💥 #10 - Meet the Brands: Little Freddie’s big step: mono-material pouches, multi-modal transport and more.
Featuring Nicola Smith, Group Senior Sustainability Manager at Little Freddie.
Founded in 2014, before launching in UK stores in 2018, Little Freddie is a premium baby food brand that puts exceptional tasting, nutritional and quality ingredients at the heart of its products. Working with ‘best-in-class’ European suppliers and manufacturers, they produce 70 organic products across 8 category ranges that cover all stages of the weaning journey. With operations straddling UK and China, Little Freddie has grown to more than 700 employees, selling across 11 countries.
With 9 sustainability awards under their belt, the chance to dig into the science and strategy behind their success was a no-brainer for us. From almost 1.1 million pouches recycled, to reducing waste by 98%, to launching the UK’s first recyclable kerbside pouches in July this year - we caught up with Nicola Smith, Group Senior Sustainability Manager, to discover this baby food brand’s first sustainability steps and more recent growing pains.
Nicola joined Little Freddie Organic Baby Food in November 2019 as Environmental & Sustainability Manager - since then, her small but mighty team has grown to two in the UK, and one in China.
“ We always thought our pouch would be our biggest headache as it can’t be recycled, so the question was always ‘what do we do with it?’. Now, we’ve realised we can do things at both ends - we’ve got an end of life, short term remedy with Enval, and we’re also changing the product itself to be mono-material and ‘recycle ready’ via our customers’ own bin “
👉 What does ‘sustainability’ look like at Little Freddie? Can you give a brief overview of your impact strategy - the ‘Big Green Plan’?
Our mission is to give our children the best start in life and our tagline ‘nothing but the best’ starts with ensuring sustainability is at the forefront of every decision we make from farm to plate.
During the UK company’s formation in 2018, our founder and leadership team decided to implement and be accredited to the international standard ISO 14001. Our environmental management system (EMS) achieved certification in September 2019, less than a year after initiating the project. Its scope includes activities in our upstream operations and UK downstream operations. Like most brands, we rely on others to grow, transport, blend, fill, store and distribute our products and as such almost all our environmental impact occurs indirectly in our supply chain.
Our EMS drives our ‘Big Green Plan’ (BGP), our strategy to become a business that gives more than it takes. It came about because it summarised the three focus areas that we deem important to the business - its product, planet and people. Within that, we have targets that are aligned to the 8 UN's Sustainable Development Goals that are applicable to us.
We set ourselves 20 BGP targets, and have already achieved half of these, including publishing a modern slavery statement, reducing surplus food by 98% and reducing our finished product transport emissions by 10%. We have just had our EMS reaccredited therefore as we look towards the next three years and beyond to 2030, we will evaluate what has worked, what we need to do more of to drive continual improvement, and how we can ensure we meet our long-term goal to be Net Zero by 2030.
👉 You’ve been on a journey to get to grips with your environmental impact across the businesses - how did this start, and what does it look like for you?
Over the past two years we've been measuring, calculating, and are taking steps this year to report on our Scope 1, 2 and 3 emissions. The caveat here is that this was something we did internally, we initially didn't use a third party assurance. We have a platform partner - Rio (by Ditto Sustainability) - and we upload all our data to them, so they’re the ones who control what emission factors we're using and whether we’re using the right categories etc. It's a partnership, as we're gathering it and then they’re doing the calculations for us.
This year, however, we’re working with KPMG UK to verify that baseline. This is about making sure that the methodology we're using is accurate, and the controls we've put in place are verifiable so that if anyone comes along and says ‘Where did you get those numbers from?’ or ‘What is your baseline? How do you know it's accurate?’ we've had someone check it.
👉 Now you know your impact areas, how are you working on reducing them?
Once we saw where our biggest impacts were, it informed some of the 20 BGP targets that we set. As an overview:
Carbon reduction and removal - we review our emissions each year, set reduction targets and then work with partners to remove the emissions that we can’t reduce.
Sustainable agriculture - good provenance is a big part of what makes Little Freddie special. We source directly from farms and are working to release our Animal Welfare policy this year.
Sustainable production - Our Supplier Code of Conduct requires new and existing partners to embrace our values for people and planet. So far, 60% of suppliers obtain energy from renewable sources, we are working towards 100%. As another example, we’ve helped four of our suppliers obtain the Chinese organic certification - considered the strictest in the world.
Low carbon transport - we are optimising our supply chain, and cut UK transport emissions by 10% in 2021.
Reducing waste - primarily within our warehouses and at our products’ end of life. In 2021, we achieved 35% reduction in operational waste from our warehouses in China, reused 596 tonnes of packaging and we exceeded our target of reducing food surplus by 98% in the UK (with 100% of surplus products donated to The Felix Project). We’re working hard to collect data from our Tier 1 manufacturers for this.
