Member Spotlight: Carolina García Arbeláez

October 22, 2020 | BIER

Meet Carolina García Arbeláez
Name: Carolina García Arbeláez

Company: AB InBev

Connect with Carolina on LinkedIn and Twitter

Welcome to our series aimed at spotlighting the individual leaders within BIER member companies and stakeholder organizations. Learn how these practitioners and their companies are addressing pressing challenges around water, energy, agriculture, climate change, and what inspires each of them to advance environmental sustainability in the beverage sector and collectively, overall.

Briefly describe your role and responsibilities and how long you have worked with your company.

I’m the sustainability manager for the Middle America zone of AB InBev which covers more than 10 countries including Mexico, Central America, the Caribbean, Colombia, Peru, and Ecuador.

I’ve been with AB InBev for over three years and interestingly, this is my first experience in the private sector. Previously, I worked for the World Wildlife Fund for Nature (WWF). I’ve always been focused on sustainability and I am a lawyer by background. I joined the private sector because I felt that the private sector was one of the most important factors of the economy.  With approximately 70% of the world’s GDP and 70% of the world’s global employment, changing corporate DNA towards a sustainable one is vital. For example, if corporate DNA were not to change to a sustainable one, it just seems impossible to address global challenges such as climate change. The private sector plays a very important role.

With that in mind, I joined AB InBev and the opportunity to help drive sustainability into a  leading global company. As in, making it our business. When we launched the Global Sustainability Goals, we said loud and clear that sustainability was not part of our business, that it was our business. This has a huge meaning in terms of implementation because it actually means embedding sustainability within the core business. As such, we have a plan and we have goals. The role of the sustainability team is actually delivering on those goals.

One goal is focused on water. We are fortunate to have Andre Fourie as our Global Director for Water Sustainability. He has been very successful in making our water goals so ambitious by focusing on the watershed health. Specifically, we committed to having a measurable, improved water availability and quality for 100% of our communities in high-stress areas.

What this means is that we do an assessment to understand the risks we’re facing in each watershed.  We recognize that at the end of the day, if there isn’t any water, then there isn’t any beer. We also recognize the internal constraints.  Meaning, there is only so much you can do within the walls of your company.  We can be as efficient as we can be and it’s important to have the best practices in the world in terms of water use, reuse, and recycling but if the watershed has stress then you have an operational risk beyond our direct control. So working with stakeholders within the broader watershed is a key element for a beverage company. And the goal is to have a measurable improvement in the impact and in the availability or in the quality of those watersheds. I think this is by far our most ambitious goal in that it requires a lot of investment and also there is a lot of uncertainty. Also, to actually prove that there is a measurable impact means you have to work with science to measure that. It requires innovation.

Additionally, I think it’s a very ambitious goal in that we are aiming way beyond offsetting our operational water use, but taking the time to help address the root water stress in each of our high-risk watersheds and determine a tailor-made plan for each of them, despite the differences and complexities. This includes priority watersheds in markets such as Brazil, Argentina, Colombia, Peru, Mexico, South Africa, the US, and Zambia. To address this, we have developed a seven-step process that acts as our roadmap to address our global watershed goal and we are implementing it across the Middle Americas.

What are your impressions of BIER and what do you feel has been the group’s impact on private sector environmental sustainability?

BIER has been great in showing the scope of things that we can do collectively. It is essential for us to go beyond the walls of our own respective companies.  Working with other BIER members offers the opportunity to learn from others, to share good practices, aim your scope of action, and with that, our scope of vision for opportunities increases a lot. Collaborating with others is amazing because that’s the way we can actually leapfrog to be better.

As I see it, the world has so many pressures and is in need of urgent action. Because of that, it’s important to set aside competition and focus on sustainability. It’s essential that we work with each other so we can move forward together. To put it in perspective, if any one company becomes the most sustainable company in the world, but the other companies lag behind, it’s useless! We are not living in our world on our own. We work in a world where everyone and everything is intertwined. These unique initiatives, like BIER, are the ones helping us create that collective vision and systemic change in order to have a better impact and to evolve faster. Getting all of the BIER members together to help us decide and agree upon what the most impactful topics and projects are, is very important.  I appreciate the reciprocal relationship and knowledge sharing between the members on so many different levels.

