How good a sustainability fit are AB InBev and SABMiller? - Sustainability Spotlight

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As Anheuser-Busch InBev has not yet made a formal bid for SABMiller, the state of excited anticipation in the relevant equities markets and at both companies could thus far be seen as something of a phoney war. However, the clever money says a bid will soon be tabled and as takeovers go, they don’t come much bigger, certainly in terms of market dominance.

When it does, attention will naturally be focused on shareholders. However, in a world where sustainability is placed ever higher on the corporate agenda, multinational companies no longer speak solely in terms of shareholder interest but often of the interests of 'stakeholders', meaning those who have something at stake in the company’s success or failure.

Stakeholders are suppliers, customers, consumers, employees and communities affected by what the company does and how it conducts its business. Reading the sustainability literature of any major multi-national company – including all the brewers – stakeholders clearly matter. But, times such as these bring it home that ultimately they are always outranked by the real stakeholder, the investor.

In many ways, that is perfectly reasonable and understandable. Indeed, there are regulatory and practical reasons why this should be so. In fact, companies have to put their investors first because it would be unethical to do anything else, regardless of however else they may shape their approach to business according to the public good. Nevertheless, the increasing emphasis on sustainability and corporate social responsibility has so fundamentally altered corporate culture and how companies project themselves publicly, it seems appropriate to look at this potentially gargantuan deal through the lens of corporate sustainability.

First, one is forced to ask oneself if such mammoth deals and the formation of ever larger multi-national companies is itself a sustainable way to do business. Here, there are pros and cons.

In examining the record of major drinks companies on important sustainability metrics, such as water and carbon efficiency, it is clear that economies of scale can produce parallel savings in natural resources. In June, AB InBev announced that it was the most efficient global brewer in terms of water use, claiming an industry-leading water use ratio of 3.2 hectolitres per 1 hectolitre of production.

On the other hand, the formation of larger companies increases their buying power and further weighs the supplier-buyer relationship in their favour. Among stakeholders, suppliers rarely relish the thought of two major companies joining forces. It is not only because these are two enormous companies potentially coming together to form an even more gigantic entity that this potential deal has sparked so much interest. The beer category is ubiquitous, comprising many culturally-significant brands; when they are bought and sold, it is most certainly of interest to the public, if not a matter of public interest.

Moreover, a company’s culture and heritage – how it relates to the markets in which it operates and the consumers it serves – are today most tangibly expressed in what might be rather coldly described as a 'sustainability strategy' but which, in many ways, could more usefully be described as its 'ethos'.

Both companies have well-developed sustainability platforms, with significant common ground – for example, in terms of placing a strong emphasis on water conservation and efficiency and responsible drinking - as well as some interesting differences. In the context of the 'fit' between the two companies, an instantly-noticeable distinction is in how they describe these platforms. AB InBev encapsulates its approach under the title “Better World”. The SABMiller corporate sustainability mission has been organised for some years under the banner of “Sustainable Development”. It may seem like a subtle distinction but it is significant.

In a takeover, it is not surprising to find that the culture of the acquiring company prevails. This could also extend to its approach to sustainability, but this may not always be desirable.

Clearly, part of what makes this deal attractive to AB InBev is SABMiller’s presence in Africa, where it operates in more than 15 countries. The brewer’s profile in Africa has been a key determinant in how it has approached sustainability, the elements it has prioritised and, in particular, in its emphasis on sustainable development. It is interesting to note that Diageo – which also has a substantial footprint in Africa – recently appeared to give a nod to the SABMiller approach by giving its new sustainability chief the title of global sustainable development director.

SABMiller’s emphasis on development is reflected in its leadership position the company has taken in the World Economic Forum, notably around the Water-Food-Energy nexus, and the emphasis it places on improving livelihoods along its value chains. Latterly, its new “Prosper” sustainability strategy, which groups together five shared imperatives, also places a significant emphasis on community and social development. Community development also features in the AB InBev approach, but arguably not on the same scale. That said, AB InBev would probably be said to have a more substantial responsible drinking platform than SABMiller.

Arguably, part of an acquiring company’s due diligence in today’s world is to be sure that it recognises elements in the sustainability strategy of the company it is buying that are borne out of that company’s particular areas of operation. In this instance, SABMiller’s approach to sustainability can certainly be seen to have been shaped by the profile of its business and will continue to have a bearing on its licence to operate.

By the same token, there is likely to be considerable expertise and insight within the sustainability function of the acquired company, derived from working over a long time specifically in that company’s operations and supply chains. Superimposing an approach to sustainability that has been shaped by a different set of markets, suppliers – and in some instances products – would carry risks.

In marrying sustainability strategies, careful integration, taking the best and most appropriate from both worlds and both “better world” visions, would appear to be the name of the game.

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