Delivering a healthier and more sustainable future: the role of the European Soft Drinks Industry

The European soft drinks industry is not just a major driver of the economy. It is also at the heart of important debates about public health and obesity. Parliament Magazine met up with Peter Harding, the new President of UNESDA, to learn how the sector is working collaboratively with regulators and policymakers to deliver a healthier and more sustainable future for Europe.
The Parliament Partner Content

By The Parliament Partner Content

The Parliament Partner Content team works with organisations from across the world to bring their stories to the eyes of policy makers and industry stakeholders across Europe.

15 Jun 2023


Unesda

Peter Harding is a man who knows the European soft drinks industry better than most. As well as recently being appointed as the new President of UNESDA, the body that represents European soft drink producers, Harding is also CEO of Suntory Beverage & Food Europe since 2018, one of Europe’s largest soft drinks producers.

As a key voice in the industry, and a long-standing advocate for the positive contribution it can make, Harding is now set to play a leading role in ongoing debates at European level about how the sector can further support health and sustainability in Europe. It is a challenge he clearly relishes, viewing urgent issues around public health and sustainability as shared problems that only close collaboration among industry, civil society, and governments can solve.

Harding sees the starting point for such collaboration as a relationship between the sector and policymakers that is based on a shared understanding of the challenges faced and, crucially, on trust.

“We need to build trust and stay focused,” he says. “If we do, then these are problems we can solve together.”

“Trust” is a word that comes up again and again during our sit-down discussion with Harding. It is clearly a core value that sits at the heart of the new UNESDA President’s approach, whether he is discussing the way that the sector engages with regulators and policymakers or highlighting the relationship that soft drink producers have with their consumers.

He also tells Parliament Magazine that the strong track record of the soft drinks sector on reducing sugar in their drinks should give regulators confidence that this is an industry that can be trusted to work proactively and collaboratively to deliver shared outcomes on sustainability as well.

“Trust is earned by actions, not by words,” he explains. “Our actions in recent years demonstrate that we are part of the solution. We are living that commitment year-by-year, day-by-day.”

Harding is also refreshingly honest about the journey that the soft drinks sector has taken in recent years, shifting from an industry that he describes as “sometimes defensive in the past” into one that has learned the value of engaging openly and honestly with regulators to achieve shared goals.

Asked to pinpoint the catalyst for that change, Harding identifies past debates about public health and reducing sugar content in drinks.

“When Europe started to look at soft drink taxes around sugar, the industry realised the position it was in was simply not sustainable,” he tells us. “That was the moment when we realised, we had to accelerate change.”

Those shifts may have felt challenging at the time, but the changes that the soft drinks industry has now implemented are undoubtedly impressive. Harding explains that, since 2015, sugar content in soft drinks has reduced by an average of 17.7%, and in some European markets much more than that. This goes beyond what any other sector from the food and drink industry has done. 

Harding sees that transformational change as evidence of a sector that is increasingly agile and keen to drive positive change in partnership with legislators.

“We have seen the benefits of engaging with regulators and NGOs,” he explains. “By being on the front foot it has enabled us to change the shape of our portfolios and maintain the success of the sector.”

Harding sees the progress that the soft drinks sector has made on reducing sugar as a template that can now inform its work to drive up sustainability standards and minimise packaging waste. He also believes that it is hard evidence that should give regulators confidence that the soft drinks sector is an industry that they can work alongside to achieve common objectives.

It is abundantly clear that sustainability is an issue close to Harding’s heart. He has a reputation within the industry as a passionate advocate for sustainability and as a leader committed to delivering the changes that will reduce the environmental impact of the soft drinks sector.

In particular, Harding views the proactive leadership role that the industry is currently taking to establish new, well-designed deposit return schemes (DRS) as an innovation that could be transformational, ensuring that the issue of plastic waste is, “managed once and for all.”

However, he cautions that when it comes to an important issue like reducing packaging waste, it is critical that regulators work hand-in-hand with the industry to co-design effective solutions.

“We can solve this problem because it is a problem that needs to be solved,” he explains. “But to do that, we need more trust and understanding. That way we can get a better, more balanced set of interventions in place that we can support and that our regulators can support as well.”

He highlights steps that the sector is already taking to make sure that plastic waste is reduced or eliminated throughout the value chain. Many brands are already using 100% recycled PET and there is a sector-wide commitment to move to 100% recycled PET and/or renewable PET, if technically and economically feasible, by 2030.

Harding is confident that the industry stands ready to play its part in the journey to a more sustainable future. However, he cautions that in order to unlock innovation and investment, legislators and regulators need to support the sector by creating a stable operating environment that allows businesses to plan effectively.   

“It is hard to invest and plan in an environment that is uncertain across the continent,” he says. “We need policy certainty and harmonisation. That is what will unlock innovation from the sector.”

If legislators fail to put that consistent policy framework into place, Harding believes that there will be real consequences for the sector. He is particularly concerned about the impact on the host of small and innovative new businesses that are emerging in local markets.

“There are large global players at the forefront of the sector, but what is often missed is that the ecosystem of the soft drinks industry is populated by a lot of small businesses,” he says. “We have a lot of new startups, which is where the entrepreneurialism and innovation comes from. For Europe to be successful we need to encourage that innovation. We need to allow those entrepreneurs to prosper.”

Recognising and protecting the diversity of the industry is, for Harding, absolutely key to delivering new products for consumers, supporting a value chain that is estimated to be worth over €185 billion, and safeguarding the 1.7 million jobs that are connected to the industry, both directly and throughout its supply chain.

That staggering economic impact is a clear indicator of the critical social and economic role that the industry plays across the continent. Harding has made it his personal mission, as the new President of UNESDA, to ensure the sheer scale and diversity of the industry is understood by policymakers and to forge a new set of collaborative relationships that are based on trust.

“The soft drinks industry is one of the foundation industries in Europe and it needs to be cared for,” he explains. “We are all on the same page. We all want a European economy that promotes business and does the best for health, the environment and for consumers. If we work together then we can achieve that.”


In partnership with

UNESDA

This article was produced in partnership with UNESDA. UNESDA is a Brussels-based association representing corporates and national soft drinks associations.

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