June 20, 2024

How to Prioritise and Deliver Against Sustainability Targets with Tilda Rice

With an ambition to be one of the most responsible rice producers in the world, Tilda is increasingly becoming the authority for responsible sourcing within the industry. Jamie Dujardin sits down with Jean-Philippe Laborde, Managing Director at Tilda, to understand how organisations can best move the needle on sustainability to contribute to long-term competitive advantage and major change.

What we cover:

  • How to prioritise sustainability initiatives within your strategy, taking into account sustainability and business impact
  • Practical tips for engaging suppliers as ‘partners’ in your sustainability journey
  • Advice for scaling up & financing sustainability pilots to drive long-term competitive advantage

Don’t forget to check out these links:


Jamie Dujardin:

This is Altruistiq where we speak with pioneers in the race to zero and unpack the lessons from their experience for you, our community of impact professionals. I'm your host, Jamie Dujardin and in today's episode we're catching up with Jean Philippe Laborde Managing Director at Tilda Rice. Tilda Rice is the UK's favourite rice brand and whilst most of our listeners who have cooked with and have probably tasted Tilda's legendary rice, not so many will know about Tilda's ambition to be one of the most responsible rice producers in the world. So today we're going to dive into how Tilda is delivering against sustainability commitments whilst also growing and meeting consumer demand. JP, welcome. How are you doing?

Jean-Philippe Laborde:

Yeah, all well Jamie, and you?

Jamie Dujardin:

Yeah, good, thank you. Really, really excited to have the conversation. If you don't mind, I'm going to just dive straight into it. As I mentioned, a lot of our listeners will have have cooked with Tilda Rice before, but not so many know about Tilda's sustainability agenda. So could you just tell us a little bit about Tilda's sustainability journey so far?

Jean-Philippe Laborde:

Yeah, yeah, for sure. So Tilda is a 50 years old company. So we've been well established in the UK for quite a while with a very strong presence in India. And the sustainability journey started actually, very early days because we were very close to farmers. So I think it started something like 25 to 30 years ago when we wanted actually, to work very closely with farmers to improve the quality. So the quality has been our obsession since day one. That's what we are well known for and it was important for us to make sure we had the consistency. So we started working with farmers and we knew each and every name of farmers and we could actually call them directly by their name and not by number, which was already how you can be a very strong relationship.

Jamie Dujardin:

I think it's really interesting to see the difference in companies in terms of relationships because I'm guessing from Tilda's perspective you've probably had relationships with farmers that go about decades, with relatively small farms in India rather than just more transactional relationships.

Jean-Philippe Laborde:

Yes, absolutely. You need to support farmers and see how they can make it better, but you need to hear from them first, understand their concerns and see how we can work all together. And this is actually  what Tilda has done for many, many years, but I would say for the last few years, we've been also quite clear that we need to reset our journey and see how we can take a holistic vision on sustainability and then to take it from end to end instead of just taking maybe some bits of those ones.

So that's how we decided actually, to have a comprehensive plan and then to involve also our team and maybe something to do justice also with the team. So we have Jon heading up  Sustainability at Tilda, but we have many, many members. Part of what we call the steering committee are just volunteers from the company, from the supply chain or directly from the purchase and all senior executive leaders supporting also the action plan and how we can actually make a difference for sustainability for Tilda. So we've taken it in a very different way from the source directly to consumers. And we have three key areas. One is the source on how we buy our raw materials, mainly basmati rice from India. The second part is the manufacturing, how we can actually reduce our carbon footprint whenever we produce our rice. And the third one is how we can also support local communities and make sure that we can, to some extent, give back and also promote some young talent on our passion, which is all about food.

Jamie Dujardin:

Yeah, it's so great to hear and was very lucky to have a read at the most recent sustainability report. And I really like the fact that it's structured around areas of your business and things that you actually do and the hotspots you have rather than a more generic framework that you then try and apply your business to. One of the questions I do have though is if you take those three areas, how do you think internally about prioritising between them in Tilda?

