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Product, Service & Design Innovation
Nestlé Ramps Up Sustainable Design Efforts Throughout Brand Portfolio

As consumers become increasingly demanding of more social and environmental sustainability efforts from their favorite brands, Nestlé is one multinational that is responding in kind. The challenges for the world’s largest food company, however, are as complicated as the company’s long and tangled supply chain.

As consumers become increasingly demanding of more social and environmental sustainability efforts from their favorite brands, Nestlé is one multinational that is responding in kind. The challenges for the world’s largest food company, however, are as complicated as the company’s long and tangled supply chain.

During a recent telephone interview with Anne Roulin, Nestlé’s Head of Sustainability for Research and Development, she described how the company is turning to lifecycle assessments, the latest in eco-design software and more sustainable innovations across the company’s operations and supply chain. From agriculture to packaging, Nestlé now competes with other leading consumer goods companies such as Unilever and P&G that are mitigating their impact on the environment and society while still providing value to consumers. Now Nestlé is in the midst of a massive reset as it reevaluates everything from its energy portfolio to the impact of water scarcity on its suppliers across the globe.

Nestlé’s sustainability and product development teams start with software programs such as Ecodex, which allows users to evaluate products’ impacts based on a variety of hypothetical criteria. By simulating changes in a design, recipe or manufacturing process, or even geographic shifts in sourcing, a Nestlé employee can view that proposed redesigned product’s ramifications on climate change, energy consumption, land use and effects on local water supplies and waste streams.

And with a company of Nestlé’s reach, small changes can have a far-reaching influence on the environment and communities. According to Roulin, Nestlé’s employees have analyzed over 14,000 different scenarios as they evaluated various products’ hypothetical packaging optimization, reformulation and new sourcing and distribution models. As a result of using Ecodex data, the company can reformulate products with a decreased environmental impact without affecting their taste, nutrition or consumer appeal.

One result of Nestlé’s incorporation of software into the design process was a new Nescafé compact refill pack the company markets in the United Kingdom. The square package emits less carbon during the manufacturing process and consumes less water, and twice as many packages now fit within a pallet than with previous containers. So Nestlé trucks can now make half the number of deliveries, using half the fuel and sending 50 percent less carbon into the atmosphere.

While coffee is an obvious choice for Nestlé’s sustainability strategy because of its impact on water, land and communities, other products within the company’s array of brands are undergoing a makeover as well. Purina cat food is another product line in which Nestlé has invested significant time and purchasing, technology and research and development (R&D) resources into evaluating more ecological options. Now 60 percent of the seafood in Purina’s products comes from seafood by-products, notably surimi, left over from fish filets sold for human consumption by other Nestlé brands. Using this “imitation crab” as a base ingredient in Purina’s cat food products has reduced the company’s need to source fish from the world’s oceans.

With water a long-term threat to Nestlé’s business performance, the company is taking a hard look at countries where water stress is a huge issue. One country on which Nestlé has focused its R&D efforts is Mexico. Water scarcity in various regions of Mexico has led to at least one local municipality refusing the company an operations permit.

Nestlé’s professionals then worked with farmers and government officials to find training and support for new water technologies to reduce the impact of raw materials, and one program involving new technology to decrease water consumption has produced dramatic results. Coffee suppliers just a few years ago used an average of 40 liters of water for each kilogram (2.2 pounds) of coffee produced. Now that ratio is down to 3-5 liters of water per kilogram of finished coffee, a savings of almost 300,000 cubic meters of water annually.

Nestlé is also reliant on Mexico’s dairy industry, a huge long-term challenge for the company because many of these farms are in water-stressed regions. The declining quality of surface and groundwater throughout Mexico has pushed Nestlé’s engineers to redesign factories in Mexico that manufacture the company’s dairy products. As a result Nestlé has opened several zero-intake factories throughout Mexico that have a low or zero water impact.

Meanwhile, Nestlé is experimenting with other new technologies to minimize its overall footprint across the world. The company invests in renewable energy projects, including more creative approaches that reduce waste while reducing dependence on fossil fuels. For example, a factory in Colombia uses solid and liquid waste from coffee as energy within its operations. This constant stream of fuel not only provides 13 percent of the plant’s energy, but also emits 95 percent less CO2 than fossil fuels.

Nevertheless, biofuels, wind farms and solar panels are not enough to create more sustainable operations for Nestlé. Roulin and her team are tasked with finding more resource-efficient methods to create the same food and consumer products with the exact same appeal — which is why design and innovation are critical components of the process for every product, from conceptualization to store shelves.

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