farm and ice cream production. Two more 800kW turbines followed in 2007, and these now supply 70% of the firm's energy needs and allow 62% of their total output to be exported to the national grid.
A further 50kW of solar panels were added earlier this year, but the firm continues to take power from the grid when the wind isn't blowing or when its consumption is higher than the output from its renewable sources. The AD plant should make this unnecessary.