Jean-Philippe Laborde:

So when it comes to priorities, first we need to consider the context. So the current context that we have now in the UK is obviously the cost of living crisis. So that means we can't just work on one end and forget the other one. So priorities is obviously where we can have a clear impact, but this is also for the long term. So priority number one for us is how we can work very closely with farmers to improve our carbon footprint. On our business model, 100% of our raw materials are imported. That means we need to find a way on how we can reduce our carbon footprint because it will be always much greater than what you can have locally because we can't buy rice locally, it's not grown in the UK, as we know.

So this is where we have to work very closely because rice is, let's say top 10, in terms of methane emission. And this is where we need actually to see how we can reduce this farm. And this is a very water intensive crop because rice is grown mainly in Asia for most probably 80% to 90% of the global production. And this is a sub-aquatic plant. So when it comes to growing rice, you need to flood it. We'll come back to that particular point on our sustainability journey. But this is why the source and rice, how we cultivate rice and how we can reduce our footprint, is really important for us because that's where we'll have the greatest impact.

The second part of it is how we support local communities in that particular context where everything is more expensive and sometimes you can cope with it, sometimes it's very difficult or so on how you need to do that. So we've been associated for many years, six, seven years now, with Felix Project. And so we love what they do. We love also their tagline which is, "Good food for good cause." So the product we give directly to them is not just a product that is close to the end of the shelf life, it's something they can use anytime and for us, is something we do every month. So we've donated over the last 12 months the equivalent of 100,000 meals to them.

But this is just the first part so we can give our products. That may be the easy bit of it. The other one is how we can volunteer and have some employees to really contribute because now Felix Project, they have a kitchen and is sometimes to send some of our employees keen to do that one, to spend a day, to roll up their sleeves and then to really contribute to make a meal for today and for many, many charities in the UK. So that's the other part of our priorities, I would say, for 2022 and 2023 as well.

Jamie Dujardin:

That's really exciting to hear how you engage the team in the journey as well. If I could dive into one thing you were saying, obviously, as you said, one of the hotspots, I guess, of emissions from the rice supply chain is methane emissions. I guess from looking at big decarbonisation opportunities that we've observed with our customers, a lot of emissions typically do lie in the supply chain. So two questions, I guess. First is, how did you identify that these were some of the hotspots for you to think about? And the second is, what do you think are the biggest challenges with decarbonisation in the supply chain rather than in Tilda's operations?

Jean-Philippe Laborde:

If we consider methane emission, so that's what the most important cause of the global warming and it's even now a bigger priority compared to just carbon emission as a whole because if we can't act directly on methane reduction, we can't actually reduce that particular 1.5 degree as a target and that's where we really need to work on that one. And rice is about 12% of the methane emission globally. It's really one of the most important one and this is where we can do something. If you take wetlands where you have naturally also the methane emission, you can't do anything out of that. But based on that cultivation we can have an impact on it.

And this is why we decided to have a particular program on methane emission. And we started last year a very small experiment with 45 farmers, 45, 50 farmers on how to reduce actually the methane emission. And what we did was to start what we call the alternate wet drying. So rice, when you start the cultivation, you need to flood completely the rice field. When you flood it, this is where you generate the methane emission. So how can you reduce level of that particular water when you flood the rice field and reduce also the methane emissions? So it's like a catch 22 now. So if you don't get water, you can't grow the plant, but then you will have your emission. And the alternate wet drying enables farmers to actually put directly a plastic pipe in the rice field where they can get control level of the water and if they really see actually the ground surface still a little bit dry, but with some water in that particular pipe, they know that they don't need actually to flood again that particular rice field.

And this is how you reduce, in a simple terms, the methane emission. And you can reduce it by 50%, which is massive in that context, knowing that this is already 12% of the methane emission. So we started a very small program, it's really an experiment, is it working or not? And then we started on 50 farmers and we got very exciting results. So we thought maybe now we need to scale up a little bit on this. And now we are getting 900 farmers applying these alternate wet drying method and they are well on board for many reasons because number one, you reduce the methane emission. Number two, the fact they don't need to flood the rice field on a regular basis, they use also less water, which is our second objective. And thirdly, try to find a way also to promote biodiversity.

