While New Zealand is dragging its heels on agricultural climate targets, our biggest mānuka honey producer is setting itself ambitious goals – and making sure it meets them.  |  Content partnership

It’s been a grim couple of weeks for New Zealand’s greenhouse gas reduction aspirations. As the COP26 United Nations climate change conference in Glasgow approached, the Government admitted that less than a third of the 147 million tonnes of anticipated emissions the country must avoid by 2030 will be achieved from domestic cuts. 

Then a few days into the conference, New Zealand signed up to a global methane agreement containing targets it seemed to have no firm plan to meet. Critics are calling for companies, particular in the agricultural sector, which produces almost half of our greenhouse gas emissions, to live up to our much-flaunted “clean, green” rhetoric. 

Comvita, New Zealand’s largest mānuka honey producer, is working hard to do just that. The company’s financial turnaround has been mirrored by a drive to make the changes across the business that are needed to make the company more sustainable. 

For a start, the almost 10 million mānuka and other trees planted over the last decade means the company is now New Zealand’s largest private sector manager of native forests by tree count. These plantings play a big part in Comvita’s target of being carbon neutral by 2025 and net carbon positive by 2030.  

Comvita should receive its first commercial harvest from early mānuka plantings at Makino station in 2022. Photo: Supplied

Operational changes include recycling waste from its plants, using solar and other renewable energy to power its buildings, and running a small fleet of energy efficient sales vehicles. It has also removed shrink wrap plastics from its supply chain, pays the living wage, and has established its own wastewater treatment facilities on production sites.   

But last month it set out to do more. Comvita announced new sustainability goals as part of a project it has called the Harmony Plan, which will address climate change, restore nature and support communities.   

“This is not just some form of woke comment, but a re-statement and clarification of what Comvita does at its core and why.”
Brett Hewlett, Comvita

“Quite simply, we believe we have a bigger role to play and a bigger opportunity to evidence the type of business we aim to be,” says chief executive David Banfield. “We are blessed to work with bees and nature, and we want to invite people to join our movement of creating a world where bees, people and nature thrive in harmony.”   

There are three principles to the Harmony Plan: treading lightly, embracing the science of nature, and strengthening what Comvita calls its “global hive” – working as a team for a better world. 

Comvita’s Paengaroa warehouse is solar-powered. All wastewater is treated onsite and used to irrigate the gardens. Photo: Supplied

If you think that sounds a bit contrived, Comvita’s chair Brett Hewlett would disagree. He recently told investors: “This is not just some form of woke comment, but a re-statement and clarification of what Comvita does at its core and why.” 

Holly Brown, Comvita’s chief purpose & transformation officer, says although the company has delivered individual initiatives over years, moving to the Harmony Plan is different.  

“What surprised us was the sheer amount of effort and time it takes to do this comprehensively and well. We now have a dedicated team member on board and together with some external support, we’re undertaking a lifecycle assessment for our core honey products.” 

Brown says the company would be keen to meet its target of being registered carbon neutral in just three years, and has been working with consultancy firm thinkstep-anz to develop a comprehensive greenhouse gas inventory for global operations.   

“We are also working on developing science-aligned carbon targets for our New Zealand business and a carbon reduction strategy to achieve these targets.” 

Tackling Scope 3 emissions 

“At first cut, we are already net positive, but this excludes the majority of our [indirect] upstream scope three emissions,” Hewlett says. “These still have to be validated and aligned with our forward planning on planting and ongoing efforts to reduce our global operating footprint.”  

This means Comvita will be asking more of its supply chain – upstream and downstream – because that is where more than 90 percent of Comvita’s total emissions arise.  

The next stage of the sustainability journey involves greening the supply chain, says Comvita chair Brett Hewlett (right, pictured with CEO David Banfield). Photo: Supplied.

Its latest annual report covers its New Zealand greenhouse gas emissions, but not those in other countries, and not those indirect ‘scope 3’ carbon emissions, which are driven by Comvita’s suppliers and other factors outside of its immediate operations.  

Hewlett says the Harmony Plan is a way of holding not just the company, but others accountable. It chooses partners on far more than cost; there must be environmental alignment.  

Becoming a B-Corp 

In 2022, Comvita will start working towards becoming a certified B-Corp – joining a global movement of for-profit companies working to balance commercial success with positive social and environmental impacts. 

B Corp status is a notoriously high bar to meet – the certification assessment gathers information on how a company’s operations and business model impacts its workers, community, environment, and customers.  

So the views of all stakeholders become increasingly important. Comvita is undertaking a readiness audit, working out how high it has to leap to hurdle the B-Corp bar, Hewlett says, and determining just how prepared it is to be measured on all fronts.   

Another big change this will drive is around greater disclosure. It’s easy to set a target, far harder to be scrutinised on performance against it. Comvita’s 2021 annual report sets out the company’s current carbon emissions, but it hasn’t presented these metrics before. Why not?  

“Company performance wasn’t strong and we simply spent too much organisational capacity trying to solve short term issues. I say that with a grain of salt,” says global head of brand David Bathgate. “It’s ironic really, we weren’t performing because we weren’t focusing on the things that are core to what make Comvita who we are.”  

More buzz, less blah – Comvita aims to be carbon neutral in three years. Photo: Supplied

The change at Comvita is now far more holistic, he says. The drive for sustainability and circularity includes making the Comvita team into company shareholders. 

In the same vein, Comvita has pledged to invest 1 percent of ebitda (earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortisation) into global community partnerships in support of better social and environmental outcomes. This includes planting a tree for every pot of mānuka honey sold; and working to save a million bees globally every year.  

Bathgate says Comvita is also happy to share learnings if other companies want to use the Harmony framework.  

It’s better to act your way to a new way of thinking, than to think your way to a new way of acting.”
David Banfield, Comvita

“Not every company gets to plant 10 million trees as part of their business, and we recognise this offsets a lot of our emissions. But we’ve driven sustainable thinking into all our processes now, and we would love to help other companies improve their balance with nature.”   

So how does all this add up and how will the company be held to account? Comvita’s annual report will now include sustainability measures and a record of progress against targets, says chief executive David Banfield.  

“One of my personal core philosophies is that it’s better to act your way to a new way of thinking, than to think your way to a new way of acting and I believe the actions that are underway highlight our intention to make a meaningful long term difference.”   

This is the second story in a content series with Comvita

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