How can rejuvenating global food systems enhance sustainability: Michael Chen

How can rejuvenating global food systems enhance sustainability: Michael Chen
How can rejuvenating global food systems enhance sustainability: Michael Chen

I recently had the privilege of hosting an in-depth discussion at Westpac’s Singapore co.lab with Olam’s Group Chief Financial Officer, Neelamani Muthukumar. He shed light on how Olam has become a pioneer in the field and provided valuable insights for companies aiming to bring sustainability closer to the heart of their operations, including through the use of sustainable finance.

Just why has this become so important? As Muthumkumar pointed out, sustainability is presenting companies with a host of new pressures as well as opportunities. For instance, as a society, we now increasingly demand granular information on the food we consume. A range of studies have revealed staggering facts about the social and ecological footprint of the agriculture industry, making people question the methods employed and their long-term viability. Consider these statistics: producing one kilogram of beef requires 15,415 litres of water; about 25-30% of food is wasted and not eaten; and as much as 37% of total greenhouse gas emissions are attributable to the food system.

The urgency surrounding climate change and resource management is also driving the expansion of ESG (environmental, social and governance) investing. More investors are factoring ESG criteria, such as climate change, modern slavery and cybersecurity, into their investment decisions in an effort to protect and create financial and societal value. 

This trend is also powering a boom in sustainable finance. For example, global issuance of green, social and sustainability bonds surged about 40% in 2019, with a combined issuance reaching US$290 billion. In Australia, the value of green or sustainability linked loans grew approximately 14 times, to US$2.3 billion.

Despite this strong growth, we anticipate further growth in the sustainable finance market. Preliminary data from a survey on sustainable finance commissioned by Westpac and conducted by the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), previewed at the co.lab event, showed 77% of companies polled intend to utilise some form of sustainable financing within the next year.

Investors are similarly bullish. In the same survey, 68% of investors plan to increase their allocation of funds in sustainable investments over the next 12 months.

Embedded in the business model

As Muthukumar explained to our audience, these realities mean sustainability should not be a last-minute add-on to any business model. At Olam, “sustainability is integrated into the strategy formulation, so it is not a distinct piece,” he said. “We believe that the agricultural and food systems in the world today are broken, and we want to fix that. We think about how we can produce more food with fewer natural resources and improve biodiversity so that we leave something for future generations.”

Known as Olam 2.0, the initiative re-imagines Olam as a ‘purpose-led company’ with an emphasis on three main outcomes: prosperous farmers and food systems; thriving communities; and regeneration of the living world. These overarching goals have determined 10 priority areas which include economic opportunity, gender diversity and safer workplaces.

Setting industry and regional benchmarks

By establishing measurable and ambitious sustainability targets, Olam was able to secure Asia’s first sustainability-linked loan in 2018. The three-year revolving credit facility, worth US$500 million, was based on the company meeting specific key performance indicators as assessed by specialist ESG firm Sustainalytics. The metrics are tested annually and if the KPIs are met, then there is a subsequent reduction of the loan’s interest rate.

Last year, Olam successfully tapped the market once again with a second KPI-linked loan for US$525 million. According to Muthukumar, third-party verification assures stakeholders that the company is meeting its sustainability targets and the reduction in financing cost incentivises executives to embrace non-traditional financing options without fear of reputational damage. As a result, Olam aims to make 20% of its debt portfolio sustainability-linked by the end of 2020.

Besides examining its own activities, Muthukumar went on to describe how Olam positions itself as a constructive partner in the wider industry landscape to promote the spread of ESG policies.

“We want to understand what CFOs can do in their respective organisations to improve sustainability, and engage with the Big Four accounting firms and regulators to develop simple, easy-to-understand standards with a finite number of metrics,” he said, noting that a lack of clearly defined frameworks were preventing many investors and issuers in Asia from committing to this segment of the market.

Indeed, the EIU survey reveals that although investors in the region are overwhelmingly interested in sustainable finance structures, they do share concerns about qualifying criteria, regulatory support, and generally insufficient ESG investment prospects in Asia Pacific.

Ultimately, sustainability is not just about being socially responsible. It makes rational business sense for companies to be at the forefront of this transformation. As Muthukumar told us that day, proactively addressing the forces reshaping our natural ecosystem, as well as the expectations of both investors and consumers, will prove that “sustainable profits are equal to corporate longevity.”

As more corporates see how sustainable finance can incentivise and compel further action on sustainability, and how such action can be good for business, I’m confident that we will see strong continued growth in the sustainable finance market.

MICHAEL CHEN is the Head of Sustainable Finance for Westpac

Westpac Sustainability

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