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Tracing AB InBev's journey on sustainability in India

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Tracing AB InBev's journey on sustainability in India

The ongoing COVID-19 crisis has had severe implications to sustainable development across the globe, threatening the progress of all aspects related to sustainability. Organisations are steadily developing sustainable models and finding new opportunities to conserve resources and create new avenues of growth to build a sustainable, resilient world.

AB InBev, one of the world's leading brewers, has been at the forefront of numerous sustainability initiatives and has committed to transitioning to 100 percent renewable electricity sources to brew beers by 2025. To understand more about how AB InBev is embedding sustainability in its value chain, we spoke with Kartikeya Sharma, President - South Asia, AB InBev.

Excerpts from the interview:

What is AB InBev's business and sustainability vision for India?

We are a company built on the foundation of our global brewing heritage that dates back more than 600 years, spanning continents and generations. Today, we stand as the world's leading brewer as well as one of the top consumer goods companies in the world. We operate in more than 50 countries and our purpose stands the same today: to bring people together for a better world. India is strategically an important market for us as the country has one of the largest consumer bases, with a profoundly evolving beer-drinking culture. We are strongly committed to growing and developing the market while offering unparalleled, differentiated experiences to our consumers.

An important aspect of the way we run our business is our single-minded focus on sustainability. It is not just a part of our business, sustainability is our business. And as a global brewer, we are using our scale and resources to tackle environmental and social crises facing humanity and biodiversity through various collaborations with governments, NGO partners, and innovators. Our efforts are guided by our ambitious 2025 Sustainability Goals, across the key pillars of Smart Agriculture, Water Stewardship, Climate Action and Circular Packaging. We strive to be a positive force in catalysing change—connecting farmers to technologies and skills, ensuring quality water and access in high-stress communities, deploying innovations to increase recycling content for a more circular future, and adding renewable electricity capacity to our breweries.

In line with our 2025 Sustainability Goals, we aim to drive solutions that will have measurable, positive impact on our communities. These goals encompass:

  • Smart Agriculture—100% of our direct farmers will be skilled, connected, and financially empowered
  • Water Stewardship—100% of our communities in high-stress areas will have measurably improved water availability and quality
  • Climate Action—100% of our purchased electricity will be from renewable sources and a 25% reduction in CO2 emissions across our value chain (science-based)
  • Circular Packaging—100% of our products will be in packaging that is returnable or made from majority recycled content

Over and above these, we also work on various initiatives to spread awareness on responsible alcohol consumption; road safety is also a key focus for the company globally.

How did sustainability become an integral part of AB InBev's business?

Our purpose as a company is bringing people together for a better world, a world with thriving communities and a healthy environment. Anchored in this belief, sustainability is embedded in everything that we do, right from seed to sip or farm to glass.

As a leading brewer, we have a unique role to play in this regard, leveraging our global scale, resources and capabilities, every step of the way. We have been dedicated to sustainability for years, even before we formalised our 2025 Sustainability Goals in 2018; we initiated several different, effective initiatives in collaboration with various stakeholders to create positive impact where it's most needed. We are after all building a company that will last for the next 100 years and beyond, and through all our efforts, we aim to build a better, brighter and greener future.

How did COVID-19 impact the company's sustainability progress? What challenges did you face during the lockdown?

2020 was indeed a challenging year. However, our commitment towards sustainability has remained unwavering throughout. In the midst of pandemic-induced challenges, we only ramped up our actions on sustainability, to help our communities weather these trying times.

The nationwide lockdown was especially gruelling for our farming community at a very crucial time of harvest, and they had to grapple with unavoidable disruptions in logistics, transportation and labour availability. To add to this, closed communities and industries meant that they were unable to sell or trade their crop; while a lack of on-site storage and concerns like insect infestation and off-balanced moisture levels threatened the quality of the crops. Our AB InBev agronomists quickly mobilised to provide storage solutions, safety equipment, and reassured our smallholder farmer partners that we would uphold our promise to purchase their harvest, no matter what.

On-ground implementation work to improve high-risk watersheds at several areas was also severely affected, delaying the timelines of completion. The lifting of the lockdown while providing respite, coincided with the monsoon season which again hampered our implementation plan. To tackle this, the team re-visited the structures planned for construction, and in close consultation with the community identified the structures that can be built in a short span of time and during the rainy season. Material and labour movement was again a major hurdle, but we overcame this with the support of the local team and hiring local masons for the work.

Where does India stand compared to other nations in terms of sustainability?

As one of the largest and most important economies in the world, India is on a transformational journey. While we are at the forefront of development and technological advancements, we have also taken ambitious steps to combat climate change. In fact, India is poised to be the only country on track to meet our commitments under the Paris Agreement.

With strong policies towards generating renewable electricity from non-fossil fuel sources and reducing carbon intensity, to name a few, India is leaning towards a new, inclusive and sustainable growth model. While there are certainly areas that can be bettered, we are optimistic that with the ongoing efforts we have charted out, India's sustainability achievements will certainly stand out and inspire others.

How do you drive innovation at AB InBev? What are the ambitious pilot projects you are working on?

The culture of innovation is at the core of all the efforts we drive. We consistently and constantly leverage new technologies, and forge meaningful collaborations with other innovators and change-makers, to better engage with our communities and build a sustainable business. Chief among these efforts is our global 100+ Accelerator program that works towards mobilising the world's brightest minds to solve some of the most pressing global sustainability challenges. Through this, we seek partners who can deliver breakthrough advancements in a variety of areas to make progress towards our 2025 Sustainability goals, including different forms of recycling, renewable electricity solutions, water conservation within and outside the breweries and increasing farm quality and yield.

In 2019, we launched yet another platform—the Innovation Hub to address various India-specific sustainability challenges with respect to water stewardship, circular packaging, climate action and smart agriculture. In less than a year, we have received an overwhelming response from the start-up and innovation community from across India, who have a keen interest in deploying sustainability solutions.

As a company, we are committed to driving growth and improving lives across our entire value chain—from our growers and retailers to our consumers and communities. In this endeavour, we have deployed many solutions to empower farmers, cultivate water stewardship, champion a low carbon footprint, build a more circular future and provide constant support to our communities to weather challenges during the ongoing pandemic.

How do you view the partnership between Network18 and AB InBev on sustainability?

We are excited to partner with an organisation like Network18 which shares our commitment towards sustainability to launch our platform—Sustainability 100+. Tackling the environmental threats that face humanity cannot be done in isolation; it requires collective action. A challenge of this scale requires robust policy reforms and innovation; government, policymakers, academicians, businesses, and individuals—all play a pivotal role to make sustainability a reality. With the Sustainability 100+ platform, we have a great opportunity to bring together all these thought leaders and change-makers on one common platform to amplify the impact that we can generate and devise innovative solutions for lasting change.