What is one specific area (e.g. topic, work product, etc.) where BIER got your attention and why?

Definitely one of my favorite projects has been the innovative on-the-ground watershed collaboration near Guadalajara, Mexico. This has been an amazing project for several reasons and I do believe it’s a very special project. To appreciate it, I’d like to share some background information to add context to the complexity and success of this project.

In the overall context of BIER, we wanted to showcase a project that demonstrated the collaboration of joint competitors in the industry to work together on a watershed project that had results in both the short term and to use a model without involving other platforms.  The result? We managed to build a project that is financed and led by six major beverage companies in the world and in a common watershed. So that was the goal to prove that local collaboration between competitors was possible. And I must say that it has been a very enriching and really fulfilling journey because unlike other projects, the BIER member companies leading this project were focused on making something collectively happen rather than elevating their own company-specific priorities or interests.

Through a consensus strategy, we chose one project. Of course, each company is facing different risks and we are not located in the exact same place.  So we said we’re going to choose a project, not because the project benefits any one particular company, but because it is the project that benefits the watershed overall and that will have a higher positive impact for the community.  So I think that that was a very important feature of our agreement that all participating companies put the collective potential about individual interests.

A second important element is that we agreed we have common but differentiated responsibilities; meaning, there was an acknowledgment that not all of the BIER member companies were in a position to invest in the project equally. So at our first meeting, we agreed on a minimum investment. What is important to note here is our approach and collaboration allowed the participating members to each invest as much as they could beyond the minimum and that each company did not need to invest the same amount to be successful. Yet, we agreed to share the ownership of the project equally. I think that’s a key element of the project because, at the end of the day, we never lost our focus to have an impact, and second, to show that collaboration like this is difficult but possible if we figure it out together.

As you know, it is not uncommon among companies to begin project discussions and later have the details of ownership, rights, and similar topics derail the project. So, the third accomplishment with this project is that we created a self-regulating community and our governance rules early on. When the project came into reality and we had all the investment committed, we signed an agreement. The agreement had a journey of development in and of itself. It began with a memorandum of understanding and then, of course, all of our lawyers came in and we ended up signing a legally binding agreement. It’s important to have a legal structure to support the partnership in the long run, and what I wanted to say with the previous point is that we created our governance structure in a very interesting way. So, for example, we alternate the leadership of the meetings, and for the most part, a consensus has been easy.

Of course, we have not agreed on everything. So take, for instance, we had our wish list, you know, like all of the things regarding the project. We looked at what should we take away? What should we incorporate? And we had different views. For example, most of the companies were super oriented towards the water benefit, as this started as a water-focused collaboration opportunity, and had as a second priority the social impact. As the project continues, we can enhance the social component and consider other environmental aspects such as measuring biodiversity or carbon capture.  But at the end of the day, I think we all managed to be flexible and to identify what were the non-negotiable items so we could move forward.

The evolution of the project and its success has much to do with making fast and good decisions from my colleagues and my peers, and especially Nick Martin, Executive Director of BIER, and Hugh Share of Share Sustainability. I think that we are all committed and our spirits are in the right place. For all of us, despite the nuances and differences of working for different companies, we are all aligned with the same vision and with the same aim.

Currently, we have already begun with the implementation of the project and our technical partners are implementing that. They are great as well. The ambition will be to increase the impact of the project year over year including having other partners join in.

Also, a key value of the project is that we are going to welcome any company, even if they are latecomers to the project.  Why? Because at the end of the day, that’s what we want – collaboration and a successful project that has a big, positive impact.

Share a recent accomplishment of your organization’s sustainability initiatives/achievements you are most proud of and why.

