May 13, 2011 • By

Spotlight on CSR

I recently had the pleasure of sitting down with Catherine Gunsbury, General Mills’ new director of corporate social responsibility (CSR).

During our conversation, it quickly became clear that Catherine is passionate about her new role at the company and giving back to the community. She has been an active volunteer in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area for more than a decade.

I asked Catherine to share her thoughts about the value of CSR and to highlight some of the most compelling ways that General Mills is living out its mission of Nourishing Lives.

Why is CSR important?

Gunsbury: For starters, the elements of CSR, as we think about it today, have always been important to General Mills. We use CSR as an umbrella term to describe our strategy and practices in four key areas: Health and Wellness, Community Engagement, Employer of Choice and Sustainability. General Mills has a strong track record in each of these areas and is committed to strengthening that record over time.

From an external standpoint, CSR has become more important and more measurable in the public sphere. We believe that companies will increasingly gain competitive advantage by demonstrating strong CSR practices as part of an overall business strategy.

As with so many things, economics is a key driver. For example, consider that 44 of the world’s top economic entities are corporations. This creates demand for companies to be more accountable for their broader impact on society. General Mills is the world’s sixth largest food company. We have the opportunity to make a big difference, in whatever we do. Our CSR efforts demonstrate our commitment to always doing better.

Add to this the realities of globalization, both on the supply and demand side. Our reach has increased exponentially. We have more opportunities than ever before, but with those opportunities come accountabilities to more people and institutions. How do we stay connected? How do we reassure our stakeholders that we’re paying attention? There is a heightened expectation today that companies will be responsible.

Another key factor at play is information technology – more people have more access to more information than ever before. As a result, consumers, customers, suppliers and key stakeholders expect to know more about what companies are doing. They want to know the origins of our ingredients, who was involved in food production and the associated environmental footprint. For us, this represents a great opportunity to tell our story.

So CSR has always been important to General Mills. In our globalized, connected 21st century, it is even more important to an increasing number of stakeholders. They want to hear our story, and we are excited about the opportunity to tell it.

What are your favorite CSR stories at General Mills?

Gunsbury: My hands down favorite story is Partners in Food Solutions, General Mills’ effort to empower small to medium-sized African food processing outfits to strengthen their businesses through technical and business problem-solving. Fueled by employee volunteers, General Mills food scientists and engineers are currently working on about 40 projects in Kenya, Zambia, Tanzania and Malawi.

From a pure outcomes standpoint, PFS represents a real contribution to the local economies in which its partners operate. It is focused on helping existing businesses with a proven track record, companies that will provide jobs and drive economic growth in the future. It is also enabling the creation of markets, as local businesses source their ingredients from local farmers and sell products to local consumers. And it is a replicable model, one that can be deployed to other markets. It has great potential to be a self-sustaining, virtuous cycle. I love this story from a social innovation standpoint. It is the confluence of so many General Mills capabilities – strategic business thinking, superior technical capabilities, and the impact that committed people can have. It is a solution that General Mills is uniquely qualified to deliver.

Another story I think is really cool is the use of oat hulls as an energy source at our Fridley, Minn. plant. Again, from an endgame standpoint, it’s a great story – as of December 2010, a new biomass unit is producing about 90 percent of the steam needed to heat the plant and produce oat flour used in making Cheerios and other products.

It will cut the plant’s carbon footprint by more than 20% and it will save nearly $400,000 annually. It is another great innovation story, showcasing what is best about General Mills – the ingenuity of its employees. We’re marrying technical expertise with out-of-the-box thinking to create more sustainable energy sources with the end result being a smaller environmental footprint.

Editor’s note: For more information on General Mills’ commitment to CSR, please check out our 2011 CSR Report, our CSR Summary, or visit our new CSR website at csr.GeneralMills.com. We would love to hear your favorite stories from this year’s report or feedback on the work we’re doing to make General Mills a more sustainable company and the world a better place.