How Barry Callebaut is making chocolate sustainable

Ten years ago, when most companies still thought of sustainability as a nice added extra, Leigh Pezzicara was studying for her Master’s in Sustainability and Environmental Management at Harvard. “I knew if you could influence corporations to become more sustainable, you would have more of an impact in the world.”

She went on to join Barry Callebaut in 2014, which already had a strong focus on sustainability due to the challenges facing the cocoa farming industry – from farmer poverty to child labour. In 2015 the company, one of the world’s biggest B2B chocolate manufacturers, launched non-profit Cocoa Horizons Foundation to encourage change.

Now head of Global Sustainability Marketing, Communications & Customer Outreach, Pezzicara talks to Happen about how Barry Callebaut is driving change in the cocoa supply chain and among its own customers.

How has the corporate attitude towards sustainability changed in the last decade?
Ten years ago it was a side thought. Big organisations were beginning to realise it was important. Now, every size organisation knows it’s a necessity and is integrating it into their businesses. In the last two years companies have been coming to us asking what they can do, and implementing similar strategies in their organisations. They are moving away from a risk-based approach, towards an opportunity for growth and differentiation approach.

Can you explain the difference?
When sustainability first started to become a “trend”, organisations thought they needed to join because the competition is – otherwise they’ll get called out or attacked by the media. It’s a reactionary approach, to protect their business. Then there was an evolution. Companies that started sustainability journeys by reducing their risk and cost started to see the value it holds for increasing their brand strength, differentiating them, and increasing loyalty. They realise they can tell a very strong story that’s relevant to their consumers. I really see organisations moving away from compliance and fear of a negative impact if they don’t get on-board, towards embracing it, taking a leadership role and seeing the positive impact on their business.

How does Barry Callebaut integrate sustainability into the company structure?
As sustainability is core to our business, we have a core, central sustainability team at headquarters and representatives based regionally. You often hear that sustainability needs to be integrated throughout an organisation, which is true. But I believe at the beginning of any journey there must be a core group of people dedicated to it. It shouldn’t be a tag on to other things an employee needs to get done day to day. From there, you can start to integrate sustainability throughout all divisions. It shows how seriously we take it and how much we are willing to invest in it.

How much were you educating customers along the way, versus them coming to you and requesting a sustainability focus?
It’s definitely a mixture. The World Cocoa Foundation has been driving sustainability for a long time and we were one of the founding members. A lot of our competitors and customers are a part of that. It’s not that we discovered these challenges alone – they are impacting all of us. With some of the smaller or medium sized companies not so close to the supply chain, there is an educational role. We help create solutions for them so they can realise their sustainability ambitions. For others, we discuss how purchasing sustainable products can enhance their brand value. 

How is technology helping you tackle those challenges?
We’ve partnered with SAP to create a data collection system to use at a farmer and community level. You can input data on a farmer such as farm size, yield, location, income, etc. Data helps both parties – understanding farm size and yield, for example, helps the farmer to know how much input is necessary, while also helping to raise any flags if, for instance, the yield suddenly and significantly increases. We can then question where this additional yield is coming from; for example, is there a risk of it coming from protected forest?

We capture community data as well, such as, how many children are in a family, whether they are going to school and where the nearest school is. Knowing our farmers enables us to support their professionalisation. In our Farm Business Plan app, we can run an algorithm for individual farmers that creates a business plan based on their current reality, with recommendations on an approach to improve their income from cocoa and other sources.  

"I hope all organisations recognise and embrace the fact that sustainability is their responsibility, their consumers expect it of them, and their business can have a positive impact on the world"

Leigh Pezzicara, Head of Global Sustainability Marketing, Communications & Customer Outreach

How do you include all stakeholders in this process?
One of the most important aspects is to get all stakeholders – internal and external – involved from the beginning. You need to understand opposing points of view from every department and ensure everyone’s opinion is included in future planning. This doesn’t mean everyone will agree – but considering all ramifications of a decision or way forward is so important. There will always be people who won’t initially see the value for their department. It’s about engaging and working together to understand the value moving forward.

I don’t think anyone would look at the challenges impacting our industry – farmers living in poverty, kids in the supply chain and the impact of deforestation – and think ‘it’s not our responsibility’. No, they would understand we all need to address these challenges if we want to stay in business in the  future. Most people also want to do the right thing, morally and ethically. The challenge is getting everyone to understand the role they can play to achieve the target.

How do you drive engagement on sustainability throughout the organisation?
After Barry Callebaut launched its Forever Chocolate strategy to make sustainable chocolate the norm, employees were extremely proud of the commitment and belonging to an organisation with sustainability at its heart. However, they were unsure how their actions could impact the company’s commitments.

The overwhelming need arose to enable employee participation and ability to play a part in helping nature and farmers to thrive. So we launched Seeds for Change in December 2018 to drive employee engagement. It enables employees across the globe to contribute to our Forever Chocolate commitment to make sustainable chocolate the norm. With more than 160 volunteer ambassadors motivating 11,000 employees worldwide, Seeds for Change is an innovative and encouraging way to drive learning and empowerment throughout the organisation and has become the source for sustainable business solutions across the company.

What impact have your sustainability initiatives made?
We have made time-bound, ambitious commitments and every year we release a report on the progress. You can see all of our progress against our commitments on our website. We’re also happy to see our efforts recognised by independent organisations. For example, Sustainalytics ranked us number 1 of 178 packaged food companies on the management of environment, social and governance risks, due to our Forever Chocolate strategy.

How do you present these complex issues to your customers?
We translate what it means to them, and how it can help drive consumer demand. We developed the Cocoa Chronicles for this purpose, a collection of narratives based on consumer benefits. We did tonnes of research to uncover what drives consumers to purchase a sustainable product over a conventional one. What benefit does that consumer need to feel in order to make sustainable purchases. Our stories ladder up to one of these benefits, and we work with our customers to develop a commercially relevant story they can tell consumers. 

What are your hopes for the future of sustainability?
Years ago some people thought sustainability was a passing trend – now they can see it’s here to stay. Sustainability is becoming an expectation, and a make or break for businesses. It is my hope that businesses small and large will drive the sustainability agenda. Corporations have such influence, positive or negative, more so than even government in some cases. I hope all organisations recognise and embrace the fact that sustainability is their responsibility, their consumers expect it of them, and their business can have a positive impact on the world.

To find out how to drive your company’s sustainability agenda forward, read “5 sustainability myths you need to know”