Danone heading towards CO2-neutral production by changing farmers’ behaviour

Danone wants to reduce its carbon footprint. Wageningen University & Research is helping it to define and measure Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) and generate enthusiasm among farmers about taking part.

A great feature of WUR as a whole is that its various departments all work together. Social Sciences, Animal Sciences... and if they need to bring in agriculture as well, they can.
Cees Jan Hollander, Global Farming Expertise Manager at Danone

Feasibility of own strategy previously unclear

Danone has set itself a very ambitious target: to be fully CO2-neutral – across all its divisions and in everything it does – by 2050. The company has had a strategy on sustainable dairy farming for many years, in which points are identified which it regarded as exemplifying sustainability. But according to Cees Jan Hollander, Global Farming Expertise Manager at Danone, despite all the expertise these were simply “points on paper”.

In other words, there were a large number of question marks around the feasibility of the strategy on a global scale. Danone was looking for a strategy that would work for it and would also have the approval of a scientific institute such as WUR. The emphasis was on the measurability of Danone’s ambitions and how to make its employees – and in this case its farmers – enthusiastic about taking part.

Working on KPIs with dairy farmers

KPIs provide a way of measuring progress in a process or course of action. The researchers at Wageningen Economic Research and Wageningen Livestock Research first looked at Danone’s strategy and then broke it down into sections, each with a separate KPI, based on its sustainability objectives. Hollander:

“First we took a theoretical approach to these KPIs and asked: What would a theoretical optimum be? How should you calculate that? Where do you get the information from? But that doesn’t produce a template that you can simply hand out willy nilly. After all, every farmer is different and there are differences between countries as well. These differences are a good thing and we want to promote them within Danone.”

Danone wanted to test the feasibility of the KPIs in practice and check in each country whether the information they were asking for could in fact be delivered. The aim was not to get people to supply the KPIs unquestioningly. The KPI for CO2 emissions was presented to Danone employees and farmers, who were also asked whether the target was achievable. If they felt it was not, the next question was: “What do you need and how can we help you with that?” According to Hollander, WUR helped by introducing a very important step into the project:

“How do we make people, particularly dairy farmers, enthusiastic about working with us on these KPIs?”

The team from WUR introduced Danone to the RESET model. This model is based on five interventions that bring about behavioural change, such as social pressure and financial incentives. To begin with, projects were launched in four countries: Poland, France, Spain and the US. Danone’s initial focus was inside Europe. At the time Danone was collecting milk in six European countries, but since its quest for sustainability is a worldwide affair, it was also looking outside Europe.

Good teamwork within WUR key factor

Cees Jan Hollander is part of a globally operating team at Danone, which together with local colleagues is responsible for sustainable agriculture and procurement of sustainable milk. There were high expectations of what WUR could achieve:

“A great feature of WUR as a whole is that its various departments all work together. Social Sciences, Animal Sciences... and if they need to bring in agriculture as well, they can. These divisions worked really well together, and that was the key factor in our decision to work with WUR. We don’t want to focus solely on agriculture: we also want to involve the farmer. Social sciences are incredibly important.”

Hollander speaks very highly of Danone’s dealings with WUR. Various project team members at WUR were also approached separately with research questions by colleagues of his, which again underlines the excellent ties between the two organisations. Hollander:

“Something I feel should also be mentioned is that as a worldwide concern, Danone needs to make a profit for its shareholders, and that can sometimes mean that adjustments need to be made at very short notice during the course of a project. Changes to budgets, manpower and targets, for example, create a degree of pressure that I, in turn, have to pass on to the project. The pace of change is very fast at Danone, and you realise that things have to be able to shift very quickly. And we managed to do just that, thanks to our good working relationship with WUR and the fact that the team was open to it. What I have also noticed is that we are working together much better now than we did a few years ago. If I say that something needs to be done differently to meet goals that have since changed, WUR asks what the changes involve and responds accordingly. They have the flexibility, and I really appreciate that. It makes them a pleasure to work with.”