So they decided, and actually it came directly from farmers as a concept, to maintain spider bundle where you can actually keep the raw bundle in the rice field, a specific location and the spider will actually be natural predators for all the insects. And that gives you also an indication of the level of activity that you have there. We have also what we call a pheromone trap where you see the level of insect that you have and when farmer goes to the field, they can see clearly if there's an activity or not. So whether they need to use some pesticides or pest management system and if there's no big activity, they may not need that one. And this is how actually you can promote a better way of cultivating rice by reducing the methane emission and also reducing the energy for them with no need of maybe piping too much water and that's beneficial for farmers. And that's also the way far us to reach our objective on reducing it.

So I would say that's maybe the biggest program that we've run so far. That's where we see a big opportunity. Now when it comes to the challenge that you asked me, I would say the first challenge is the scale. We have quite a massive scale and then for us, it's not a question of embarking 100 farmers to do something small. We are currently working with 7,000 farmers, so we still need to scale up that particular project and then to make sure that everyone applies techniques to be sure that it works for everyone. That's the first challenge that we have, how we embark 7,000 farmers in our journey. And then for them to be convinced and happy on it because the challenge that you have on that situation, for us, the sustainability strategy is important to us because we believe that we can make it better and for something good.

For farmers, they have a different agenda. For them it's also a question of how do you improve their livelihood? How we make something sustainable that we can actually buy their crop every time? So it's a question of longevity, relationship, how you build that one, to have a very strong trust and make sure we can continue that particular program over the years. They see the benefit, we know how we can reach our goal and we make it together. So it's how we combine short term and long term plan. That's the challenge number one in this program.

The challenge number two, I would say, how do we scientifically prove our results? Because we can have a great concept saying, "Oh yes, we have reduced the water," et cetera, but what are the tangible data or information that we can confirm that it works? And for us when it comes to sustainability, I think the most important for me, and for the team, that's part of our motto, I would say, is to be transparent. We cannot say something that actually we can't just back it up with data and facts. If we have those ones, then we can actually go for it. Otherwise, we prefer to, let's say, keep it understated until unless we have the evidence that we can actually confirm that this is something real. And that's where methane emission and even sustainability as a whole is such a complex topic. Sometimes you have more questions than answers. So we need to be be humble on the steps we've taken and to say, "If we don't know, we don't know."

But if we have maybe a way of exploring how we can confirm data, then we need to go for it. And that's our challenge. But fortunately with John, I think we've found something very interesting, which is called the Cool Farm Tool, which actually can capture the data and we can give that particular device to farmers and then they will go directly to their field and check what's the level of methane emission and based on the data so that we can gather with all farmers, we ascertain the level of reduction that we've given. And this is the way forward for us on how we can actually be transparent because if we want to make a big impact on sustainability, we need also to continue to build trust that we have with our consumers, our customers, that what we do is right, but also is something they can even check by themselves.

Jamie Dujardin:

That's so interesting and thank you so much for putting it in an example, the alternate wet drying concept is really exciting. It's a new way to think about a problem and then what you've done, I guess to summarise, is roll out the pilot, now going through scaling it up and a lot of the challenges actually come with the scaling up and proving the success of the project, which is really interesting. If I can ask a little bit about that first point, scaling it up, did you consider anything else when choosing how to scale up the pilot? And what I mean by that is we talk a lot at Altruistiq about is there a business case for sustainability and building the business case for sustainability. Did you see that also being cost or other benefits for the farmers meant that you were very confident in scaling up the pilot to a wider selection of farmers?

Jean-Philippe Laborde:

Yes, absolutely. That's a very fair question because when I said before, we are working actually on managing short-term and long-term perspective with two different angles, which is farmers, short term, how we can make a living better and first, on how we can deliver maybe a very strong sustainability program that we deliver. The only way to bridge the gap is to be very well grounded and to have a business case. And the business case is actually just to do the knife for them and to say, "Hey, we are recommending to do this and that. This is your benefit and this is how we can accompany you beyond the necessary struggle. So we are not asking you to do that because it looks good, it's because also it's better for you." And this is I think how we can demonstrate to solve social economic model where we work all together and sometimes if there's no benefit for us to do something, but if it's better for them, this is something we should do because we need actually to work all together.

