ESG in practice series: Mayssa Al Midani on engagement in the Pictet-Nutrition strategy

by Kim Wonnacott

As active managers, we can collaborate with portfolio companies to trigger positive change. Mayssa Al Midani, Senior Investment Manager, shares her perspective on environmental and social engagement with food companies.

Can you tell us about your active engagement in nutrition?

We invest in firms that help address global food challenges, ensure the sustainability of the food chain and provide access to quality food necessary for health and growth. A key feature of our investment process is engagement: we work closely with the firms we invest in to improve their performance across environmental, social and governance factors.

To help us maintain a constructive dialogue with the firms we have stakes in, in 2018 we established a partnership with the Access to Nutrition Initiative (ATNI), a body which evaluates the world’s 25 largest food and beverage companies based on their contribution to ending malnutrition in all of its forms. Companies are assessed on the nutritional value of their products, their commitment to providing affordable nutrition and the responsibility of their marketing practices.

This year we are taking part as active investors in a collaborative engagement with three companies in our portfolio.

With other investors, we are writing to these companies, bringing to their attention the specific improvements ATNI research suggests they need to make. We have set a deadline for them to respond. Once we receive their answers, we’ll hold calls with the companies to discuss their responses.

We are only able to engage with Nestlé, Danone and China Mengniu since all other companies in the ATNI index aren’t even in our portfolio because they don’t meet what we call our ‘purity’ threshold, or the percentage of their revenues exposed to nutritious foods. Our definition of nutritious foods is based on what leading health and environmental NGOs classify as foods that optimise both human and planetary health.

What are the themes of your engagement with companies in the nutrition portfolio?

Our objective is to encourage companies to grow the share of healthy products in their portfolio, increase affordability and accessibility for all consumers regardless of income levels, adopt best practice when it comes to the responsible marketing of products to children and commit to front-of-pack nutritional labelling.

We single out the products that do not fit our definition of healthy nutrition and then urge companies to either reformulate them to make them healthier (reduce sugar, fat, salt content, or enrich them with micronutrients), or divest these categories.

We also look closely at how food is marketed. For example, when it comes to the marketing of breastmilk substitutes, we have been calling on companies to comply with the World Health Organisation code for healthy marketing of such products. They may be the only viable nutritional substitute when mothers are unable to breastfeed but they must not be marketed too aggressively so exclusive breastfeeding remains a priority.

We also request that companies link these nutritional objectives to management compensation, which is a powerful way of aligning management interests with positive nutritional impact and ensuring that companies are serious about making these changes.

How did you choose this initiative?

There is only so much we can achieve as a single entity.

Partnering with other asset managers representing several trillions of assets under management gives much more weight to our actions.

Within Pictet, what was initially an asset management initiative has broadened to our private banking arm, Pictet Wealth Management, making Pictet Group as a whole a signatory and supporter of this engagement.

Sustainable nutrition is an area of strategic importance for the Pictet Group – which is already active in the field of nutrition and water through the Pictet Group Foundation – that’s why we feel it makes sense to pursue a collaborative engagement at the group level and to partner with other investors to magnify our impact.

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