Suntory talks sustainability challenges and priorities: Plastics, water, climate and COVID

By Katy Askew

- Last updated on GMT

Lucozade to Jim Beam maker Suntory details its sustainability priorities / GettyImages-ipopba
Lucozade to Jim Beam maker Suntory details its sustainability priorities / GettyImages-ipopba

Related tags Suntory Sustainability water stewardship Net zero Plastic

Suntory Group has made a series of commitments around plastic use, water conservation and climate impact. Yuko Koshiishi, Senior General Manager of the Corporate Sustainability Division, talks to FoodNavigator about why these are the ‘main sustainability challenges’ the beverage sector is facing.

Suntory Group is a leading multinational drinks company with a portfolio of household brands in Asia, Europe, the Americas and Oceana. Generating annual revenue in the region of $21bn in 2019, the company’s products range from premium spirits, beer and wine to brewed teas, bottled water, carbonated soft drinks, ready-to-drink coffee and energy drinks, along with health and wellness products. 

The company recently unveiled a series of sustainability commitments that, it says, reflects the pressing challenges that are facing the global beverage sector.

“At a high level, the main sustainability challenges the beverage industry is facing and addressing are: Building a circular economy for plastics, water conservation, and mitigating climate change,”​ sustainability lead Yuko Koshiishi told us.

“Our mission is to create harmony with people and nature, and a circular economy is crucial in order to do this. We are committed to protecting and nurturing clean water sources around the world where we operate. And it is impossible to create harmony with people and nature without addressing the imminent threat of climate change.”

The plastics predicament

The sudden and deep consumer backlash against single-use plastics, often dubbed the ‘Blue Planet’ effect after the BBC documentary of that name, may have pushed the plastic up the agenda – but plastic pollution is not a new problem facing the beverage sector.

For its part, Suntory has said it aims to use ‘fully sustainable plastic’ in all PET bottles globally by 2030. This means the company will use ‘zero virgin petrol-based materials’.

“All of our PET bottles will be made either from recycled plastics or plant-based materials. In essence, we define ‘sustainable’ as using zero fossil-based material and achieving a circular economy for plastic bottles. We know consumers value the convenience of plastic so we are innovating to make sure we can live with plastics in a way that is truly sustainable,”​ Koshiishi elaborated.

The company takes a ‘multi-pronged approach’ to developing sustainable plastics and materials, that encompasses increased recycling and the development of new materials.

Koshiishi explained: “The first [element] is to make sure to produce PET bottles made from recycled materials, so that the consumer always has the option to choose sustainable plastic. Availability of recycled PET material is dependent on the establishment of efficient collection systems and recycling infrastructure, as well as consumer behavior to properly dispose of single-use plastics. Therefore, we also work with all stakeholders on establishing a reliable recycling system and infrastructure, and changing consumer behavior so that plastics will be valued as a useful resource and not as waste.”

Nevertheless, a global patchwork of recycling regulations and infrastructure remains a massive barrier to the development of a circular model. “Bottles made from recycled PET aren’t widely available in some countries that lack established and efficient collection systems. But some markets, such as Japan, have benefited from government, private industry and consumers working together to bring the recycling rate of PET bottles to 84.6% through public-private partnership,”​ the sustainability expert observed.

Test plant for Annelotech's plant-based plastic technology - Pic - Suntory Group
Test plant for Annelotech's plant-based plastic technology - Pic - Suntory Group

Suntory believes that collaboration with all stakeholders will be absolutely crucial to tackle the plastic problem and develop the circular models that are needed to deliver a more sustainable future for the beverage industry.

“A circular economy is crucial in order to live in harmony with people and nature. We all know that no single player can solve plastic issues alone. Collaboration and partnerships with all stakeholders, such as government, industry, civil society and consumers, is vital,” Koshiishi stressed. “Our global work toward a circular economy is accelerated by partnerships with governments, consumers and the private sector – when we all work together, we can achieve this ideal faster.”

