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bbi-2023-02-Seeing the bigger picture (ABA excerpt)

Setting a sustainability strategy requires a holistic approach.

By Maggie Glisan

Tune into the news at any given moment, and you’ll likely find a story related to climate change, whether it’s about massive fires, extreme drought, or rare weather events. The narratives have become so commonplace that they barely grab people’s attention as they scroll from one headline to the next. Yet the latest research suggests issues pertaining to the environment are, in fact, very much top of mind.

The American Bakers Association (ABA) also has a history of meeting members where they are and supporting companies in their sustainability efforts. But the organization is also starting to think more holistically about sustainability as the commercial baking sector becomes more willing to engage in targeted commitments.

“I think it’s time for us to revamp where we are and seek additional recommendations for bakers to embrace,” said Rasma Zvaners, VP of technical and regulatory services at ABA. “We run the full gamut of large global companies to small- to medium-size companies that are more regional. Three years ago, you had some that were out front and willing to make statements about their goals, but there may have been some hesitancy from some of the small- and medium-sized companies that simply lacked the resources.”

Fast forward three years, and Zvaners thinks bakeries are more inclined to commit to specific sustainability targets.

That’s in part because of increased pressure from major retailers like Walmart and Target to meet sustainability specifications, but it’s also about the reality of climate impacts (like drought in the Western US) on individual businesses.

One significant way ABA has helped support bakeries’ sustainability efforts is through its promotion of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)’s Energy Star certification. The national program recognizes participating bakery facilities that improve energy efficiency by 10% or more within five years, and the top 25% of energy-efficient US manufacturing facilities receive the EPA’s Energy Star certification.

Fifty commercial bread and roll bakeries and 24 cookie and cracker bakeries have received recognition since ABA began partnering with the EPA in 2010. Of the 92 manufacturing plants recognized by the EPA’s Energy Star certification for superior energy performance in 2021, 42 were ABA member facilities, and their efforts resulted in an energy saving of just over 6 million MMbtu.

“Energy Star was an amazing first step for the sector and continues to be a strong program,” Zvaners said. “It has provided a base framework. For those that were starting to think about sustainability early on, it provided a cookbook of ideas.”

Portfolio Manager, the Energy Star program’s online benchmarking tool, has also proven to be an effective resource for commercial bakeries. The tool allows individual companies to input their facility’s energy uses, then calculates an energy performance score so they can see where they rank relative to their peers. Nearly 25% of US commercial building space is actively benchmarking on the platform.

Although the tool doesn’t allow users to identify competitors by score, it does help bakeries get a sense of where they are excelling and where they can improve based on where they stack up against their peers. Ultimately, that data can help inform strategy. And it can lead to significant cost savings, too.

Another program encouraging better sustainability practices is the US Department of Energy (DOE)’s Better Plants program. As part of the Better Buildings Initiative, Better Plants partners with manufacturers and water and wastewater utilities to boost their competitiveness by improving energy and water efficiency and reducing waste and greenhouse gas emissions.

Flowers Baking Co. of Batesville was recently recognized with a Better Practice Award for its energy efficiency projects, which included boiler, compressed air, LED lighting upgrades, waste heat recovery and variable-frequency drives for exhaust fans, among other projects. In total, the bakery reduced its annual energy use by more than 13,000 MMBtu.

“When planning equipment upgrades, Flowers Baking Co. of Batesville incorporated energy efficiency throughout the project design, reducing energy usage and costs long-term,” said Margaret Ann Marsh, VP of sustainability and environmental at Thomasville, GA-based Flowers Foods. “Across the Flowers network, this program has become a case study in how to look at every operational upgrade project as an energy efficiency opportunity.”

Flowers’ efforts highlight a key takeaway: Reducing your environmental footprint isn’t just good for the planet; it’s good for business. Companies that lean in to the challenge and lead with innovative solutions come out with a competitive advantage.

Energy-efficient building improvements are not the only way to get out ahead of the pack, of course. Packaging is one of the biggest hot-button issues when it comes to sustainability, especially from a consumer perspective. According to Innova’s Lifestyle & Attitude Survey, as many as 20% to 25% of consumers adjusted their product choices for environmental reasons such as choosing food with environmentally friendly packaging.

Karen Reed, global director of marketing and communications at Kwik Lok, said one of the biggest challenges when it comes to meeting packaging sustainability goals in the US is the lack of federal regulation.

“There’s currently a patchwork of regulatory obligations, and that can be difficult for bakeries to navigate,” Reed said. “As more state legislation is passed, it will become increasingly challenging.”

Zvaners also said that packaging is top of mind right now for ABA members as they sort through state-by-state legislation, but she expects Congress to step in to set some general expectations — much like they did with GMO labeling — that level the playing field at some point in the next few years.

In the meantime, Reed said Kwik Lok is focusing on developing products that give companies options, depending on what their current sustainability requirements and goals are.
“We’re trying to develop a portfolio of options, where people can choose what works for them right now, knowing that that is going to change rapidly,” she said. “We are paying attention to what’s happening with material science and with regulation, and we see more change on the horizon.”

They say that change is the only constant in life. And with that, consumers will no doubt expect faster progress moving forward. That includes commercial baking companies expanding the definition of sustainability and taking a more holistic approach when it comes to goal setting. It also means using competition as a driver for innovation …but doing so in a way that keeps the larger picture in mind.

“Success hinges on collaboration,” Reed said. “This is not something any one company’s going to do by themselves. We have to change the whole system. We have to change how we approach our work. We have to create infrastructure, both in our companies and in the places that we live.”

The article is part of an extended feature, which was originally published in [BBI 2 – 2023]. Read the full article in the magazine: