Along with the historic Paris agreement, the 2015 COP21 climate talks brought with them a wave of corporate commitments. A host of companies pledged to adopt science-based targets to tackle climate change. They set timelines to source 100 percent renewable energy, divest from fossil fuels and achieve carbon neutrality.
Danone was one of those companies. The French multinational food products firm pledged to be certified carbon neutral across all of its operations by 2050. Its flagship spring water brand, Evian, was to lead the charge by going carbon neutral in a mere five years — and the CPG giant is making good on its promise.
Last week, Evian unveiled a new state-of-the-art bottling plant that is certified carbon neutral by the Carbon Trust — marking a significant milestone on its journey to full-fledged neutrality. Company executives used the occasion to announce that all of Evian’s operations in North America were also certified carbon neutral.
“We will be the first brand in the Danone company to be carbon neutral, so we are a pilot in this adventure,” Véronique Penchienati, president of Evian, told TriplePundit after the plant opening. “This is only the first step, but it is a very important one. It creates pride among our employees, partners and customers, and it motivates us . . . to go even further to reach our 2020 objective.”
Evian’s bottling facility in the French alps receives water directly from an underground spring, and every bottle of Evian water sold in more than 140 countries is packaged there. The site processes millions of bottles a day, so achieving carbon neutrality is a pretty big deal. We spoke with Penchienati to find out more about how the company accomplished this feat and how it plans to meet its even more ambitious target within the next three years.
Cutting carbon footprint
Evian has relied upon the same water source for nearly 150 years, which Penchienati said makes the company uniquely connected to its surrounding environment and to the planet as a whole. “This all started with the deep awareness that we owe everything to nature. It’s in our interest to protect our natural resources and more broadly the environment,” she told TriplePundit.
The company first set its sights on carbon back in 2007, with a pledge to reduce emissions by 40 percent in five years. “We had no clue how we were going to do it,” Penchienati said with a laugh. “But it’s important to set a fixed target and engage all aspects of the business. This is not a project of people working on sustainability. It’s a project of the whole company.”
Evian met its target right on schedule, cutting emissions by 40 percent between 2008 and 2012. As part of this achievement, the company managed to cut energy use by 23 percent per liter of Evian water between 2008 and 2016, even as the business grew to meet rising consumer demand. The new carbon-neutral site also utilizes 100 percent renewable hydropower.
But reaching carbon neutrality across all operations will take bold, holistic action, Penchienati said. “To meet our goal, we need to increase all of our efforts and work through the entire lifecycle of our product and our bottle — from conception, to production, to shipping and to the end of life.”
Getting smart about packaging
Plastic is, of course, a petroleum product — which means reducing the use of virgin plastic can significantly move the needle on Evian’s carbon goals. “We were the first company to use recycled PET in the production of beverage bottles in 2008,” Penchienati told us.
As of this year, every bottle of Evian water sold around the world contains an average of 25 percent recycled PET. The company plans to reach 50 percent recycled material by 2020 and hopes to one day make bottles entirely from recycled plastic.
“We need to solve some technical challenges that today we’re not able to solve,” Penchienati said of the 100 percent ambition, while expressing confidence in future prospects. “We’re working on that from a research and development point of view and also with partners.”
Internally, the company manages 100 percent of its manufacturing waste, 92 percent of which is recycled and the remainder burned for energy.
Developing better transport
Transportation logistics make up a significant portion of the company’s carbon footprint, a fact it hopes to address through a multimodal shipping model.
Evian already operates one of the largest private railway stations in France at its bottling site. Sixty percent of the company’s products are now shipped by train, which cuts carbon impact by 90 percent compared to road transport. “Sometimes we even put the trucks on the train for use in the last miles,” Penchienati told us.
Evian hopes to increase its use of rail in the coming years, while prioritizing boats over aircraft for transoceanic shipping and adopting a cleaner trucking fleet for last-mile delivery.
Danone founded the Livelihoods Fund in 2008 to further offset its carbon footprint. Focused on ecosystems restoration, the Fund now counts more than 10 top companies as members. It helped plant 130 million trees since its inception, 85 million of which are mangroves — restoring natural wetland ecosystems and the carbon sinks they create.
The elephant in the room
Evian’s climate commitments and stated company values are impressive, but many in the environmental community may question the validity of the product itself. After all, water is available everywhere, yet Evian puts it into bottles and ships it thousands of miles around the world.
This reality is not lost on the company’s executives. “It’s a very valid question,” Penchienati conceded. “We believe that we have a role to play in promoting healthy hydration everywhere, but we need to do it in a responsible way. That’s why we’re doing all of this, because we are aware of the impact that we have.”
It’s worth noting the distinction between Evian, a natural spring water, and most bottled water sold on this side of the pond. Unlike the European market, the U.S. has few regulations governing how bottled water is labeled and sold. At least 25 percent of all bottled water sold in the U.S. is just tap water — some filtered, some not. Other bottled waters come from a hodgepodge of springs and other sources — compared to a single underground spring, which is the only way a product can be labeled mineral spring water in Europe.
In this sense, Evian is indeed different. Its mineral profile has remained unchanged for hundreds of years, which the company claims carries a myriad of benefits for kidney health. And while some may see a plastic bottle filled with water as intrinsically silly, would they say the same about a can of La Croix? Or a jug of a favorite beer?
The comparison is not too far off, insist Danone executives. “There’s a product difference,” said Antoine Portmann, general manager of Danone Waters of America. “When you look at the [North American] market now, most of it is purified water, and we believe that people need to have the choice. Evian has a unique mineral composition, and we very much want to offer that to consumers as an alternative to the other choices that they have.”
Ultimately, the demand for bottled water isn’t going anywhere — in fact it’s projected to top $22.2 billion in revenues by 2024. Regardless of how you feel about this persistent trend, it’s hard to shake a stick at a company that is taking healthy offerings seriously, significantly reducing its impact and leading its parent company toward an ambitious carbon-neutral goal.
Warren Buffet once said, “Time is the friend of the wonderful company, the enemy of the mediocre.” If such a musing holds true, Evian’s 150-year history of stewardship in the French alps, and now far beyond it, bodes well for a future of sustained — and sustainable — growth.
Image credits: Evian
Editor’s Note: Travel and accommodations to the French alps were provided by Evian. Neither the author nor TriplePundit were required to write about the experience.