A new report from US-based sustainability non-profit Ceres, which assesses the performance of 613 US-based publicly-traded corporations on a comprehensive range of sustainability criteria, reveals food and drinks to be among the most progressive and highest-achieving sectors. However, the research does not reflect well on the drinks sector specifically.

Food and drinks companies share many of the same sustainability challenges and, overall, those challenges appear to be eliciting comparable responses from both sectors. One might, therefore, have expected the beverage contingent to perform at least as well as food and drinks combined. The figures on some of the most significant criteria, however, actually reveal the beverage companies as a group to be lagging behind food.

Mary Ann DiMascio, senior manager of the Ceres Company Network and the report team's food and beverage specialist, says an important caveat must be made before drawing too many extrapolations. While the food and beverage contingent numbers 21 companies, only six of these are pure drinks companies; Brown-Forman, Constellation Brands, Dr Pepper Snapple Group, Molson Coors, Monster Beverage and The Coca-Cola Co.

One conclusion that DiMascio believes can be made is that the wide variation noted in the food and beverage sector between the leaders and the least advanced companies is even more marked among the drinks companies.

"Acknowledging that the beverage sector sample is extremely small, I'd make the general observation that within the F&B sector, beverage companies represent both some of the highest and some of the lowest performing companies assessed," DiMascio says. "There are clear leaders who are making progress across most key areas of the assessment, and others who are falling behind their peers in critical areas such as water management and human rights."

The 'Turning Point' report is the third iteration of the Ceres Roadmap for Sustainability. The organisation published its key findings and individual company scorecards in February, before releasing its sector analyses earlier this month.

With the first and second reports appearing in 2010 and 2014, respectively, this project spans a period when many sustainability challenges have escalated and pressure on companies to respond effectively has grown. The work provides a useful measure, then, of how major corporations are performing in critical areas such as water, carbon emissions, board oversight of sustainability and human rights.

Water security would certainly be among the issues that have grown in prominence since Ceres began its roadmap project, as climate change concerns have intensified. Ceres believes companies should be setting water targets based on local contexts to meet the growing challenges, and positions companies that have done so at Tier 1 on water performance.

Only 15% of all 613 companies analysed were at Tier 1.

While the proportion of food companies at this level was considerably higher, at 38%, this was not mirrored among the beverage companies with only two of the six companies rated as Tier 1. It is, DiMascio says, "perhaps surprising that beverage companies are slightly behind food companies, since water is so critical to their business models. You would expect them to be leading the way."

33% of the beverage companies do not have any time-bound water management targets

In addition, DiMascio points to the fact that 33% of the beverage companies do not have any time-bound water management targets, considered to be a fairly basic requirement in terms of water policy.

While 45% of all the companies Ceres was analysing have not set time-bound water targets, food and drinks companies have a greater exposure to water risks than most other sectors, not least because of water consumption in their agricultural supply chains. Ceres found that all of the food companies had time-bound water targets in place. For beverage companies, failure to do so represents "a major gap and risk for these companies that rely so heavily on long-term access to this critical resource", DiMascio adds.

One truly surprising detail of the drinks contingent's performance is that it does better on carbon emissions than it does with water. All but one of the beverage companies have company-wide, quantitative, time-bound greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions reduction targets, DiMascio says, which is "on par with their food sector peers and far exceeding the total company universe". She adds it is "striking to see performance is stronger on GHG targets than on water targets".

However, the drinks companies perform less well than food companies on other key sustainability criteria analysed in the Turning Point report.

Some 87% of the food companies assessed have a formal human rights policy protecting employees, compared with 66% for the beverage companies, though this is still well ahead of the 49% registered for all 613 companies.

Disclosure on sustainability criteria represents a further "barometer" of company performance, DiMascio continues. Around 60% of the food companies analysed align their public sustainability reporting with Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) guidelines, compared with 33% of the drinks companies and 37% for all 613 corporations.

"Companies that are not transparent about their sustainability impacts and efforts are not providing investors, NGOs, employees and customers with the information they need to understand and evaluate the company's commitment, priorities and performance," DiMascio says.

It would be wrong to see the performance of the six beverage companies in the Turning Point analysis solely in terms of their failure collectively to match the performance of food companies. Within the group of drinks companies, there are examples of leadership. Ceres calls out The Coca-Cola Co for its performance on board oversight and water policies. Molson Coors is commended for offering employees, including its CEO, executive leadership team and unit managers, monetary rewards for sustainability performance, while Brown-Forman is recognised for incorporating disclosure of business risks related to climate change into its financial reporting.

It should also be borne in mind that Ceres places PepsiCo among the food companies. PepsiCo is identified in the report for taking leadership positions in numerous areas, including board oversight of sustainability issues, disclosure of climate change risks in financial reporting, setting science-based GHG emissions targets and context-based water targets and the implementation of formal policies on human rights.

The individual company scorecards offer a detailed account of how each company has performed, with all the data coming only from information the companies themselves have officially disclosed. In any sector, it would be possible to call out specifically which companies are lagging behind on any given measure. However, there is a conspicuous lack of "naming and shaming" in the Ceres report.

"Our hope is that the results will help the beverage companies who are falling behind to identify and address the gaps in their sustainability strategies"

The Ceres approach is to recognise achievement while also identifying shortcomings, but do both with the aim of fostering progress. "Our hope is that the Turning Point results will help the beverage companies who are falling behind to identify and address the gaps in their sustainability strategies, so they are positioned to thrive in the transition to a sustainable global economy," DiMascio says.

The degree to which the performance of a small group of companies might reflect the global picture for the drinks industry is extremely difficult to judge. However, while the sample Ceres is assessing is very specific and limited, the measures it is evaluating them on are universally relevant.

As such, the report can help the drinks sector at large codify what constitutes progress and best practice in sustainability.