Interview with Ylenia Tommasato from Barilla Group
Learn about Barilla Group’s extensive sustainability efforts, discover how consumer demand is reshaping the food industry, and more.
Pietro Barilla founded Barilla in 1877. Today, Barilla Group is a global enterprise manufacturing and delivering food products over 100 countries across the globe and has successfully established itself as a world leader in the pasta market. Barilla Group is heavily committed to improving people’s wellbeing and reducing its impact on the planet.
In 2010, Ylena Tommasato joined Barilla Group as Corporate Communications Sustainability and NGO Relations Unit Consultant. Three years later, she accepted a promotion to Head of Sustainability in the Corporate Communications and External Relations Department. Since 2018, Ylena has worked as a Brand Sustainability & Communication Manager in Barilla Group’s Global Marketing Team.
Founded in 1877, Barilla Group proudly holds the position of the global market leader for pasta. How has the pasta market evolved over the past decade? What changes have you witnessed in consumer behaviour?
With over 140 years of history under strong leadership in the pasta market, we have collected a lot of experience concerning the capacity of evolving products, categories, and communication activities in different times and based on different consumers’ needs.
In terms of communication, in recent years, there has always been a swing between the mix of emotions we create and the information on how we produce our products. Usually, people expect high-quality products that are safe and carefully produced by us. They are keen to know more about our production processes and the origins of our raw materials. Even if, especially in times of crisis, they also need to experience positive emotions and good feelings. Pasta marketing can play a big role in creating a ‘home’ feeling.
Concerning product innovation, people have been looking for more personalised solutions over the past few years—new products that can bring spice into their cuisines and provide them with convenient and easy-to-prepare solutions. Furthermore, over the last decade, we have seen an increase in the so-called “Better for you” range comprising whole-grains, legumes, gluten-free, organic products—this entirely new range provides a relevant niche of people with a substitute for regular semolina pasta in the kitchen.
On the attitude side of things, we can safely say that people are much more aware of the design of what they eat. We have all seen the increase in TV shows and social networks related to food or that show food in an accurate and harmonised way. People have discovered new stars: the chefs and the competition around food.
Last but not least, there is a stronger need for an understanding of what lies behind the veil of packaging—where raw materials come from, how they are processed, transported, consumed and sorted. An increasing segment of the population wants to know more about the story of a meal.
Guided by the claim “Good For You, Good for the Planet” Barilla Group is committed to contributing to the successful achievement of the United Nation's 2030 Sustainable Development Goals. Tell us more.
Yes, founded in Parma from a bakery and pasta-making store, Barilla is now one of Italy’s biggest food groups, the world leader in the pasta market, and the number one in the ready-to-use pasta sauces segment in mainland Europe, bakery products in Italy, and crispbreads in Scandinavian countries. Barilla Group has 28 production sites and exports to more than 100 countries. Every year, Barilla’s brands produce around 1.9 million tonnes of food which are enjoyed by consumers all over the world. The Barilla brand includes Mulino Bianco, Harry’s, Pavesi, Wasa, Filiz, Vesta, Misko, Vorello, Gran Cereale, Pan di Stelle and the Academia Barilla.
When our founder, Pietro Barilla, opened his store in 1877, he aimed to make good food. Today, that principle has been translated and adapted into Barilla’s corporate purpose of bringing joyful, wholesome, and harnessed food inspired by the Mediterranean diet and the Italian lifestyle into the world. “Good for you. Good for the planet.” is the sustainability program that Barilla Group is implementing to respond to the global food issues outlined by the 2030 Agenda of the United Nations and to serve our purpose. “Good for you” refers to the fact that we are constantly improving our products, encouraging the adoption of healthy lifestyles, and improving people's access to food and fostering social inclusion. “Good for the planet” highlights that we are promoting sustainable supply chains, reducing CO2 emissions during production, aiming to become carbon neutral, and guaranteeing sustainable packaging for our products.
As a Brand Sustainability & Communications Manager at Barilla Group, what key initiatives have you introduced and implemented in recent years that have helped propel the company’s sustainability strategy forward?
