Amber-Harms-Sustainability-Nestlé

How Amber Harms drives sustainable transformation at Nestlé

Paul

by Paul van Schie

One way in which we like to learn about someone’s personal purpose, is by asking the question what makes you forget to eat? In Amber’s words ‘that question really, really triggered me because I NEVER forget to eat.’

A lot of people can probably relate to Amber Harm’s love for food. But few will describe it as a conscious central theme in life with the earliest memories starting at an age of 6!

A love for food

‘In a recent interview (link), I shared that I visited this children’s farm one day and fell in love with Vanessa; a beautiful pig. Shortly after my visit I found pork on my plate and realized that it was the same animal. I was only six, but I refused to eat meat from that moment onwards because it just didn’t feel right to me. It also triggered a lot of questions, like ‘why do people eat meat in the first place?’ ‘Why don’t I want to eat it’?

That is where it all started for me. Right now, I would describe eating as a real passion of mine. It drives me as an individual and as a professional. On a perfect day in my life I wake up and go to the market, buy fresh food and prepare a meal for my family or friends. Food just brings people together. If you would ask me to describe my purpose in one sentence, it would be ‘unlocking the power of food’.’

Amber’s personal purpose neatly aligns with her employer Nestlé’s purpose statement, another sign that she has really found her pack. Amber works as a Creating Shared Value (sustainability) specialist at the world’s largest food & beverage company. She started in the employer’s Graduate Program. After working as a product manager and a Cocoa Plan ambassador, the role she is in now was created for her.

Amber: ‘The questions I asked myself as a six-year-old have evolved into ‘how does the food industry work’ and ‘’how do we make food choices?’

Oftentimes it’s these critical lines of questioning about our global systems that lead one’s career path far away from the corporate landscape. The opposite holds true for Amber, which begs the question: how does a critical thinker like you decide to join a corporate organisation?

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Promoting business as unusual

‘For me, actually, that makes total sense. I believe that if you work for a big company, you can really make an impact. We have the expertise, the know-how and everything necessary to change the food system within these walls. I can make a difference in my work by bringing in a new perspective, by promoting business as unusual.’

At Nestlé, Amber serves as the eyes and ears of the organisation and finds herself explaining that they do what they do with the best intent. ‘I’m in close touch with activists outside of the company, and I find that there’s always something in their statements that we can learn from and do better. From their perspective Nestlé is an independent institution that doesn’t care about its surroundings.

In our conversation Amber is open about some of Nestlé’s sustainability challenges – like the balance between food safety and plastic packaging, the use of palm oil versus other types of oil that will undisputedly lead to equal or higher amounts of nature degradation, and the income of cocoa farmers (more on that later). Her vision on a solution lies in collaboration rather than argument.

‘What I see inside this institution are caring, hard working people. I agree that we have our challenges, but all of us are working towards our 36 societal commitments (more on these commitments here). I think we need to bring all these different perspectives together in a continuous dialogue with all stakeholders. Not just to clear up misunderstandings, but also because the complexity of many of the challenges we are facing are so enormous that we cannot do this alone. So we have to join forces, starting with transparency, dialogue and opening up.’

Transparency as a key element of positive change

In one example of collaboration and huge transparency, Amber forged an uncommon collaboration.

Some time ago, Amber and the director of Confectionery met with two journalists who were looking to uncover the workings of the often criticised cocoa chain. One of the main critiques on the cocoa industry is the farmers’ living income. ‘Farmers really live in poverty, and the solution to this is not as obvious as it may seem; if we simply raise the wage, more farmers will switch to cocoa, increasing the supply and consequently lowering the market price. So it’s really easy to say Nestlé just pay the farmers more (which we actually do, we pay a premium on top of the farm gate price). But this is no long term solution.’

After an open conversation and discussion about their challenges, Amber opened up Nestlé’s cocoa chain to the journalists, a radical decision that ultimately lead to an innovative solution.

‘Interestingly enough they came up with a new product, using the pulp of the cocoa fruit that is usually thrown away in the production process to create a new juice!’ Watch the full (Dutch) documentary that resulted from the project below.

Nestlé’s internal transformation

Another pillar of Amber’s work revolves around involving her colleagues on her sustainability mission.

‘There are structures within our company to facilitate this. In one example there’s the so-called sustainability ambassadors within our company who for instance do mentoring sessions with the board. Also, the ambassadors as well as delegates from several different Nestle markets went to the One Young World summit. Upon returning we formed a network that now organises internal One Young World events to really embed what we learned there.’

Amber believes in the power of the crowd, and is quick to mention several bottom-up initiatives – like their collaboration with Closing the Loop – within Nestlé that contribute to the 36 societal commitments. ‘At Nestle we talk about CSV rather than CSR, meaning that we don’t just want to show our responsibility, but really want to create Value, which is what that v stands for. I think the only way we can do that is by stopping to see CSR as a side project, but really embed it in the way we do business. That’s what we call creating shared value. So you create at the same time value for your shareholders, as well as for society as a whole.’

Challenging the status quo

Amber’s is an activist with a collaborative spirit. Some of her challenges lie in the internal consequences of her challenging the status quo.

‘I’m challenging a lot of things that impact the bottom line. During my time within the confectionary (chocolate) business for example, we took the topic of kids marketing quite seriously. In one example of the level of commitment we had, it led to us stopping the production of these really successful Christmas and Sinterklaas (a Dutch national holiday) figures. This had an impact on both the bottom line and the people on that team. We found an internal solution, by bringing these people in with other seasonal products. So while I continuously challenge the status quo, I need to come with creative answers to the internal problems caused by that as well.’

In a recent article we mentioned the need for solutionairies. We see Amber as a perfect example of that.

‘I don’t have all the solutions, but I want to be part of building this better food system and I think I’m quite in the right place to do so. It’s a bumpy road, but I love the journey.’