And what we are doing now, for example, we accompany the farmers and we are with them during the whole growth cycle at different stages to see the quality is fine, but what we want also is how they can improve their farming, how they can get more production on the same piece of land. And the plan that we have is to be comprehensive for farmers to be sure that they are also benefiting from there. First, in terms of output, which is, let's say, revenue. The second part of that one is, when we say sustainability is better for you, it's also in terms of cost. And when they understand that finally they need less water, so they don't need to have a pump just to get the water flooding directly. The rice field, they know it means electricity cost, it means water. Even if water has no real cost for them today, they know that groundwater is depleting also quite fast because of this global warming.

So they know they have to be quite mindful on how they use it and we are trying to work around the full cycle of what they do. That means how we can support them to have any particular pest management product that they can maybe get at a cost instead of just paying that from the market, number one. And number two, you have also the straw because once you harvest the paddy, obviously you keep the grains but you have all the straw and the stubble from the ground, how they can get also revenue of that byproduct. And we found ways to improve also those one and this is part of the equation on what I call net farmer's revenue. If we improve this one for them, they will be on board and they understand that we are more partners, not just there for a specific transaction. That's where we make, I think, a bigger difference.

Jamie Dujardin:

Yeah, it's really interesting and I think a lot of businesses that are seeing success in building a more sustainable supply chain really do see supplies more as partners in this journey than a transactional relationships. And I guess one other thing that just is in my mind about scaling this up is also the challenges with just engaging that many farms. You said you work with 7,000 farms when it comes to the basmati rice. How are you going about trying to scale up the pilot to hundreds if not thousands of suppliers? How does engagement work? How do you educate the farmers on these challenges?

Jean-Philippe Laborde:

So for the contract farming, which is already with 7,000 farmers, so we have very large scale already on the contract farming. That means on that particular contract farming, the very principle of it is to be all together but also to guarantee farmers that we will actually pay a premium for what they do, regardless of the market condition. In India, by law, farmers are free to sell wherever they want. So even if you are engaged with them and they're not happy at the end of the season, they can sell as well. And sometimes freedom is maybe the best way of engaging in a more genuine manner because they have to believe that this is true. And the moment of truth is when they have to sell their produce and they have to sell it to you, otherwise they can sell it as well. So you need to be very genuine on what you really do there.

But for us, the best way to do it is first to apply your particular premium on the overall price at the market price. So if the market is high, we continue to top up, if the market is done, we do it the same way and they know that this is a real benefit to join us. To join us, they need to register on a particular ledger where we really put their name, phone number, et cetera, and that's how we start engaging with them. So we see 7,000 farmers. Out of that, we have 900 on that particular alternate wet drying. So what we'll do is word of mouth. So we'll ask the guys, the progressive farmers who have applied already the system, if they're happy to talk to their friends and neighbors and etc, see how we can actually increase this one. And then first, is how we finance also all the extra cost for this particular alternate wet drying.

So they have no cost. We finance the spider bundles, we finance also the pheromone trap and also the tube that they need to put at different locations. So for them, it's all beneficial when we see the overall results. So I'm guessing the way we can scale up is, how we can continue to finance this particular program and then to increase maybe by 100%, I would say, every year or even more to add 1,000 or 2,000 farmers per year. And to make sure that whenever we add farmers, they're well on board and they follow the practices in a proper manner. And then we can actually continue to scale up. So slightly to be something like maybe a three, five year journey on how we can complete this one with 7,000 farmers. But that's life, so that's where we need to take it one step at a time, make sure we do it well and then I'm sure we'll have more farmers on board very soon.

Jamie Dujardin:

I'm sure. It sounds like a very compelling story. Do you mind me asking you about how you are financing it?