Perhaps what Little Freddie is best known for is our commitment to sustainable packaging initiatives. Hopefully, our 8 awards for our return recycling scheme and new mono-material pouch attest to this.
👉 Let’s dig into your packaging journey - 8 awards is a huge achievement! Where did this start, and why is it an area that you’ve invested in so heavily?
As part of our Big Green Plan we’re committed to ensuring our packaging is 100% recyclable, reusable or compostable by 2025. Our newly launched mono-material pouches have been a huge step forward for this, but our journey started with our pouch recycling scheme.
Our original pouches were (and still are) made from flexible aluminium laminate, which keeps product safe and fresh without the use of any preservatives. However, this type of packaging can’t be collected directly from your home - due to the multi-material layers making our pouches incompatible with mechanical recycling infrastructure. To overcome this, we established a transparent and accessible return recycling scheme for consumers to recycle their waste. It launched in 2018, so 4 years ago now. We’ve won six awards based on that scheme alone.
How did the scheme work?
We partnered with Enval, a chemical recycler here in the UK, so that consumers can recycle not just Little Freddie’s entire packaging range but packaging from any other baby food brand too. All they’d have to do is put pouches in our recyclable mailbag, and put it in the postbox.
We did some competitions at the beginning to engage customers, and I think if you give people the opportunity to get involved and they’re already likely to, they will. We also tried to make it really easy for them - we had a fantastic partnership with Sainsbury's where the mail recycling bags were sold in store alongside our products. The mailbag is now sold by Ocado and through our website.
How are you overcoming that? What was next for your packaging?
Whilst this recycling solution has saved over 1 million pouches from landfill so far, it is unavoidable that flexible plastic pouches may still end up discarded as waste materials as it is not how our consumers are used to recycling. The biggest thing in the industry right now is that everyone is looking to try and make recycling more streamline, so there’s one type of packaging. That’s where our mono-material pouches come in.
👉 Ok, let’s finally dig into your new mono-material pouches - the UK’s first ‘fully recyclable pouch’! What was the development process like?
We always thought our pouch would be our biggest headache as it can’t be recycled, so the question was always ‘what do we do with it?’. Now, we’ve realised we can do things at both ends - we’ve got an end of life, short term remedy with Enval, and we’re also changing the product itself to be mono-material and ‘recycle ready’ via our customers’ own bin.
Following an 18-month trial process, in July 2022, we launched a new fruit blend multipack range using a mono-material pouch. The pouch is made from one material known as polypropylene including the spout and cap, as opposed to different multi-layers of packaging, meaning it can be fully recycled in your own home bin. No going into a store to deposit it, sending it back via post, or splitting up the layers of material into different bins. It is also 20% lighter than our existing pouch, cutting our transportation emissions too.
However, what makes it particularly unique is that it is the first pouch to be assessed by On Pack Recycle Label (OPRL) that meets the requirements of their ‘Recycle’ designation. This means each pouch will carry an OPRL ‘recycle’ label and therefore can be accepted by kerbside recycling. It’s a category first, and so we’re really excited.
Do you know what kind of impact this innovation could have?
Sure! Over the next 12 months, it is anticipated the new packaging material will save over 350,000 pouches from landfill. That’s around 2.5 tonnes of plastic and 3 tCO2e. We plan to roll out this packaging across our entire pouch range – trials are already underway – by 2025.
What will happen to your partnership with Enval?
The partnership with Enval will remain in place - so consumers can continue to recycle those products without an OPRL label during this transition period.
How long did the mono-material pouches take to journey from concept to reality?
Probably about a year, because of the testing process. We’re using an ambient product, so shelf life was an issue for us. We needed to test to make sure the product was still good quality and the pouches lasted 12 months. You can do a ‘real life’ test, where you quite literally leave the product on a shelf for a set amount of time, then go and test it in a lab. Or, you can do an ‘accelerated’ test via a lab. We chose to do both - so we were essentially sitting around waiting to see how it affected the product in the longer ‘real life’ test.
👉 It’s not just the design of your pouches, it’s what’s on them too. You’ve been an advocate for adding ‘climate labels’ to some of your products - talk us through why, and how, you’ve done this.
We’re currently working towards what we consider to be full climate transparency, and are actually the first baby food brand to publish ‘climate labels’ on our products. This journey started in November 2021, when we decided to label 5 of our products with their ‘farm to shelf’ climate footprint - taking into account more than just carbon, but other greenhouse gases too. We partnered with CarbonCloud to do this, and now have labelled a total of 11 pouches since we started (including our mono-material pouches).
Going forward all new product launches will have a climate footprint label printed on each pack. Our new category range set to launch this Autumn features the label, averaging 0.55 kg CO2e per pouch.
Has ‘climate labelling’ helped you see your products more clearly?
