Homegrown: Small Steps Equal Big Impact
For the food and drink industry
Mick Howard is the CEO of Clearly Drinks, a national drinks manufacturer based in Sunderland. Alongside achieving growth through strategic partnerships and listings, Clearly Drinks is continuing to deliver on its environmental and sustainability commitments which were set out back in 2020.
Driven by Mick’s vision to create a company which has a positive influence on the world, the company has gone from being “back of the queue” when it came to environmental initiatives to leading the way in the sector, empowering other manufacturers to take action. Clearly Drinks is actively working towards achieving net-zero status and improving its industry leading carbon footprint. Despite having seen continued challenges in 2021, the leadership team has continued to invest in sustainability and ESG strategy across the business, but it’s not all about grand statements and big gestures, Mick explains.
“When I first joined the business in 2018, ESG wasn’t on the agenda at all – it simply wasn’t something that was talked about. I started the process by bringing in an external communications team to do a full audit of the business and benchmark where we are within the industry. Ultimately we did this because as an employer we have a duty of care – to not only be seen to be doing the right thing but to actually do the right thing.
“This is something which I have a personal passion for, I want to leave the world in a better condition than we found it.”
Mick believes that there needs to be less talk and more action when it comes to the climate agenda, and that even incremental change is a step in the right direction.
“The time has come to just get on and do it,” he says. “There has been a lot of talk from industry bodies, government and environmental bodies, but now is the time to take action. We were really starting from scratch and there was a lot of low-hanging fruit to get cracking with, which made big impacts to our business. We are under continuous pressure as an industry, given that some of the core materials that we use is plastic. Our business is built on the calibre of the people that we employ, and to continue to attract the best talent we had to show real investment in our ESG strategy, which translates into attracting new clients and customers too.”
There was an environmental need to innovate our packaging capabilities – but there was a culture and organisational need too.
The prospect of ‘Saving the World’ can seem impossible to a lot of businesses, but Mick believes that it is a journey – and every journey starts with a first step. Plastic reduction, a main area of focus for Clearly Drinks, resulted in a substantial investment into recyclable packaging for its products with the business on track to deliver its promise. Its 500ml PET has been made lighter and now weighs 16.5g, saving 36.8 tonnes of plastic from January to May 2021 on top of 77 tonnes achieved in 2020. Lightweighting is also keeping the carbon footprint to a minimum.
“Don’t get distracted by the big, scary goal at the end,” Mick says. “Concentrate on what you can do and start from there. We have made huge moves forward in our ESG strategy in the past two years, and that has been done through continuous improvement – those small steps are all adding up and when I look back at what we have achieved, it really is impressive. We have reduced 40,000 miles on the road by swapping pre blown 1L contour bottles for preforms, reducing deliveries from 85 loads each year to just five loads, and simply switching from sports cap to flat cap on Perfectly Clear products saved 12.3 tonnes of plastic on top of the 31 tonnes saved in 2020. We have already achieved zero waste to landfill and eliminated 390 tonnes of plastic from our business, with plans to reduce our plastic usage further by the end of 2022. Luckily the Clearly Drinks team all share the same vision so gaining momentum quickly, and with so much passion, was testament to a true collective desire to push in the same direction.”
“It isn’t about the ‘big bang’ from an innovation perspective, it’s about looking to see where you can make adjustments that will all add up to provable impact. What we found beneficial was a prioritised framework that informed our choices, some of these implementations needed investment but most of them just needed an investment in time. Businesses have to understand what is within their reach here and now and what is coming over the hill from a technology point of view, and how quickly you can respond to that.
“I would encourage all businesses to look at the ways that they can make meaningful traction, rather than waiting for the big innovation that is going to solve all of our problems. If you look at our carbon emissions now, we’re best in class, and that is because we have taken the time to look at everything that impacts that, from our waste streams and how we can further reduce them, to our packaging by considering solutions like light-weighting, which has meant we can reduce over 200 tons of plastic which will grow the business. Alongside this we have also diversified our capabilities to shift away from plastic heavy packaging and grow the canning side of the business. If we look into 2022, can demand is going to account for 40 percent of our revenue, so there is a financial incentive as well to make these changes now.
“As a responsible business it’s our job to forge the path in what’s possible but we do need more support from central government to continue to make meaningful investment and change across UK manufacturing as a whole, it can’t be left solely as the responsibility of business owners and leaders. We have good working forums out there, either via the BSDA, the Chamber of Commerce and the FDF, but beyond that it is a real struggle to get support. There isn’t a funding pot at a local level and I think the nationally we aren’t a big enough priority. So as much as I have tried to drum up support and lobby, there hasn’t been nearly enough commitment to help SMEs and manufacturers make those incremental changes across the UK.
“If we are all doing what we can and pulling in the same direction, that’s when the needle really begins to move and UK manufacturers can be world leading on the impact we are making to our local and global communities.”