Jean-Philippe Laborde:

Yeah, so the way we finance it is out of our sustainability budget. So the only way we can move forward is to be serious about sustainability and the reality sustainability to this cost. Okay, so it's something that you have to invest today for tomorrow. What would be the benefit tomorrow, frankly speaking, is so complex, we don't know. But I certainly believe it's going to be good for consumers and customers because that should be the way forward.

So it's more, for me, a question of competitive advantage that I strongly believe sustainability can deliver even though consumers may not recognise all the effort and may not value it when you buy directly your product, but when it comes to a brand and to have a comprehensive plan on sustainability and the impact you make, I think, over time, that will make a big difference also in how you perceive a brand and how you also add value to a product. So that's, for me, a question of investment. And we have a budget within Tilda, and I would say most of it is dedicated on the alternate wet drying because we strongly believe this one is a breakthrough not only for us, for our industry. And that's where I think we can really impulse the change.

Jamie Dujardin:

Yeah, it's so exciting and I think the competitive advantage only becomes stronger as consumers become more educated on these topics as well and really understand businesses that are taking the problem seriously and investing in change. One more question just on how you're engaging your supply chain. We've talked a lot about your product suppliers, so your rice suppliers. Do you have a similar way of working with packaging suppliers or indirect suppliers or does the program look quite different when you think about sustainability or packaging or other areas?

Jean-Philippe Laborde:

Well I would say we have a similar plan for different hotspots, we have sustainability strategy. The biggest one is obviously the right suppliers, but we apply the same also in different part of our business. As you already mentioned, the manufacturing piece, we have already suppliers for the packaging and the packaging might be the most complicated topic because it's not just about what we really want to do. Rice, at the origin, you may argue on that one fairly, but when it comes to packaging, so we work very closely with several suppliers on how we can make this recycle ready as a reality for our packaging. So this is a combination of what we can do as a business. So we are trialing on a regular basis, the quality. We need to understand that packaging, even if it's plastic, plastic has a virtue, and the virtue is how you actually protect your product and keep it in a good condition for the shelf life that you're supposed to give from a legal standpoint.

And today, beyond plastic, there's no big alternative, but I strongly believe that plastic can be widely recycled. This is true for PET, when you take your water bottle for example. This one is already a reality. But when it comes to flexible packaging, like we have for our pouches, too many pouches on ready to heat, this one is a very complex product even though looks like just a basic plastic pouch, but you have a barrier in it. You have a lot of things that actually protect the integrity of the product and that's how we can maintain it for more than a year at the shelf life. And so far, most of the tests we've done haven't been that successful to confirm that we can give this one as an alternative.

And the other part is, it doesn't depend only on what we can really do because there are some alternatives in terms of packaging that we could maybe test, but the curbside collection has been also postponed to 2026. So even if you go for that particular packaging, there's no way to recycle it. And that means you still need to mention on your packaging to be very straightforward, don't recycle it, or maybe you can drop them back to the large supermarket. To that extent you can do, but it's not really practical today. And the only way is to improve also on the infrastructure to be ready on that particular recycling.

So the recycling has proven to be the most challenging part on how we embark all key layers in the industry to that particular recycling journey, including also the government and the councilors on how they can prepare the curbside collection. But we are not there yet, I would say. So this is one part, the most challenging one at that stage because we are frustrated, we can't really share real progress on it, but we are still working very actively with many suppliers to take different options.

The other one is also the energy that you consume because rice is quite an energy intensive production. We've taken a commitment with our suppliers to buy only renewable energy and we have 100% green energy. That's what we buy for all our manufacturing sites, weather this is for the two minute pouches or the dry rice that's in the blue bag, that's 100% of what we buy from there. And we have some local initiatives in terms of waste management within the office, how we can even convert our daily practice on the cup, for example, instead of having a plastic cup or even on a cardboard one or whatever that you have, maybe go back on a basic one so you can avoid wasting so much in terms of packaging. So we've applied already wherever we could, continue also to ask our suppliers, how can you contribute for us to reduce waste or carbon footprint and then to embark on those ones.

