Leading the way in food sustainability

Radical innovations are taking place within the world’s food production and distribution sector. Food companies are changing their operations to meet the goals set out in the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, and alumni and corporate partners of Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University (RSM) are leading the way.

Story by Rebecca Morris

More than in any other economic sector, these goals sometimes overlap and conflict. Corporations must continue food production to meet a global needs and reduce their environmental footprint at the same time. They must improve nutritional content and adhere to fairer practices, yet remain profitable. Meeting these demands requires all-new ways of thinking about business.

Importer and distributor of organic fruit and vegetables EOSTA topped the Dutch Sustainability Monitor rankings in 2017, and it stands out for several reasons. One is its commitment to a new form of accounting. True Cost Accounting calculates the true cost of food production – including its environmental, social and health impacts.

True cost accounting report

Founder and CEO of EOSTA and RSM alumnus Volkert Engelsman has been widely lauded for being the first to publicise a True Cost Accounting report on his company’s products, and for bringing this information directly to the store shelves and into the hands of consumers. At the heart of his vision is the “Nature and More” Sustainability Flower, an assessment and transparency model Engelsman helped pioneer.

‘It starts with transparency,’ says Engelsman. ‘With commodification comes anonymity and with this comes potential exploitation. We put the face of the grower or supplier on every product we distribute to highlight their unique story and how they deal with people and planet. We have a moral and economic obligation to not leave the burden of sustainability with the growers but to assist them in capitalising on their values, and reward them financially for their contribution to society.’

Good for business

Unilever has pioneered responsible capitalism for decades. The company’s Sustainable Living Plan, a new way of doing business that is aligned with the UN’s Sustainability Development Goals (SDGs), has both drastically reduced its environmental footprint and is accelerating growth for the organisation.

‘We want to transform the global food system to meet the UN’s vision of zero hunger,’ says executive vice-president and RSM alumnus Conny Braams (MBA 1990). ‘For me, as general manager for Unilever Benelux, that means applying an SDG lens to every aspect of the Unilever Benelux strategy: appointing the right leaders, innovating to create sustainable solutions, and marketing products and services that inspire consumers to make sustainable choices.’

Partnerships and transformations

Partnering is a key strategy within this. ‘Food brand Knorr has a partnership with the World Food Programme to provide more than 200 billion servings containing at least one of the five key micronutrients by 2022,’ says Braams.

‘We are committed to doubling the proportion of our portfolio that meets the highest nutritional standards from 30 per cent to 60 per cent, halving food waste by 2025, and switching to a standardized system of food expiry dates by 2020. These are just a few examples of how we are transforming the way we operate.’

Business innovations

RSM alumnus Feike Sijbesma (Postkandidaatsopleiding Bedrijfskunde 1987), CEO at Royal DSM, has helped turn the biggest ingredients company in the world into a vanguard of sustainable business practice. Early in his tenure as CEO, Sijbesma decided that DSM products should deliver greater nutritional value. He took his idea to the UN, and encouraged 400 other companies to work towards improving nutrition worldwide by using food produced and processed locally to the markets served.

The company today is committed to meeting a number of the SDGs: ‘DSM has a responsibility to address the problem of hunger,’ says Sijbesma. ‘As a company we can contribute to ending climate change and hunger. Business innovations that increase sustainability for the long term require shareholders who take a longer-term view of the investment horizon.’

Financing greener food

Rabobank has institutionalised sustainability into its business model. The bank’s vision for future global food security, “Banking for Food”, includes a food sustainability programme designed to help a global transition to a sustainable food supply. Recently it participated for the second year in one of RSM’s Living Management Projects.

In a recent business case scenario, students from RSM’s MSc Finance & Investments Advanced programme pitched solutions to analysts and the global strategist of Rabobank’s animal protein team of its food and agribusiness research division, who acted as the executive board of a diversified animal protein company.

‘Improving the sustainability of their operations is a highly relevant area for animal protein companies. Finding ways for these companies to generate additional returns from sustainable animal protein when customers are reluctant to pay a premium price was at the centre of the business case,’ describes associate analyst Beyhan de Jong.

The solutions presented showcased outside-of-the-box thinking backed by really solid analyses, comments Justin Sherrard, global strategist animal protein, ideas that animal protein companies could potentially benefit from. ‘We want to hear new perspectives from young and bright minds,’ he says. ‘At the same time we want to broaden their perspective on the future of food, and help them to see how intrinsically motivated Rabobank is by sustainability goals.’

The challenges to achieving food sustainability and security on the road to 2030 are many. As these examples show, it is only through the development and implementation of innovative strategies aligned with a deep-rooted commitment to making the world a better place – by being a force for positive change – that genuine progress will be made in the years ahead.

This article was first published in RSM Outlook summer 2018 – RSM’s alumni and corporate relations magazine. You can download RSM Outlook here.

More information

Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University (RSM) is one of Europe’s top 10 business schools. RSM provides ground-breaking research and education furthering excellence in all aspects of management and is based in the international port city of Rotterdam – a vital nexus of business, logistics and trade. RSM’s primary focus is on developing business leaders with international careers who can become a force for positive change by carrying their innovative mindset into a sustainable future. Our first-class range of bachelor, master, MBA, PhD and executive programmes encourage them to become critical, creative, caring and collaborative thinkers and doers. Study information and activities for future students, executives and alumni are also organised from the RSM office in Chengdu, China.

For more information about RSM or this release, please contact Marianne Schouten, communications manager for RSM, on +31 10 408 2877 or by email at


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