Technological watch

Working with sustainability makes Norwegian companies more innovative

“We have interviewed and reviewed the annual or sustainability reports of nine large companies in the food industry. Then we have mapped the types of innovations they have implemented, and how these affect the organization,” says senior researcher Antje Gonera. She heads the strategic program FoodForFuture where the research has been conducted.

All nine companies have hired sustainability managers. This is something they must and will do. It is an important strategic investment for the future, though companies are aware that investments in sustainability do not yield short-term gains.

Farmer ethic and the UN Sustainable Development GoalsThe farmer’s ethic of leaving the farm in better condition than you took it over can be understood as sustainable thinking in practice and can be applied to a wider context than a farm. It’s about contributing in leaving the earth in better shape, but what does that really mean?

The researchers’ findings show that all nine companies have a conscious attitude to sustainability.

“There is no single definition of sustainable food because this is a very complex and controversial concept. Seven of the nine companies we have interviewed develop their measures and strategies based on the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals,” says Antje Gonera.

Not all goals are relevant to food companies. The goals Good health and well-being and Climate action are in the strategic plan of all companies which refer their work to the UN goals, and the vast majority also have Responsible consumption and production and Partnership for the goals, high up on the agenda.

Public health has been on the agenda for a long timeSeveral companies point out that they have always worked with measures in areas connected to the UN goals, but previously activities dealt more with corporate social responsibility, not specifically with sustainability.

One example is preventive health. It is an important part of sustainability for Norwegian food companies and is an area where companies have worked with innovation for many years. The most relevant changes are related to the reduction of the content of salt, sugar and saturated fat in foods and beverages, and the increase of the content of dietary fiber. It can be in the form of new products, new product categories, labelling schemes or adjustments to actual products.

Sustainable packaging and reduced food wastePackaging is another important innovation area that is linked to sustainability. It concerns both the use of materials that are recyclable and/or recycled and the development of new materials, such as cellulose and algae. At the same time, one must be sure that the new sustainable materials do not give the food scarce protection. Food waste causes a greater environmental impact.

Preventing food waste and raw material waste is considered another important sustainability goal for food companies. Among other things, they do this by using new or updated technology. For example, sequencing technology that identifies pathogenic bacteria, packaging solutions that contribute to increased shelf-life and sensor technology that makes it possible to better use residual raw materials.

More demands from consumers – and to suppliers“The demand for more sustainable food and production comes from several sides. The authorities are introducing new regulations, but in Norway these are currently quite limited. Consumer demands are more extensive, and consumer preferences are an important driver of sustainable innovation. Several of the companies cited palm oil as one example,” says Antje.

At the same time, companies adopt sustainable practices in areas that consumers cannot really notice. For example, they have been working to reduce energy consumption for a long time, long before electricity prices skyrocketed. The use of solar panels and biogas are two examples. A third is electrification of transport or the use of alternative transport, such as reducing or avoiding planes.

As the pace of sustainability work increases, it also places new demands on suppliers. Among other things, they must be environmentally certified and be able to document good working conditions.

Closer and increased collaboration with research environmentsCompanies see participation in research projects as a way to increase innovation capacity, that can raise both competence and ability. One experience they have gained is that the more development work is required, the more they collaborate with research institutions – and other companies. It is natural, because big innovations often require special expertise that the company does not have in itself.

– An example might be to expand the range to plant -based meat alternatives. Five of the nine companies we talked to have launched such products. This can be done by importing commodity combinations and using existing technology to process the products. But if you want to use Norwegian raw materials, which many consumers prefer, you must develop knowledge both about what raw materials are appropriate to use and to combine, and what technology combinations are suitable, Antje explains.

The two choices represent different levels of innovation. The first with import and use of existing equipment is at level 1 (adapted innovations), while the second with Norwegian raw materials and new requirements for technology combinations is at level 2 (extended innovations). It is at this extended level that most major Norwegian food companies operate. There is another level of innovation, so-called radical innovations. It’s about developing completely new product categories. This may, for example, be cultured meat or hydrolysis processes for better utilisation of residual raw materials. Some of the companies are involved in research projects at this level of innovation.

A model assists in the development of sustainability-oriented innovationsThe three levels of innovation are well known among innovators and say something about adaptability. Nofima scientist Laura Carraresi has reviewed international innovation literature and compared the results of the study on the major Norwegian food companies against the literature.

“We have developed a model where we see our results in the context of existing literature. The model can be used as a framework for companies if they need help structuring their sustainability-oriented innovation work,” says Laura.

She is a senior researcher in innovation at Nofima and adds: “The model also provides a simplified overview of the stages towards a sustainable transition. It can make it easier for companies to understand why such a transition requires deeper changes. At the same time, the model can open our eyes to the fact that being more dynamic increases the likelihood of capturing opportunities that arise in rapidly changing markets.

“Sustainability-oriented innovation can be divided into three areas: operational optimisation, organisational transformation and system building, and becomes more invasive and effective the closer you get to changes in the food system. Companies work with innovations that can cover the entire spectrum depending on where a company is in its sustainability journey, Antje explains.

The model offers examples of different sustainability measures based on where they are on the restructuring scale and the extent to which these innovation activities affect the organisation. The model also includes innovation type, i.e., whether it concerns product innovation, process innovation or organisational innovation.

The model provides a simplified overview of the stages towards a sustainable transition.

Facts about the researchThe research is conducted in the strategic program FoodForFuture, funded by the Foundation for Research Levy on Agricultural Products.

You can read more about the results in the following scientific article: Incumbents’ Capabilities for Sustainability-Oriented Innovation in the Norwegian Food Sector—an Integrated Framework



This project has received funding from the Bio Based Industries Joint Undertaking under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No 837761.