Partnerships with private sector actors are also critical to the success of Suntory’s strategy.

“Technological advancements in the private sector are also important. Suntory has pioneered a new PET mechanical recycling process called Flake-to-Preform, or 'F to P Direct Recycle Technology', that eliminates many steps between scraps and new bottles. This process decreases CO2 emissions by up to 60% compared to producing virgin petro-based PET preforms. This summer, we announced a joint-venture to invest in developing a chemical recycling technology with cross-industry partners in the plastic value chain in Japan and US-based Anellotech, called R Plus Japan Ltd, and Suntory Beverage & Food Europe joined a consortium with Carbios, to invest in the world's first enzymatic technology for the recycling of plastics.”

The themes of technological advancement and partnership are also evident in Suntory’s efforts to develop new materials as alternatives to plastics. The Japanese drinks giant has been working alongside Anellotech, a green innovation and technology company, since 2016 to jointly develop the ‘key component’ needed to make 100% bio-based PET bottles.

“We are currently developing the technology to create a 100% plant-based PET bottle, which has taken dedicated effort.” This means making plastic-like materials using non-food biomas, Koshiishi said, describing the research as ‘one of the most exciting things we are working on’.

Becoming ‘water positive’

The principles of good water stewardship may be less high profile than the plastics issue – but they are certainly no less important to transition towards a more sustainable beverage sector. “Good water stewardship is a core pillar of our sustainability efforts at Suntory,” Koshiishi noted.

Alongside its commitments on single-use plastics, Suntory has therefore stated its ambition is to be ‘water net positive by 2050’.

What exactly does this mean? The company has indicated it will restore more water than it uses during the production process, using water sanctuaries and insights gleaned through the Suntory Institute of Water Science.

Koshiishi explained that water sanctuaries are a ‘key piece’ of these efforts. “These started in Japan in 2003 and have been incredibly successful, with several thousands of acres of protected forest land and watersheds helping us reach our goal of cultivating double the amount of water we use in our plants in Japan a year ahead of our target.”

Suntory's Okudaisen Natural Water Sanctuary
Suntory's Okudaisen Natural Water Sanctuary / Pic: Suntory Group

This domestic success has seen the company expand its watershed conservation program overseas. In 2016, Suntory established a 33-acre water sanctuary on Maker’s Mark’s distillery grounds in Kentucky. In 2018, the group also established a Natural Water Sanctuary alliance on more than 15,000 acres of land in the Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest, which contains the water source for the Jim Beam distillery. And it hasn’t stopped there.

“We’ve now expanded watershed protection activities to production facilities in India, Mexico, Spain and the US Virgin Islands, and we’re planning future investments in Scotland, Ireland, France and Canada. Through these efforts and more, we are dedicated to protecting the resource that our products are dependent upon.”

Koshiishi described Suntory as ‘forward-thinking’ when it comes to water stewardship and, again, collaboration is an important part of its approach. For instance Beam Suntory and its barrel supplier, Independent Stave Company, provide sustainability education to loggers in Kentucky and Missouri to ‘protect the ecosystems on which we depend’. Since 2004, the group has conducted locally-based water education programs called 'Mizuiku' in Japan to help ‘train the next generation to use water sustainably’. This approach has subsequently been extended to Vietnam, Indonesia and Thailand.

For a global company operating across various markets, it is vital to adopt a locally relevant approach in this way, Koshiishi continued. “Water is a very localised issue, which means we need a tailored approach for each site. Being a global company with operations in many different parts of the world, one of the biggest challenges we face is that we need to adapt our water conservation activities to each local situation.”

Looking to its 2050 goal, Suntory plans to extend this collaborative, localised approach to maximise impact and reach its ambition of water positivity.

“Our ambitious goal is to expand our activities to preserve water resources and ecosystems to cultivate more water than we use in our plants worldwide by 2050. In order to achieve this, we plan to conduct water resource cultivation activities in areas with high water stress at more than half of our plants worldwide by 2030.”

Action on carbon and climate

The third pillar of Suntory’s sustainability journey focuses on climate impact. The company has said it wants to reduce absolute CO2 emissions from global operations (scope 1 &2) by 25% and absolute CO2 emissions along its value chain (Scope 3) by 20% compared to 2015 level by 2030.

“It is an interim goal towards our aim for net zero greenhouse gas emissions across the entire value chain by 2050,”​ Koshiishi said. This aligns Suntory’s climate targets with the net zero goals enshrined in the Paris Agreement.

Suntory has invested in renewable energy and ‘sustainable’ gas fuels, areas Koshiishi said are reducing emissions ‘most efficiently’.

“We utilize a cogeneration system (i.e. Combined Heat and Power) throughout our manufacturing process, which recovers heat generated in-house and uses it as a heat source to prepare beer and extract coffee and tea. This system increases efficiency by 70-80% and reduces CO2 emissions by 20-30%. In addition, most of our factories have converted from the use of heavy oil to sustainable alternatives like city gas and liquefied natural gas, which have fewer CO2 emissions per unit of heat. We plan to open a new bottled water plant (Suntory Kita Alps Shinano-no-Mori Water Plant) in Japan next spring, which will be our first net-zero CO2 emission plant, utilizing renewable energy such as wind/solar power generation and biomass boilers​,” he detailed.

The food and beverage sector's exposure to climate changes means inaction is not an option - Suntory

Progress in the supply chain can be more challenging – but Suntory is nevertheless making headway on scope 3 emissions, Koshiishi continued. This has included embedding sustainability objectives into the group’s approach to procurement.

“A critical component of our climate commitments is our supply chain. We established the Suntory Group Green Procurement Standard, which is based on our Supply Chain Sustainability policy and promotes procurement activities to lower environmental impact in cooperation with each of our business partners.”

COVID-19 impact: ‘We have maintained momentum’

For some, the global COVID-19 pandemic has meant that pressing matters may have overshadowed efforts to promote sustainable business practices. Not for Suntory,
Koshiishi insisted.

“We have maintained the momentum behind our sustainability strategy during the pandemic. This includes working closely with our supply chain to make sure that we are promoting sustainability in the sourcing of raw materials, transportation and production processes. We believe it is crucial to promote sustainability throughout our entire supply chain.”

Maintaining this sense of urgency on environmental action is vital for the food and beverage sector to remain viable and ensure security of supply in the longer term, the Osaka-based corporation recognizes.

“While the environmental crisis is a threat to many sectors, it poses a threat to the food and beverage sector in terms of security – from availability of raw materials for food and beverage products to the stability of production and supply. In particular, climate change severely impacts the availability of water. Our work preserving watersheds and natural water sanctuaries aims to stabilize these precious resources, and return more water to the environment than we use, while our commitment to reducing CO2 levels helps protect the environment from increasingly harsh conditions for agriculture.”

Innovation and investment to accelerate action

Not only is Suntory committed to a circular economy for plastics, water conservation, and climate, but the company is also committed to promoting these priorities through investment and innovation.

The group has prioritised the development of ‘advanced technologies, leading partnerships, and education programs’, Koshiishi suggested. These efforts include the Global Plastic Action Partnership, which brings together governments, business, civil societies and think tanks to create circular solutions.

And the pace of change is accelerating, Koshiishi claimed. “We have been pursuing our mission of ‘creating harmony with people and nature’ with our founding spirit of ‘giving back to society’. We accelerate our action with the ‘Yatte Minahare’, the spirit of bold ambition, meaning that we never give up and constantly challenge ourselves to do the right thing. Our commitment toward becoming a more sustainable beverage supplier comes to life across our entire business, and we’re not letting the pandemic get in the way.”

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