It’s been a prompt to dig deeper into what our numbers are, sure. It’s also increased our motivation internally to optimise our supply chain in a way that mitigates our environmental impact - and this goes for the product development process too.
Potential environmental improvements can now be modelled in real-time - for example, we modelled and identified that the new recyclable mono-material pouch had a lower carbon footprint than our existing pouch by 0.1kg CO2e per pouch. If we didn’t already need another reason to make the switch, this added benefit will make a large difference when scaled up - and this is before the pouch is recycled.
Did you have any hesitation about displaying each products’ impact on your packet?
There are always pros and cons to a decision, but in this case I think it’s important for brand and industry transparency. That’s what’s important to us. It’s interesting, I always try to encourage other brands to do the same, I think a big question is ‘What if the numbers are bad?’. Again, I make the case that transparency is what’s important here.
See the climate footprint of some Little Freddie products here, via CarbonCloud.
👉 Let’s dig into other ways you’re mitigating your environmental impact. Are there any areas which have been particularly hard to reduce?
Transport is our number one priority - it’s the biggest hotspot we have. 99% of our emissions are in our value chain, and 75% of these emissions are from finished product transport, which is mostly our goods going out to China. Manufacturing in China is not on our agenda because it’s part of the Little Freddie brand that the products are sourced and manufactured in Europe. It’s the quality standard, the provenance of ingredients, and part of how we appeal to the large Chinese market. So, instead, what we can try and do is move our product the most efficient way possible. To help with this, we set ourselves a target to reduce transport emissions by 10% year on year.
We did a trial for multi-modal transportation in 2020, which we then implemented fully over the course of 2021. This was with a company called Paragon.
Talk me through how multi-modal transportation works, and why it’s more efficient?
Essentially, it’s a change to how pallets of goods are getting moved between different transportation modes (e.g. ship, rail and road). For example, instead of trucking a pallet from Spain to the UK, you can move it via rail, ship and road instead. Combined, this will reduce emissions, as it also optimises travel routes. We also worked with our distribution partners to improve packaging efficiency.
As a result, we saved 23 tCO2e across our raw material movements for our yoghurt range and cut carbon emissions by 50% across freight movements for our meal range.
👉 In your Impact Report, you quote incredible reductions in waste - 98% surplus food reduction and 30% reduction in waste from warehouses. Amazing! How did you achieve this?
Thanks! 98% is for the UK only, and we basically just got our forecasting bang on. Because of being in Europe, and having suppliers in the UK, the supply chain team really did amazingly in getting their forecasting right. Our goal is to donate all surplus food to The Felix Project, and then achieve a 10% year on year reduction in food waste too. It got to the point last year where we really didn’t donate anything, only a few individual units that were surplus. That’s how we achieved a 98% reduction.
Do these waste reductions map to your activities in China too?
In China, it’s slightly different. You take everything through a free trade zone, so it comes into Hong Kong’s port and it goes through customs to then get to China. If any product is sitting in our Free Trade Zone warehouse, or the Hong Kong warehouse, it can be donated very easily to charity, and we’ve got partnerships established to do so. However, in China, we’d be taxed for donating it. We’re trying to work out the best way of donating surplus anyway, and doing it without telling consumers in China as it would also be viewed with suspicion. There’s a real difference in how they view donated products - which is a huge challenge. If it’s surplus, there’s an assumption that something is wrong with the goods, or we have errors in the quality of our products.
👉 What’s next for sustainability at Little Freddie over 6-12 months? Are there any challenges you’re preparing yourself for?
Over the course of 2022, we’ve been examining how to improve sustainable growth within the business. One area we are looking to expand on is our decarbonisation strategy and having our targets verified by the Science Based Target Initiative (SBTi). To do this, we are working with a partner to help prepare our carbon emission data to ensure it meets quality assurance standards. We expect to submit our application in 2023!
👉 Any parting advice for brands keen to follow in your footsteps?
My advice would be to ensure that there is dedicated resource in place in the form of a sustainability manager – even if the business is small. They will be able to drive the strategic sustainability direction of the business, keeping it accountable and ensuring that progress is being made. I would add that having a certification would also reinforce a brand’s commitment to sustainability best practice, because they would then likely undergo audits. Having to demonstrate continuous improvement, rather than relying on internal motivation to do so, will be a key driver in maintaining your brand’s corporate sustainability performance.
💥 Recommended Resources From Nicola 💥
Henry Dimbleby @ Groundswell – Discussing The National Food Strategy: One Year On - It’s a fascinating and captivating talk.
Ellen MacArthur Foundation – Circular Design for Food - covering how every food brand should be approaching their NPD process.
Wherefrom - a great platform to collate feedback from consumers.
Read Little Freddie’s Big Green Plan
Check out the Little Freddie Eco Hub
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