Corporate social and environmental responsibility: more than just a “nice to have”

Since the coming into office of European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and, with her, perhaps the EU’s most ambitious climate action agenda, flagship initiatives such as the EU Green Deal and Farm to Fork Strategy have become some of the most heavily lobbied files in Brussels. According to Transparency International, more than one fifth of all high-level meetings with the Commission focused on these issues.

This recent trend shows that a broad range of climate and sustainability-related topics, including issues such as responsible sourcing, supply chain transparency, animal and social welfare, have moved to the top of the EU’s policy and political agenda. Growing stakeholder involvement in Brussels on “green” topics, especially in the context of sustainable food systems, testifies to the importance that social and environmental responsibility have gained in the corporate world. Companies which are directly affected by forthcoming legislation, for instance by the EU’s proposal for stricter packaging reuse and recycling obligations, increasingly understand that participation in the EU-level debate is crucial in many ways, be it to seize upon the (commercial) opportunities the EU’s new focus on corporate social and environmental responsibility creates, or to advert possible risks associated with new social and environmental sustainability obligations.

Companies have started to respond to mounting pressures from regulators, customers and investors, and kick-started the development of corporate positions and strategies on sustainability. This is especially the case in the food sector, where Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) criteria are now essential elements of the corporate identity of players such as Danone, Mondelez or Ferrero, and also take centre stage in their engagements with the European Union’s regulators.

We take a look at why corporate social and environmental responsibility is no longer a “nice to have”, but indispensable for companies that wish to remain competitive and shape food policy, and we make some concrete recommendations on how engaging with Brussels on the hot topics of sustainability and responsibility can become a success.

Under pressure

In the past two years, the Commission’s ambition to transform the EU into the first climate-neutral continent manifested itself in concrete policy action. For the food sector, the Farm to Fork Strategy presents the perhaps most relevant and far-reaching initiative in this regard, as it sets out to stimulate sustainable production, processing, and consumption along the entire food value chain.

The Commission is determined to involve, and indeed demands, private companies contribute to the transition to more environmentally friendly food systems. For instance, by 2023, the Commission will make a legislative proposal for a framework for sustainable food systems to ensure that all foods placed on the EU market become increasingly sustainable. In parallel, the Commission seeks concrete commitments from food companies to act on health and sustainability, for instance through an EU Code of Conduct for Responsible Business and Marketing Practice, and a requirement for the food industry to integrate sustainability into corporate strategies.

Companies that wish to leave their mark on EU food policy will inevitably be measured against these new sustainability standards, and so it will become increasingly harder for businesses that lack a stance on sustainability to have a say and make their case in Brussels. However, with  more than ten thousand organisations currently registered on the EU Transparency Register, and three times as many people involved in lobbying activities towards the EU institutions, Brussels resembles a beehive of interest representation, where messages can easily get lost or get diluted. To counteract such risks, the following tips can help:

Getting the timings straight

The Green Deal and Farm to Fork Strategy seek to gradually streamline social and environmental sustainability in the EU economy and society, and so over the next few years, we can expect multiple ground-breaking initiatives, including:



Whitehouse’s lobby glossary

The following lobbying glossary can help to seize upon the opportunities of these initiatives:

S – Stakeholder: mapping stakeholders, allies, and opponents, as well as their interests and influence, is a prerequisite to enter in dialogue with policymakers and participate in the debate on sustainability.

U – United Kingdom: although the UK has formally left the EU, UK companies that seek to continue to trade with the EU will still be affected by EU legislation, and should thus engage with Brussels.

S – Slovenian Presidency: presiding over the EU Council from July onwards, Slovenia will be a key partner for those who wish to leave their mark on food legislation in the coming six months.

T – Targets: Setting realistic and achievable targets is the first step for companies that seek to position themselves in the sustainability debate.

A – Awareness-raising: depending on the level of ambition, some companies may wish to actively campaign about and bring policymaker and media attention to their sustainability journey. Building coalitions and organising events can help to attract your audience’s attention.

I – Institutions: The EU is infamous for its complex institutional apparatus, and so an informed understanding of the functioning and powers of the institutions is crucial to get your message to the right audience at the right time.

N – Narrative: A clear and compelling narrative that is aligned with the EU’s sustainability agenda makes it easier to reach and persuade decision-makers and other influencers.

A – Audit & analysis: With around two thousand laws being adopted at the EU level each year, audit and analysis of key policy and regulatory development build the backbone for any engagement with regulators and policymakers.

B – Benchmarking: Sustainability is a broad and fluid concept, which has both social and environmental elements. Benchmarking is essential to understand and define which aspects of sustainability are relevant to individual businesses on a case-by-case basis.  In a complex and competitive environment like that of the food industry, benchmarking is also key to identify, and possibly adjust to, competitor’s sustainability actions and ambitions.

L – Leader or laggard: A prominent misconception about the EU is that it only listens to big corporates. The EU is very conscious of the importance of SMEs and is also interested in how it can structure rules to make it possible for all companies to make the journey to sustainability, not just the leaders.

E – Evidence: In Brussels’ beehive of interest representation, having solid evidence to back up claims and demands is the secret weapon to successful lobbying.

The Whitehouse Communications team are experts in providing public affairs advice and political analysis to a wide range of clients who seek to engage with policy makers in the EU institutions, but also with the member states of the European Union and beyond. For more information, please contact Viviana Spaghetti, at