This article first appeared on Towards Sustainable Business and is republished with permission. Carol Adams is a Director of Integrated Horizons.

Have you ever wondered what the Dairy Industry does for communities, to protect animal well-being or to reduce its environmental impact?

The Australian Dairy Industry Council (ADIC) and Dairy Australia makes a bold attempt to answer these questions in its 2014 Sustainability Framework Report.

The industry embarked on a process of determining its material impacts on the livelihoods and well-being of people, well-being of animals and the environment in 2012 and has set some targets for 2020 with more to be developed.

The targets and performance measures that have been developed are primarily, and appropriately, aimed at changing practices of farmers and manufacturers to reduce negative and increase positive impacts on the environment, well-being and profitability.

The process has been led by Helen Dornom, Manager Sustainability, including Food Safety & Integrity, at Dairy Australia and has involved farmers, dairy manufacturers, supermarkets, representatives of animal welfare groups, bankers, consultants and academics.

Not surprisingly, a process bringing together such a diverse range of stakeholders, often with conflicting views, has not all been plain sailing. And then there is the challenge of providing farmers with the know-how of what needs to be done and how.

I asked Helen Dornom:

What were the biggest challenges in your multi-stakeholder process of determining indicators and targets?

“Firstly, it was about ensuring we had a collaborative and inclusive process, deciding who needed to be involved and at what level so that we could have real industry ownership and commitment to agree and implement a strategy. Next we had to recognise that we don’t have indicators and agreed targets for all of our material issues and that there is still more work to do. However, given the scope of the Framework, it was important not to let that stop our progress. Perhaps the biggest challenge has been not letting the perfect be the enemy of the good. The Framework is a “living project” and our intention is to add new and better indicators and metrics as they develop.”

Was there a defining moment when you realised it was all worthwhile and really could make a difference?

“A “lightbulb” moment was getting the tick from Unilever that all Australian milk production meets its Sustainability criteria, based on an assessment and the industry’s commitment to a Sustainability Framework with goals, targets and measures. No other country had achieved this. It was also the enthusiasm and active involvement of the many diverse stakeholders who participate in the industry’s Sustainability Consultative Forum and the fact that after three years they are still at the table providing valuable feedback on how the industry is performing.”

What will you focus on in 2015?

“It’s about consolidation and getting the message out to everyone in the dairy value chain, including consumer groups, and using the Framework to support our farmers with their efforts on the ground to be more sustainable. Another key area of focus will be filling the gaps around targets, performance measures and baseline data. Some of the performance measures have as yet to be defined, let alone monitored. In some cases there are not readily available indicators and proxies will need to be used while we develop them.”

The process has raised awareness amongst farmers, the industry more broadly and supply chain partners about material environmental impacts and issues of public interest.

The Dairy Industry’s Framework identifies three themes:

Enhancing livelihoods: The dairy industry employs 43,000 Australians and generates $13 billion in economic value, which particularly benefits regional communities.

Improving well-being:  Diary food contains essential nutrients and has positive impacts on human well-being, the challenge being to realise them whilst caring for animals and without a detrimental impact on animal well-being.

Reducing our environmental impact: The dairy industry requires land, water and energy. The challenge is to be responsible stewards of the land whilst reducing natural resource consumption.

For each of these themes, the Dairy Industry has embarked on a process of identifying indicators, base line data and determining targets. Setting goals and making performance visible in this way, has seen improvements in a number of areas.

Chris Griffin, Chair of the Dairy Industry Sustainability Framework Steering Committee said:

“In the two years since this framework was implemented our industry has reduced greenhouse gas emissions generated by manufacturers’ use of fuel and electricity by 14.5% which is well on the way towards the target set for 2020 (a 30% reduction).

46% of on-farm and factory workers now have a documented occupational health and safety (OH&S) plan – by 2020, the Framework aims for 100% to have completed OH&S training.

The industry also achieved 100% compliance with the national standards on chemical residues in line meeting the 2020 target, and the proportion of consumers who agree Australia produces safe dairy products rose two points to 69%.

Our progress thus far demonstrates just how powerful dairy can be when the whole supply chain works together toward its common goals.”

This is all good news. But some of the consumer survey results indicate that consumers are unaware of the progress the industry has made.

The next phase of Dairy Australia’s work needs to continue to embed the work with farmers whilst also raising awareness of industry sustainability issues and activities more broadly and particularly amongst consumers. Communication relevant to consumers and designed to reach them is critical in motivating farmers and manufacturers to do more to achieve targets.

This might involve identifying a broader range of appropriate media for reporting to consumers and concisely communicating what the industry is doing on matters of public concern.

A number of strategies are used by organisations to increase the credibility of information communicated including:

  1. Providing key contextual information about the industry and identifying material sustainability issues up front – in the Chairperson’s or CEO’s statement;
  2. Outlining how targets have been determined;
  3. Outlining activities to achieve targets alongside the targets and performance data;
  4. Avoiding use of language that might see your work perceived as a public relations exercise;
  5. Being clear and consistent about what the term “sustainability” means to the industry/organisation and how stakeholder concerns have been taken into consideration;
  6. Engaging external assurers.

Dairy Australia has adopted most of these strategies – but there is always more to be done.

Influencing consumers on sustainability issues is a challenge facing many sectors. Whilst as yet there are limited examples of “product reporting” in the food retail industry it is increasingly spoken about as having the potential to influence buying patterns. In the case of the dairy industry this might take the form of reporting on the impacts of dairy products as a group, rather than individually. It might include information on: the contribution of dairy farming and manufacture to communities; health benefits of dairy products; and, environmental costs and benefits of getting dairy products to consumers. Dairy Australia provides some of this information already and further consideration could be given as to how to enhance it in a way which will be meaningful to consumers and provide it in addition to reporting progress against the targets in your sustainability framework.

Carol Adams was engaged by Dairy Australia to provide feedback to the Sustainability Framework Steering Committee on the 2014 Sustainability Framework Report.

Image: Kabsik Park via Flickr (CC)