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Beyond Meat trails animal meat peers on reporting environmental effects

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A plant-based Beyond Meat burger.
Source: Beyond Meat Inc.

Beyond Meat Inc. has long pitched itself as a more earth-friendly alternative to the world's largest meat processors. But the company appears to be behind those competitors when it comes to quantifying those effects.

The maker of plant-based burgers and sausages has not disclosed the full extent of its environmental impacts, such as the amount of greenhouse gases emitted or the volume of water discharged as a direct result of its operations, according to Trucost data.

Trucost is a part of S&P Global Market Intelligence that measures how transparent U.S. companies are being about their operational, environmental and climate change-related risks through the lens of weighted disclosure ratios. Beyond Meat's weighted environmental disclosure ratio, which shows what percentage of its environmental impacts it discloses, is 0, according to the most recent data, which examined the company's operations for all of 2018.

For details on Trucost's disclosure ratio methodology, see the informational box below.

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Though much larger emitters of pollutants, rivals like Tyson Foods Inc. and Hormel Foods Corp. are more transparent about their operations. Tyson received a weighted environmental disclosure ratio of 98% for 2018, while Hormel disclosed 99% of its impacts, according to Trucost. Both companies also had a weighted disclosure ratio of 100% for greenhouse gas emissions.

A spokesperson for Beyond Meat told S&P Global Market Intelligence that the company "is starting the process of conducting a carbon-footprint assessment aimed at identifying opportunities to strengthen our environmental commitment and further reduce our impact." The company also pointed to a 2018 analysis showing that manufacturing a single Beyond Burger required substantially less water, greenhouse gases and energy than a quarter-pound beef burger. That study, conducted by researchers at the University of Michigan's Center for Sustainable Systems, did not address the company's broader disclosures.

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The study suggested that plant-based meats generally take fewer resources to produce, largely because they avoid resource-intensive inputs such as water and feed for animals. And while Beyond Meat's comparison captured many key aspects of its footprint, more comprehensive disclosures about the whole company would be an asset, said Bruno Sarda, president of CDP North America, which encourages companies and governments to release information about their impacts on the environment. Fuller disclosures would provide Beyond Meat's investors and customers with a complete picture of its environmental risks — how much extra cost they would take on if a government starts taxing carbon emissions, for instance, or how a drought in one part of the world might hit its supply chain.

"There's a whole variety of things that allows you to model and stress test" with full disclosure, Sarda said in an interview.

CDP only speaks with companies about making disclosures if an investor asks them to, he said. In the food industry, many of those that CDP has had conversations with are S&P 500 companies, given the role that many play in investment portfolios.

Broadly, disclosures about how alternative meat production and consumption affect the environment can be hard to find. While companies such as Nestlé SA and Unilever tend to disclose significant information about their environmental impacts, they provide little clarity on the contributions from plant-based meats, given the small slice of sales this product represents.

This is one of four stories that review how transparent U.S. companies are about their operational, environmental and climate change-related risks through the lens of Trucost's weighted disclosure ratios for 2018, the most recent year available. The other stories examine how key companies in the energy, media and technology and consumer industries stack up against their peers.

Energy companies provide more robust climate disclosures than other sectors

Facebook, Apple ramp up environmental reporting amid calls for more transparency

Amazon's emissions increase 15% in 2019 amid efforts to reduce carbon footprint

But pressure from investors and business partners could eventually push Beyond Meat to disclose more, Sarda added. A key corporate customer for Beyond Meat's products, such as a restaurant chain or retailer that is more open about its own footprint, could prompt Beyond Meat to release its own information. "Those companies may see [Beyond Meat] as a critical supplier," he said.

There is precedent for such a strategy. Ride-hailing service Uber Technologies Inc. announced that it would release more data around its carbon footprint in September 2019 after some environmentally focused investors spoke out about a lack of transparency on the environmental impact of the company and its rival Lyft Inc.

"One potential reason for its limited reporting could be that the company might be assuming that its business model speaks for itself," said Jacob London, manager for investor engagement on water at Ceres, citing the gap in resource usage between Beyond Meat and its animal meat-focused competitors. Another could be its status as a young company — it was founded in 2009 and went public in May 2019.

Beyond Meat is far from "a sustainability laggard within the food industry," London said. Still, "it would certainly be fair to expect more robust reporting from Beyond Meat on the environmental impacts of alternative protein production" as the company grows, he said.

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