"Nestlé: When It Isn’t Business as Usual", Andras Ferencz summarises Duncan Pollard's recent visit to Lancaster University on 7th March 2017.
“Connecting great minds in science with great minds in business,” this is how Gail Whiteman, Director of the Pentland Centre for Sustainability in Business, succinctly summarised the mission of the research centre before Duncan Pollard, a senior executive from Nestlé, took the stage at Lancaster University Management School. During the event, titled “Sustainability: Why it matters and how we think about it,” Mr Pollard spoke to an inquisitive audience of more than forty people about his insights on sustainability, Nestlé’s current and future challenges, and the transnational giant’s role and place in society.
With a background in forestry, and having worked for Shell and WWF, Mr Pollard has in-depth insight into both corporate and NGO perspectives. During his presentation, Mr Pollard recounted how he was brought on board at a time when Nestlé was in the weeds of fervid criticism and realized how it needed to better understand the outside world and become more buttoned-up about environmental and social matters. Translated into practice, it is Mr Pollard’s job to survey the entire supply chain of Nestlé and make sure that their corporate ecosystem harmoniously fits in with society and the environment.
Mr Pollard, whose title reads Assistant Vice President for Stakeholders Engagement in Sustainability, characterized his position as “part catalyst, part challenger, part connector.” He confided in his audience that he is but a one-person sustainability department. More accurately, there is no sustainability department as it would create a separate division within the company that could potentially enwrap itself into an isolated and ineffective unit. This image is somewhat reminiscent of the way businesses can often sequester themselves from the larger issues of society. As Paul Hawken wrote in 1993, “until recently business has not been central to how societies and cultures define themselves.” Nestlé is clearly at pains to change that impression. Mr Pollard pointed out that “Companies make the biggest mistake when they think they’re apart from society. We’re not. We are a part of society. If Nestlé was a country, it would be as big as Slovakia or Ecuador. In the Philippines, we are one percent of the GDP. So we have a role in shaping society.”
When Mr Pollard alluded to himself as someone who “[sits] on the edge of the organization,” it quickly became obvious why Nestlé chose him to get the company’s ducks in a row. Mr Pollard’s role within Nestlé and Nestlé’s role within society somewhat overlap: while he sits on the side-line of the company, large companies often sit on the side-line of society. But how does a company reintegrate itself into the larger narrative? Mr Pollard argues that Nestlé, a company whose total global greenhouse gas emissions are three times the amount that of Switzerland, not only needs to take responsibility, but needs to invite criticism. “It’s about engaging. Because we can’t do it alone,” he said, and evoked a case during which Greenpeace traced out illegal deforestation activities within Nestlé’s chain, to which Nestlé responded by launching an internal investigation, and eventually severing ties with the dubious party.
Working with NGOs and other stakeholders, the transnational corporation has, in fact, made significant progress. If you visit Nestlé’s global or any of its regional websites, you’ll most likely come across their Creating Shared Value page, which makes a good case for why Nestlé should toot its own horn. An online visitor, for example, can quickly learn that in 2015, 22% of all Nestlé factories reached a zero-waste disposal status, that the ratings agency CDP “awarded the company a maximum score of 100 A in its annual industry ranking,” and that by 2015, 93% of packaging in the UK was recyclable.
Perhaps, some might argue that communicating positives to the outside world is merely a smokescreen. When an audience member inquired whether the observation is valid that Nestlé only reacts in the eleventh hour and does little in the way of prevention, Mr Pollard responded by saying that while addressing the most publicized matters is crucial, there is much more taking place than what Nestlé is perspicuously communicating. Though Mr Pollard critiqued Nestlé’s ability to integrate their sustainability narrative into all of the company’s brands, he indicated that while other companies often communicate more than what they do, Nestlé does more than what it actually says. At first, this answer might not appease the most fastidious observer, but the facts support Mr Pollard’s assertions. While Nestlé’s intentions to audibly voice their sustainable practices seem clunky at times, their efforts are certainly above board: for those willing to invest the time, a 350-page publication, titled “Nestlé in society – Creating Shared Value and meeting our commitments 2015,” is readily available for download online. It is clear that the company is doing everything to hold up its end.
I managed to speak to Mr Pollard at the end of the event and asked him how much of the societal burdens should businesses shoulder in general. After all, governments are often embroiled in red tape, and consumers have minimal influence unless they can organize themselves into widespread movements. With companies having the bandwidth to influence societal trends, and with seemingly no existing vision about what the next big economic and social system may be, who better equipped to lead the way than large and able businesses? He contemplated, and told me that he is currently making his way through Alex Evans’ book Myth Gap. He said the book, too, speaks about the disappearance of a vision, of a narrative that could guide humanity forward into the future. He then wondered that while big businesses can certainly take a lot in their stride, does that also render them responsible for the betterment of humankind? It is certainly hard to tell. Society, he said, needs to help governments set the rules that guide businesses, in return enabling businesses to iron out problems in society. Ideally, this would be a mutually beneficial feedback loop.
Most sustainability narratives depict a doomsday scenario, yet end on a hopeful note. But perhaps the only sensible takeaway is to try our best, and only speculate cautiously. At any rate, the date on the right bottom corner of Mr Pollard’s first presentation slide seemed charmingly reassuring; if not outlandishly optimistic. Instead of 2017, it read 02017. “We have to be around when the clock ticks over,” he commented. When it comes to a company that is trying to change the world for the better, this long-term vision is certainly a comforting one.