AB InBev: How the world’s biggest beer company is going green

AB InBev: How the world’s biggest beer company is going green

AB InBev is undergoing what you could call a ‘sustainable renaissance’. Earlier this year, the beer giant unveiled its ambitious sustainability goals for 2025, channelling a forward-thinking vision that hopes to promote high environmental standards and help local communities thrive. As part this plan, AB InBev is championing four key principles; smart agriculture, water stewardship, circular packaging and climate action, and perhaps nowhere is this more evident than at its operations in Africa.

In 2017, AB InBev acquired rival SABMiller, which made waves in the alcohol sector and cemented its position as the largest beer company in the world.

In her previous role, Zoleka Lisa worked at South African Breweries, a subsidiary of SABMiller, but post-merger she rose through the ranks to become AB InBev’s Procurement Director of Capabilities and Sustainability. “It’s a role which I hold close to my heart, as it has the opportunity to shift the needle of the socio-economic climate we find ourselves in, in Africa,” Lisa says.

As the largest beer company in the world, AB InBev’s brewing heritage spans across continents and generations. This mammoth scale can be a challenge, even more so when the firm has pledged to uphold some of the industry’s highest sustainability standards. For Lisa, this commitment to sustainability only goes to show that AB InBev may have a robust business acumen, but it hasn’t forgotten the importance of the environment and community it relies upon.  

 “AB InBev is a company which genuinely wants to do good by uplifting communities and promoting the drive towards sustainability,” explains Lisa. “Success for AB InBev goes beyond just the bottom line but resonates in building communities and ensuring the way in which we live in the world is sustainable. For me, it is an admirable trait for a large corporate to be so determined to shift the needle in a positive way. This is what makes me so proud to say I work for AB InBev.”

After much deliberation, the company’s four focus areas were chosen as they were seen to present the biggest risk or opportunity for AB InBev as a company. Yet, specifically in Africa, AB InBev added a fifth additional pillar: entrepreneurship. “Given the significant emphasis across the continent on employment, job creation, and the development of SME’s to alleviate poverty, we felt this was an import area to include under the Zones sustainability strategy,” notes Lisa.

“In the majority of locations where we operate, AB InBev is a local brewer,” she continues. “We sell our products to the local community; our employees live in the communities we operate in and we rely on local resources to produce our products.

“To ensure we can carry on operating for the next 100+ years, we have a vested interest in ensuring that we can support thriving local economic development to support market growth.”

Zeroing in on its smart agriculture goal, AB InBev has pledged that 100% of its direct farmers will soon be skilled, connected and financially-empowered. With this in mind, technology is set to play a key role.

Malt barley is one of the primary ingredients in beer and AB InBev places a high priority on cultivating only the best quality barley for its beer. Aiming to revolutionise the agriculture sector, AB InBev launched its SmartBarley programme in 2013 and today, it plays a pivotal role in its operations in Africa. Leveraging data technology and insights, SmartBarley is helping farmers improve both their productivity and environmental performance. More than 5,000 farmers have participated in SmartBarley so far and the data gathered allows AB InBev to identify and address gaps through a range of agronomic, environmental and management initiatives.

So, for instance, when used in Mexico, SmartBarley showed that some farmers tended to over apply fertiliser which not only increased costs but had a negative impact on the environment. This data-enabled platform allowed farmers to see this trend first-hand.

“We are committed to being at the forefront of malting barley research, helping our farmers improve yields and reduce the use of resources like water and fertilizers,” says Lisa. “Now we are taking SmartBarley to the next level by using the data to build sustainability metrics and create predictive analytics to help farmers access better insights to make decisions.”

In addition, AB InBev has tasked itself with promoting water stewardship. To achieve this, it is making improvements to its plant water use efficiency and is also supporting partners that work to protect and conserve the valuable resource it so heavily relies upon.

“To this extent, each of our breweries has mapped out where water use can be improved,” comments Lisa. “Globally we have set a target of achieving a water use ratio of 2.8 hl/hl by 2025.”

As part of this, the beer producer has created partnerships with both the cities of Tshwane and Cape Town (in South Africa) to find new ways to conserve or augment water supplies. This has seen new pressure management systems implemented as well as the rehabilitation of natural springs and wells. In Tshwane alone, the beer firm has been able to add an extra 9600kl per day into the municipal system.

“We are also working actively with partners to support water conservation at a catchment level,” adds Lisa. “Ultimately we believe that it's only when we address water risk issues at source, in collaboration with partners, that we can achieve lasting, sustainable, solutions to water resource management.

An example of this is the Outeniqua partnership ABInBev has developed with the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) in George, South Africa. “The area is strategically important to AB InBev as is the only area in the country where hops are exclusively grown,” explains Lisa. “However, the catchment area has a dense infestation of invasive alien vegetation that causes a loss of surface water flow in the river system due to the amount of water the vegetation consumes.”

The Outeniqua project has helped to clear around 700 hectares of this vegetation in the past four years so that it can be replaced less water-hungry indigenous alternatives. The project hopes to return approximately one billion litres of water per year – water that is needed to support development in the region and create AB InBev’s wide-reaching portfolio of beers.

Like many companies in the food and beverage space, AB InBev has recognised that the tide is changing when it comes to packaging. As such, the beer giant has also pledged to use circular packaging by 2025.

To achieve this in the Africa region, AB InBev has strived to make its packaging more sustainable and has also improved the systems that help to remove post-consumer packaging waste.

“The majority of our beer volumes on the African continent is distributed in returnable bottles,” says Lisa. “These bottles, in turn, can be reused up to 20 times before being crushed and reused to manufacture new glass bottles. The use of returnable packaging can significantly reduce the environmental impact of our packaging. At the same time, we also look for opportunities to optimise our packaging by, for example, by reducing the weight of our bottles. By doing this we reduce the amount of raw materials required to produce the bottles.”

Recognising the role it has to play in removing packaging from the market, the beer producer has also helped to invest in recycling initiatives such as Manja Pamodzi or ‘Hands Together’.

“This serves not only to reduce litter and the impact on landfills but also forms an important input into supplying recycled materials that can be reused in packaging production,” Lisa adds.

As part of its sustainability drive, AB InBev has looked at its energy resources, pledging that, by 2025, 100% of its purchased electricity will be from renewable sources. The beer giant has also vowed to reduce its CO2 emissions by 25% across its value chain.

“In 2018 our South African subsidiary initiated a project to implement solar energy on its brewery roofs which, once complete, will account for approximately 10% of our annual country electricity purchases,” highlights Zoleka. “As a zone, we are reviewing similar on-site opportunities in Ghana, Nigeria and Zambia.”

It’s easy to forget that a lot of effort, time and energy goes into making AB InBev’s renowned beers. A single bottle of Budweiser wouldn’t be possible without barley and hops or the farmers who grew those ingredients in the first place. Recognising this, AB InBev has rejected a “tick-box” approach to sustainability and is striving to do not what it ‘can’ do, but what it ‘should’ do.

“At the heart of it, AB InBev is a brewery which cares,” reflects Lisa. “It is in a constant and active pursuit of making a positive impact to the world in which we live. This allows us to be strong industry leaders in the business as far as sustainability goes, as we are able to deliver that extra punch of passion, which large corporates so often lack. Sustainability is not just related to our business, it is our business.”

Zoleka Lisa