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Colruyt Group aim to lead the food sector to be more sustainable

We speak to Veerle Carlier and Astrid Van Parys about how an ‘accidental’ approach to sustainability helped create a business that now has a focus on societal impact at its core.

12 Aug 2019

Astrid Van Parys (Left) and Veerle Carlier (Right), Colruyt Group

Hello Veerle and Astrid – could you tell us a bit about the Colruyt Group and what you both do in the company?

V: We are a family-owned Retailer that has now been operating for three generations selling both food and non-food products, underlined by values of simplicity, working together and partnerships. I am the R&D Innovation Manager for projects related to sustainability, health and packaging.

A: And I am the CSR Manager for the company, where I have a broad remit that covers a number of sustainability areas such as health, wellbeing and societal impact. At the heart of what we do is a commitment to sustainability by focusing on what we don’t use, whereby we try not to spoil anything and use all our resources wisely.

That’s very progressive – did the company have this sustainability goal from the very beginning?

A: The mission began in the 1960s basically by accident, as back then there was a focus on cost, so everything we didn’t use we didn’t pay for! So it started off being more about financial sustainability, but since the 1980s we have become very conscious of our responsibility to society and on managing our wider indirect impacts.

What is the focus of your sustainability efforts at the moment?

A: We are currently working with our partners on product categories with the biggest sustainability impact, such as fish, soy and cocoa. We have started with fish, and are looking at understanding where we should be fishing to maintain healthy fish stock levels, the conditions on board the boats for the fishermen and looking at the best ways to inform consumers about making sustainable fish purchasing choices.

V: We are aiming to go further with our sustainability standards than those currently recognised, and are working with both the ASC and MSC bodies to understand how we can drive greater sustainability in the so-called ‘Blue Economy’. We are also working with Belgium growers to develop new local varieties of Pink Lady apples and soybeans, all of which is helping to reduce our food-related carbon footprint. Outside of food we are also building a new hydrogen fuel station!

What are the greatest challenges that Colruyt Group is facing from a sustainability perspective?

A: The greatest challenge we are working to solve now is the fact that most people don’t know what sustainability actually means and there are many stories in the public arena that aren’t fact-based. So we are really focused on ensuring that we have a scientifically proven methodology for measuring the impact of all of our products. Once this is in place we then need to work out whether we can translate this impact effectively through to our customers and change their behaviours to make more sustainable choices.

V: The challenge with consumers is that they want our products to be more sustainable, but they don’t necessarily want to pay more for them; so we are testing concepts and messages with consumers to understand what resonates most effectively with them.

What was Colruyt Group’s motivation for joining the EIT Food community?

A: Our biggest motivation was understanding that we can’t do everything ourselves and that we need partners to work on these big challenges together. Being part of EIT Food gives us an amazing opportunity to work on projects across Europe and to take a leadership position on sustainability in the food sector.

What sustainability-focused projects have you been working on as part of EIT Food?

V: In 2018 we led a project called the Food Generator Track, where we challenged students from the universities of Leuven, Hohenheim and Reading to come up with solutions to reduce Colruyt Group’s food losses. The student teams came from very diverse backgrounds and they made some really great products from waste side streams. In 2019 we are working on a project called inPaper with partners from across Europe, which is looking to assess if paper-based packaging is actually more sustainable than plastic-based varieties.

What have been some of the real benefits and challenges of being part of the EIT Food community?

V: The real benefit has been the opportunity to network and collaborate on projects with partners across Europe. A direct result of this is that Colruyt Group is now being listened to a lot more by universities, which hasn’t always been the case, and we are now helping them to adapt their research to have more commercial uses. The greatest challenge has been the complexity of administering EU-funded projects, as these tend to be large-scale. It would be nice if we could have some smaller projects to work on to deliver faster outputs and to learn quicker.

Great suggestion. Are there any key sustainability trends, innovations and insights that you have learned from your work with the EIT Food community and wider?

A: We’re mainly focussed on delivering actions that support the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), so our activity tends to be very broad and long-term, rather than just led by the latest trends. You can see this in the fact that Colruyt Group doesn’t even have a separate sustainability department, as these goals are so tightly ingrained in the DNA of our company!

What are the sustainability goals that Colruyt Group is looking to deliver in the next 12 months and what support can the EIT Food community provide you with to achieve them?

A: People can see everything that we’re looking to achieve in our latest sustainability report, which is published at the end of July 2019. Packaging is a very hot topic at the moment so it would be great to work with more packaging companies within the EIT Food community. We are also looking to introduce projects on animal welfare in 2020, but currently that is not a focus of EIT Food.

And finally, if there was one area of the food sector that you would want to see transformed, what would it be?

V: I think all players in the food system need to be more integrated: the food chain is now too segmented where each of the tasks are owned by specialists, meaning that we are too far away from each other. What we now need are projects that help each of these players understand each other better.

A: I totally agree. What we need is a good platform where everyone is accountable and operates on a ‘free-will’ basis where all the players in the food system want to work together to change the way that food is produced and consumed.

About the author: Matt Eastland is the Writer and Content Manager for EIT Food. He holds a degree in Politics and Masters in Renewables. He is passionate about the connections between food, sustainability and innovation.

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