From Farm to Future: Cultivate Sustainability Conference returns to serve up sustainable solutions for food industry

ESG and Net Zero.

They are terms that not all Manitoba-based food companies might be totally familiar with.

That being the case, companies of all sizes need to get familiar with it immediately, says Mike Mikulak, executive director of Food & Beverage Manitoba.

“ESG stands for Environmental, Social and Governance,” he says. “Essentially, those are the things that companies are already being judged by. Gone are the days when they were judged by their financial performance alone. For example, companies are increasingly being judged by their environmental policies.”

How do Manitoba-based food companies rate on the ESG awareness scale? 

“Honestly, not enough people here are taking it seriously enough,” says Mikulak matter-of-factly. “It’s time for companies to wake up. A lot of people in the industry see these discussions happening and think they are far off in the future. But standards are coming, and quickly, and the longer you wait, the harder it will be to comply and report on your progress.”

Is for this reason that the theme of this year’s Cultivate Sustainability Conference – which will take place on February 6, 2024 at the Victoria Inn – is to reinforce the need for food and beverage manufacturers to understand what ESG and Net-zero means and start embracing this movement in a serious way, now.

“The reality is that more food companies are making serious commitments to ESG. Maple Leaf already made a commitment to being carbon neutral five years ago, and others are coming in, like Sobeys, who is looking to get to net zero emissions somewhere between 2030 and 2040.” This will ripple through the entire sector from farm to fork, and will require a new lens for measuring performance, training and upskilling staff.

Consequently, with industry leaders and major food retailers rapidly embracing ESG, it’s imperative that Manitoba food companies of all sizes do the same.

“We will be emphasizing that you have to start positioning yourself now to get ahead of the curve,” he says. “Doing that is essential because a confluence of Net Zero and ESG is coming quickly.”

The ramifications of those two forces merging so powerfully in such a short time frame will be huge, adds Mikulak.

“All publicly traded companies are going to be evaluated against these standards. So, for example, if you’re a company looking to get a bank loan, you’re going to have to meet ESG standards to get it. There will be a tiered approach starting with the biggest players. It will then filter down to the medium-sized and smaller players in the next two years or so.”

What will those standards entail?

“Food companies are going to be required to outline their ESG strategy in addition to outlining their business plan. Companies will need to have science-based targets and report on them. The problem is, many companies in Manitoba don’t know that’s coming, so they need to zero in on it now.”

With that in mind, the 2024 Cultivate Sustainability Conference will have a laser focus on ESG and Net Zero.

“We will have presentations on the race to Net Zero and all the things companies need to do to get ESG savvy. We want to help people understand what they should be looking at as business owners – things like sustainable packaging, their supply chain, and how to lower their environmental impact.”

Mikulak says the overall goal for the Cultivate Sustainability Conference is a simple one.

“We want companies to leave the conference seeing new opportunities by getting on board. Moving forward, we want to get companies thinking about how they can collaborate on the different components on Net Zero and ESG.”

A forward thinking, collaborative attitude will be the key to success, he adds.

“Manitoba could be a leader – we already have clean power with electricity – but everyone has to work together. If we can do that, Manitoba has the potential to be a global leader.”