In an era where sustainable practices are gaining prominence across industries, Cobram Estate, an olive oil company, stands as an Australian success story. While their brand may not be the most well-known, I’m betting that just like me, you have a bottle of their olive oil in your pantry. To shed light on their sustainability and partnership efforts, we had the opportunity to speak with Justin, the Sustainability Manager at Cobram Estate Olives.
Hi Justin, would you like to introduce yourself and what your role is?
Justin: Sure, my role here at Cobram Estate is focused on sustainability. I’ve been in this role for almost a year now, and it was created for a couple of reasons. Since the company became publicly listed, there are more corporate disclosures required, and there’s also a growing consumer interest in sustainability. So my role is twofold: to promote the sustainability initiatives that have been happening but haven’t been communicated effectively, and to address the risks that we need to be aware of and the opportunities that we can create value from. I studied a sustainability degree 10 years ago because of my interest in climate change. When I finished it was post global financial crisis, so sustainability was still a bit of a fringe topic back then, and I was fortunate enough to get a sales-related role. But the role of sustainability manager and more corporate responsibility was probably in maybe some of the ASX 50 companies. It was still viewed as a discretionary thing. So, I worked in carbon management selling carbon credits to organizations for four years. Then I decided to take up an opportunity with WWF-Australia, which was my first foray into the not-for-profit sector working in impact partnerships. That role was both business development but also managing multi-year quite complex partnerships with large corporates like Woolworths. Then I was the Head of Corporate Partnerships at WaterAid Australia, which was my last job prior to joining Cobram Estate.
It’s interesting to hear about Cobram Estate’s focus on sustainability. Are you working towards an ESG framework instead of just corporate social responsibility (CSR)? Are you implementing impact measurements?
Justin: We’re taking a measured approach without overwhelming the organization. We’re open to setting targets and reporting frameworks, but we want to ensure there’s a good understanding and a strong business case for sustainability internally before diving into extensive reporting. However, there’s a shift towards mandatory reporting, so we’re preparing to get our act together in that regard.
It seems like Cobram Estate has a strong sustainability strategy and a lot of actions in place. Is this focus on sustainability driven by the nature of your business, particularly olive farming, and the need to have a positive environmental story?
Justin: Absolutely. The olive tree itself is inherently sustainable compared to other forms of agriculture. We recognize the advantages it brings. However, we also consider increasing consumer expectations and the social license to operate in the rural communities where we have our groves. Our biggest customers are supermarkets, and they have their sustainability goals, so being relevant and leveraging that is crucial for us.
It’s interesting that Cobram Estate, while not being a top-of-mind consumer brand, plays an important role in the sustainability space. How do you balance being humble and yet vocal about your sustainability efforts?
Justin: It’s a fine balance. We acknowledge that many of our achievements in sustainability have come from being good farmers and implementing effective systems over the years. However, we also recognize the need to talk about our sustainability efforts to avoid others overshadowing our accomplishments. We have a great product that aligns with people’s health and environmental goals, so it’s important to be more vocal about it. At the same time, we’re cautious about greenwashing and ensuring our communications are genuine.
How are you leveraging partnerships with nonprofit organizations and other partners to amplify your sustainability story? Do you find that nonprofit partnerships enhance your credibility?
Justin: We saw the opportunity early on to establish strategic community partnerships. Previously, our community support was more organic, but now we’re seeking partners that can provide credibility to our communications and help us reach different audiences. We have partnered with the Victorian Mallee Fowl Recovery Group, a conservation organization, to showcase our farming practices that benefit nature. We’re also working with Clean Up Australia. These partnerships also offer opportunities for staff engagement and volunteering, which is valuable to us. It was a great collaboration because we had employees in different locations who were able to participate in Clean-Up activities. It provided an opportunity for everyone to step out of the office, get some fresh air, and work together as one organization. The response to this partnership was very positive.
We also have another partnership with a local nonprofit called the Geelong Food Relief Centre. They focus on providing food relief to people facing food distress, which has become increasingly prevalent recently. What’s interesting about this partnership is that instead of traditional volunteer roles, our employees are utilizing their expertise in running complex supply chains and improving logistics and operations at the organization. Even an hour of their time can make a significant impact on enhancing the facility’s efficiency and effectiveness.
How did you go about selecting these partners? What was the decision-making process like?
Justin’s response: The selection process has been relatively organic. For the Mallee Fowl Recovery Group, it was a local initiative in the area where our operations are based. The decision to partner with them was based on the need and relevance to our business. We have an internal steering committee comprised of representatives from various management levels and business functions. I usually present potential partnership opportunities to the committee for their input and consultation. At this stage, we don’t have a dedicated team or foundation for community partnerships like some larger corporations do. However, we want to ensure that when we engage in partnerships, it aligns with our objectives and makes sense for us.
Did they approach you or did you approach them?
Justin’s response: The Mallee Fowl and Clean Up Australia were approached by us. We identified the need for partnerships in those specific areas and reached out to them. On the other hand, the Geelong Food Relief Centre approached us for support in their local food relief efforts. Initially, our primary goal was not employee engagement, but it has evolved as we explored ways to contribute further. Regardless of who approached whom, the key factor was finding alignment and the ability to make a positive impact.
Do you have any tips or recommendations for nonprofits approaching corporate partnerships?
Justin’s response: Well, it’s crucial to understand the motivations of corporate entities and put yourself in their shoes. While it may seem transactional, everyone is busy with their own priorities. As a conservation organization, simply having something that interests them or highlighting a problem may not be enough. You need to establish a connection based on financial gains, cost savings, reputational risk, or potential legal implications. A strong business case is essential. Additionally, clear communication about expectations is vital. Securing a partnership is only half the battle; maintaining and growing it is equally important. Transparency upfront can be beneficial. Sharing your cards early on helps prevent partnerships from unravelling later when interests diverge. Therefore, understanding motivations, aligning goals, and managing expectations are crucial aspects of successful partnerships.
Thank you, Justin, for sharing your insights and experiences. It’s been fascinating to hear about Cobram Estate’s sustainability efforts and your strategic partnerships. It’s clear that you’re taking a thoughtful approach to sustainability and engaging with non-profit organizations and community partners to amplify your impact. The balance between being humble and vocal about your sustainability efforts is crucial, and it’s great to see that you’re finding ways to communicate your achievements effectively without greenwashing. Your focus on tangible actions and addressing specific barriers to employee engagement is commendable.
Justin: Thank you. It’s been a pleasure discussing our sustainability journey and partnerships with you. We believe in the importance of understanding the motivations and expectations of both parties in a partnership, as well as being transparent about what can be achieved. It’s about finding common ground and creating mutually beneficial outcomes. I appreciate the opportunity to share our experiences, and I hope it provides valuable insights for non-profits seeking partnerships with corporate organizations.