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Here’s to the South African brewer’s business-focused approach to CSR floating to the top in the merged company
Anheuser-Busch (AB) InBev, the world’s largest brewer, is taking over SABMiller, the world’s second biggest. What does this mean for their respective sustainability programmes? A scan of their latest reports offers some clues.
The first comes in the titles. SABMiller has a Sustainable Development Report and AB InBev a Global Citizenship Report. The choice of terminology offers an immediate insight into their respective approaches: hard business-related sustainability for SABMiller; softer citizenship for AB InBev.
SABMiller’s report leads on its contribution to the UN Global Goals with its “Prosper” ambition to deliver shared prosperity for the business and the people in its value chain.
Prosper sets out five shared imperatives for a thriving, sociable, resilient, clean and productive world, each with a bold 2020 target. The report is clearly structured around these five areas, making it easy to see how the strategy works in practice and what progress is being made. Its mix of short, sharp nuggets of information, in-depth feature stories and local perspectives varies the pace to keep the reader engaged.
On the surface, the theme of AB InBev’s report, Growing Together for a Better World, aligns well with Prosper. But its emphasis on activities like volunteering and cause-related marketing – commonly associated with “citizenship” strategies – contrasts with SABMiller’s business-focused imperatives.
Take water. Both brewers have met their targets ahead of schedule and, while AB InBev has the edge, there is little to separate their efficiency rates of 3.2 and 3.14 hectolitres of water per hectolitre of beer. But the focus of their water programmes, in their reporting at least, is quite different.
Both companies acknowledge how important water is for brewing, but SABMiller’s straight-talking approach makes a much clearer connection to the business that puts it quite simply: “No water, no beer.” It goes on to illustrate this with hard-hitting examples of the impact on its business, such as two breweries in India having to find alternative water supplies in a drought and interrupted production in Ghana due to unreliable water infrastructure. Its water efficiency, too, is connected with cost savings as well as sustainable development benefits.
Focus on transparency
AB InBev, on the other hand, offers little insight into how it has achieved such impressive water efficiencies and devotes much of its water section to the Global Walk for Water, a volunteering campaign to raise money and awareness. Telling.
Perhaps the most important thing stakeholders want from sustainability reporting is transparency. AB InBev professes a strong commitment to this from the outset – the word “transparency” features five times in the opening paragraph. But that promise is not fulfilled in this difficult-to-navigate report. The problem lies in the structure.
The three pillars of AB InBev’s Better World platform – smart drinking, environment and community – are established early and referenced with icons throughout. But the report is structured around specific programmes and the confusion between pillars and programmes makes it difficult to understand overall progress. In one case a useful tracker summarising progress against its environmental targets is hidden within a section about the company’s SmartBarley programme.
Ingredients for success
Both companies provide external assurance and indexes against reporting standards. And both offer stakeholder quotes, including views from smallholder farmers in AB InBev’s supply chain and NGOs critiquing aspects of SABMiller’s strategy.
But it is SABMiller that goes the extra mile on transparency. Its sustainability assessment matrix tool enables stakeholders to dig into detailed data showing progress on each of its shared imperatives at country level. And this year the company commissioned PwC to assess the maturity of its Prosper metrics and published the detailed findings in an Insight Report.
While these two brewing giants might prioritise issues and present their strategies differently, there are many common ingredients. One shared conviction is the fundamental importance of supporting their employees, which will be crucial during the inevitable restructuring that comes with such a major merger. The merged business has an opportunity to brew up a powerful combination using the best from both approaches. Here’s to AB InBev, clearly in the driving seat, grasping that bottle with both hands.
Scarlet McBarnet is a Director at Context, a sustainability strategy and communications consultancy with offices in London, Los Angeles and New York.Anheuser-Busch SABMiller sustainability UN Global Goals value chain water transparency Environment