The other one is also transport, how we can change a little bit to dynamic and when we can deliver sometimes by train instead of by truck. Let's see how we could do that one. And this decision was taken by our supply chain manager who is part of our receiving committee for sustainability. He thought, "That's better, no question. We'll go that way." And I think it's how everyone can get that particular mindset on sustainability and how you can really contribute to it and we need to put it back on the forum and to see how we can keep improving on things. And something that we decided a couple of years ago is how we could actually embrace all that particular change in a meaningful way. And we decided to go for a B Corp Certification, which is, for us, very exciting. So we are at the last stage on that particular certification.

It's very challenging on all the question that we need actually to respond and how we prove that what we do is this. But what I really like on the B Corp is the fact this is a continuous improvement process. So you need to have your minimum points to be certified, but once you have it, you still need to keep improving your system and how you can reduce and have different programs to tackle it from different angles. And I really hope that we'll get that certification. We are working very hard to get it for this year. So time will tell whether we are successful or not. We're still on board and very useful even for us to challenge our thought process and see how we can improve all the different aspect of our business in terms of environment and social condition.

Jamie Dujardin:

So interesting and I know what you're going through because we're also in the late stages with the B Corp Certification. It's very detailed, but I do also love the continuous progress element. JP, this has been amazing. So if you don't mind, I'd love to ask you just one more question, which is, obviously you've been on a journey with Tilda in terms of decarbonising the business and thinking about sustainability long term. What would be your one or two lessons that you would want to tell to other business leaders and sustainable business leaders on what to avoid or to tackle this journey?

Jean-Philippe Laborde:

I think the more I think about sustainability and maybe the one that I keep repeating to my team all the time is sustainability is very complex. So we need to accept that we can't get all the answers and we'll keep learning at all stages. The fact this is complex means the first lesson for me is we need to be very transparent on what we do. Whether this is good or bad, we need to accept where we are and how we move forward. But then to be transparent on how we do things, but also where we stand. That's, for me, the first one.

The second one that is more in a competitive world because we are all living in a competitive world as business is actually to embrace sustainability as something that is just bigger than our company and our selfish interests. And selfish interests means we need actually to embark our employees in it and we can't make it alone. As a leader, we need to have a team and the team may have better ideas than you and you need to take it into consideration and see how you process it in the right way.

But more importantly, it's more the pre-competitive mindset, which sometimes is not that obvious. What we do in our industry, I would love to keep it just for Tilda because will give me something that others can't really implement or can't do. But in that context of climate change, it's more how we can open up, how we can actually, I would say, set a benchmark, but to open also how we do it so that we have more, let's say, operators in the industry or more competitors doing the same. And then for us to make a much bigger change on what we want to achieve. So this pre-competitive mindset is for me, maybe the most important learning and also to convey the message to all our suppliers, not to be too transactional on that one because the purposes is much bigger than our companies.

Jamie Dujardin:

JP, thank you so much. They're two wonderful lessons and more broadly, thank you for sharing so much about Tilda. It's very pragmatic, transparent, and I think really forward thinking approach to how to tackle sustainability. It's really exciting. If I actually take three other things that I've learned from you today, which is always exciting to have so many. One was, I love your concept of prioritising both on context stand on hotspots. So you spoke about right now we're in the cost of living crisis and we have to consider that in our priorities. You also mentioned change in policy around curbside collection, changing how you prioritise problems. I think that's a really pragmatic and important way to go.

The second is, particularly with suppliers, starting with a pilot and scaling up is a great way to tackle these problems and I think that's a really exciting model. And then the third was just the way you talk about suppliers as partners in this journey and I think it's really exciting to see how you think co-investment with suppliers could really contribute to long-term competitive advantage and major change. I think all of those are really, really exciting. So thank you for teaching me so much and thank you for the great conversation and hope to have you back soon.

Jean-Philippe Laborde:

Yeah, thank you for having me, Jamie. It was a pleasure to share my thoughts and what we do at Tilda. Thank you so much.

Jamie Dujardin:

Thanks for listening to today's episode of This is Altruistiq. Do get in touch if you are on a journey to understanding your business' environmental impact. The notes from this episode are available in the show notes below and you can find more episodes of the This is Altruistic podcast on Spotify, Apple Podcasts and Google Podcasts.

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