One of my favorite projects in the company has been the water project in Colombia where we work in the wetlands that are an ecosystem that is very special and very unique to this region of the world.  These ecosystems supply more than 70% of water to all the population and we’re working in a very endangered one that’s called Santurban.  It is highly endangered due to climate change, due to mining pressures, and as a result of other unproductive and unsustainable activities

Working with many stakeholders and working together, we have been leading this project that aims to protect this ecosystem and it aims to help the farmers that are living in the buffer zone to improve their livelihoods, to help them with reforestation, and with sustainable agriculture at the same time protecting in over two years nearly 4.000 ha, planting more than 200.000 trees and engaging with more than 1.000 families of farmers

I think one of the most amazing things in this project has been that we managed to create the first brand in Colombia that has a purpose on its own.  It is a water brand that’s called Zalva that allocates a portion of its profits to fund the project. Interestingly, that’s the way that we guaranteed that there was a financial long term mechanism that could continue funding the project. As many are aware, the investments in these projects are so high that we really needed to create something that first involved the consumers, as well as, created a financial flow for the long-term success of the project. It works well. After leading this project, I have been able to replicate similar initiatives in other countries such as Amunas in Peru or Aguas Firmes in Mexico. Nothing is more inspiring and fulfilling that building these projects from scratch and watching them grow and scale.

Additionally, a project that I am really excited about is 100+ Accelerator. I’m fond of this project because we’re actually working with startups who are solving pressing sustainability challenges and growing at a pace that they never thought of. The 100+ Accelerator is indeed our most unique innovation initiative that is driving transformation within the company.

If you had one superpower that could be used to radically accelerate and scale sustainable best practices, which one would it be and how would you use it?

My first superpower would be first to break that human barrier where we always think in the short term, rather than in the long term to take action towards solutions.

As an example, it’s similar to someone who smokes and has been educated on the consequences of smoking and lung cancer. That person doesn’t take action today because they think that they can change the behavior tomorrow and the thought process is that there is still time.  This is similar to climate change. Science and others have indicated that we will face massive, irreversible consequences. But right now, today, we aren’t experiencing the magnitude of the impact. So collectively, we’re always focusing on solving today’s problem rather than tomorrow’s.  The critical part is that we need to act today to actually solve the problem that is coming in the future. My superpower would be to break that and actually have people taking actions, making decisions today, and thinking about the long-term consequences.

My second superpower would be to embrace the philosophy and act with stubborn optimism. I really learned this from Christiana Figueres, who I love and admire as she is one of the most wonderful woman leaders. She was very inspirational for me related to what she did with the climate change negotiations. Specifically, she became active in the process right at a moment where it was so difficult because there had been a massive failure of Copenhagen in 2009 when the Kyoto Protocol negotiations completely failed. She began running the negotiations in a moment where everyone was so disappointed with the process. No one ever thought that a new climate agreement would be possible to make. She took that leadership and she said that she did it with stubborn optimism. Stubborn optimism doesn’t mean pure optimism in itself. It doesn’t mean that it’s not hard. It means that you need to act and make it happen because that’s the only way possible. You need to make it happen because if it’s not you, then who? If not now, then when?  This is also kind of our mentality, because if you have a defeat mentality from the start, then you’re going to find defeat. I think that if we all can become stubborn optimists, then that would shift the mentality that will help us move faster towards solutions that we can take now and support our future.

BIER Publications referenced in this interview:
Context-Based Decision Guide for Water Reuse and Recycling
Beverage Industry Launch’s Unique Watershed Restoration Collaboration


The Beverage Industry Environmental Roundtable (BIER) is a technical coalition of leading global beverage companies working together to advance environmental sustainability within the beverage sector.
By BIER [crp]

The Beverage Industry Environmental Roundtable (BIER) is a technical coalition of leading global beverage companies working together to advance environmental sustainability within the beverage sector. Formed in 2006, BIER is a common voice across the beverage sector, speaking to influence global standards on environmental sustainability aspects most relevant to the sector, affect change both up and down the supply chain and share best practices that raise the bar for environmental performance of the industry. By doing so, BIER is able to monitor data and trends, engage with key stakeholders, develop best practices, and guide a course of action for the future.

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