A genetic approach to sustainability

BENEO’s sustainable mindset starts at the very beginning of the supply chain. It can be traced from its fields, farms and factories to the substantiated consumer health benefits its ingredients provide

Christoph Boettger

Having initially joined the organisation in 1998, Christoph Boettger, member of BENEO’s executive board, has held different positions in the engineering and technical arena, amongst which he was Managing Director, Production, of BENEO’s functional carbohydrate unit, and worked his way up to his former position of Director of Technical Operations.

In this role, he oversaw the company’s five production sites in Belgium, Chile, Germany and Italy. His responsibilities included production, maintenance, investment management, engineering supply chain management, environmental management, operational health and safety, as well as quality.

Christoph took time out of his busy schedule during Health ingredients Europe to talk to Dr Kevin Robinson about the company’s commitment to sustainable performance. “We are aware at BENEO that sustainability is not the most widely discussed topic in the industry. But,” he adds, “for us, it’s very much part of our genetic fingerprint. We’ve been looking at social and environmental issues for a very long time. And, because we take a rather pragmatic — as opposed to emotional — approach to the whole topic of sustainability, we haven’t been particularly good at communicating our activities to the wider world. What we’ve focused on is actually implementing corporate social responsibility as opposed to just talking about it.”

“It’s essential for us,” says Christoph, “that the three key pillars of social, ecological and economical are truly aligned. Starting with social aspects, BENEO puts a strong focus on its employees, on their neighbourhoods and on society. And when we look to our staff, it’s important for us to be an employee-friendly company where people like to work, like to contribute and be enthusiastic about what we do. Our aim is to form long-term employer-employee relationships that are mutually beneficial,” he says.

Giving an example, Christoph mentions the company’s factory in Offstein, Germany, where they produce Isomalt and Palatinose. “I know of certain cases, for example, where the father of a family works in maintenance and the mother works in the laboratory. What’s more, both are so happy in their jobs that they encouraged their daughter to work in the supply chain management office. I, myself,” adds Christoph, “come from a dynasty of people employed in the sugar industry. I’m the fourteenth member of my family to work in this sector.”

A key message

Whatever the pillar, sustainability is a key message for BENEO, which is reflected in the company’s values. “We care,” says Christoph, “about people, about the environment, about our customers and consumers; but let me return to the social pillar. I touched on our employees and would like to explain about the neighbourhood concept. In all our factories, we strive to develop good working relationships with the local communities, to minimise our impact on them and, by keeping in close contact, try to give something back.”

“On one hand, we’re providing work and employment (many of our staff live in close proximity to the factories), and we also encourage young people to venture into the world of business by offering apprenticeships and vocational internships, as well as training programmes for graduates and academics. On the other hand, and using our factory in Chile as an example, we go even further by supporting start-up businesses with ‘micro-credits’ and providing professional advice, such as how to establish a business plan.”

We care about people, about the environment, about our customers and consumers

“This is very much appreciated,” he notes, “as it demonstrates BENEO working in close collaboration with the community, and shows, perhaps, how we go one step further than the direct responsibilities connected to our business and extend those obligations all the way to the farmers and harvesters.”

When BENEO went to Chile 10 years ago to build a new factory, he explains, they also had to establish a good, reliable source of chicory. “So, we employed the local people, gave them an occupation and trained the farmers how to produce the raw materials we needed in an efficient and cost-effective way. We also provided consultancy regarding agronomy and fertilisation, for example, to reduce its environmental impact. As we are so dependent on our ‘agricultural volunteers’ — the plants and crops we harvest — it’s absolutely in our genes that we are very careful with the resources that nature provides.”

A whole-process approach

“If we look at the ecological pillar,” notes Christoph, “all of our factories are state-of-the-art. We’re constantly reinvesting in technology to ensure that our processes are highly efficient. If we look at evaporation stations, for instance, to separate water from the dry mass of the product, we’ve been using multiple-effect evaporators for decades. The energy is utilised several (up to 6 or 7) times, meaning that we only use 1 tonne of steam to evaporate up to 7 tonnes of water. With a single-effect evaporator, you would need 1 tonne of steam to evaporate 1 tonne of water, so we’re seriously recycling that thermal energy.”

“To cite another example, in all our factories, we have well balanced combined heat and power stations. We use a huge burner to produce steam, which is then used to generate the electrical energy needed for the factory, and the heat from the turbine is harvested to drive the evaporation stations. Just to mention Chile, once again; here, we even fire the burner with recovered biomass to decrease our dependency on fossil fuels by 75%,” he says.

This is clearly a significant commitment, I suggest, which must come with some costs to implement. Why is sustainability so important for BENEO and what message are you sending? I ask. “That brings me to the third pillar,” says Christoph: “Sustainability must be economically feasible. The foundations of an organisation have to be solid for it to be able to do business — in an environmentally responsible way — for the long-term.”

“For us, those investments in multiple-effect evaporators and biomass-fired energy stations are projects that will pay for themselves in time and, while doing so, reduce our impact on the environment. Working profitably and in a sustainable way, for BENEO, goes hand in hand. It’s a nice combination of two positive effects. We’ve genuinely committed to making our whole supply chain sustainable, from field to fork and beyond, providing ingredients that promote a healthy lifestyle in a truly holistic way,” he added.

In summary

BENEO is committed to sustainable farming, enabling the company to develop high quality ingredients derived from chicory root and beet sugar. BENEO’s dedication to the conscious sourcing of rice and wheat also supports biodiversity, reducing water pollution and soil erosion. The company’s continuous investment in state-of-the-art factories ensures high-level energy efficiency, while their strong focus on corporate social responsibility has been verified as exceeding industry standards and is regularly proven through excellent results in audits across all their factories.

Commitment to sustainable performance flows throughout the BENEO business and as consumer demands continue to evolve, BENEO is constantly working to improve and develop both existing and new applications, as well as the health properties of its ingredients. To achieve this, BENEO invests heavily in research and development, with a budget six times higher than the European food industry average. This forms a crucial foundation on which BENEO’s business performance is built.

And, as Christoph concludes: “We didn’t set out to introduce new initiatives based on becoming a sustainable company, we just wanted to take care of our people, our environment and our bottom line. We didn't make a lot of noise about it; but, on reflection, we’ve done a lot of good things that we’re really proud of. And I think our predecessors in the sugar industry would be pleased with us too.”