I don't want to be excessively humble and or take credit away from myself, but honestly, I have only connected many dots. Barilla is a brilliant company where respect for people and values are deeply ingrained in the family, and where co-creation is the way of working every day. What we have achieved is the combined exercise of many people’s brainpower and hearts to push for a better word. Thanks to our R&D, Supply Chain, Marketing, and Legal Departments, we started important discussions and projects that are bringing sustainability into the heart of our business and our brands. This is why now we have two brands that are carbon-neutral, Wasa and Gran Cereale, one brand that is working on the sustainability of its common wheat flour and stands for biodiversity, Mulino Bianco, another one that wants to engage young generations and promote better food choices and practices, the Barilla brand etc.
I’ve helped build a sustainable development culture within the company by promoting better practices and creating a comprehensive story that unites all our departments and creates a common culture. I played a big part in the transformation of the initial sustainability program into the purpose of the entire group. And I did my best to bring best-practices that existed outside the company into the company, and to create a flywheel of passion and pride for this new culture. Now, I'm simply a point of reference for my colleagues in the Marketing Department who push our communications and brands’ activations towards a better tomorrow.
In what ways has Barilla Group's business been affected by COVID-19?
Being a purpose-driven company in the era Covid-19 is a value. As you can imagine, Covid-19 has not simplified the food supply chain costs and safety issues that increased all along our value chain. But thanks to our amazing suppliers and production plant colleagues, we were able to guarantee our production every day of the crisis since the beginning. A considerable commitment and a strong passion led our employees to sustain the business. Barilla also geared great attention toward guaranteeing that all the people working in plants had all the protections needed to face the emergency, and now we have strict protocols we have to follow in offices and facilities. This virus also reminded us of the power of being part of a great community. And that's why we have been present with donations and actions to sustain hospitals, people in need, and the Italian civil protection system.
Even if I'm very proud of how proactively the company acted during the last weeks, I don’t want to focus on the past, but I’d like to look to the future. The way I see it, the resilience and adaptability that many businesses demonstrated during the crises can be considered good qualities for future development and sustainability issues. I believe that this pandemic has been quite a remarkable rehearsal for facing other public enemies, such as climate change or obesity. If the will is there, we have the ability to move a substantial number of skills and processes forward and guarantee new ways of working with agility and great speed.
The Barilla Center for Food and Nutrition Foundation (BCFN) is an independent and multidisciplinary think tank that analyses the environmental, economic, and social dimension of food. Tell us more about this project and how it ties into day-to-day decisions and business at Barilla Group.
The Barilla Center for Food and Nutrition Foundation was founded in 2009 to analyse the bigger trends in the world of food. Within just a few years, it has become a point of reference in the sector and has created the capacity to pull together experts from all around the world and collect the best research around food sustainability. The centre is famous for its publications, events, Food Sustainability Index, policies, initiatives, and a couple of straightforward studies. These include the identification of the key food paradoxes at a global level and the development of the double pyramid.
There are three main paradoxes. First, there is the co-existence of people who are obese or overweight alongside people who are starving within the same countries at the same time. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), every year, more than 1 million people die of diseases related to obesity in Europe alone, and 800 million people are starving around the world. Sadly, more than 40% of global agricultural production is used to produce biofuels or feed animals, and less than half goes to humans. Last but not least, one-third of global food production is wasted every year—four times the amount of food necessary to feed starving people. All of this while exploiting the earth’s resources more than ever before.
The double pyramid model indeed highlights the very close link between two aspects of food: the nutritional value and environmental impact generated at the different stages in the food supply chain. The model shows that staple foods recommended by nutritionists for our well-being are those with the lowest environmental impact. On the contrary, those with a high environmental footprint should be recommended in moderation due to their effects on our health. The message of the double pyramid inspires our Barilla brand strategy every day. Through our products, we work to foster sustainable dry food eating choices which are good for people’s well-being and the environment. As you can see, there is a strong connection between the foundation’s studies and the resulting implementation in our business.
What trends does Barilla Group expect will surface in the global food industry and market in upcoming years? And what should food producers and manufacturers be doing now to prepare for the future?
Localism will be a key choice for consumers. The origin of products will count a lot in the upcoming months, partially because the globalisation concept has been put under threat by the virus but also because a sense of pride has emerged within communities. Secondly, plant-based choices will rise up. People are much more aware of what they eat and the consequences that food can have on their well-being as well as that of the planet. And, plant-based choices are a possible solution to climate change and many food issues. Finally, I am certain that communities and social aspects will become much more relevant in the next phase. People will pay much more attention to social needs and people in need due to the recession we will face. Companies that will be able to keep up with the pace by doing relevant things for communities and local environments will surely be recognised by consumers and preferred as good and loved brands.