Inside the General Mills roadmap to a sustainable food future
Editor’s note: This post first appeared in The Guardian.
General Mills recently announced a commitment to cut its emissions by 28% in the next 10 years. Other companies can, and should, do the same.
As the UN Climate Conference in Paris approaches, all eyes will be on government leaders as they negotiate a new global deal to address climate change.
Increasingly volatile weather around the world combined with a global population projected to grow to more than 9 billion by 2050 means climate change has become the most pressing environmental issue that our society faces today. As a food company, climate change will likely have a significant impact on our business, and so we are compelled to act.
Standing up to be a part of the solution
I believe climate change is a shared, global challenge that is best addressed at scale. Every individual, company, industry and government has a role to play.
Like so many of my colleagues and peers, I want to be part of the solution on climate change. This issue is top of mind for General Mills’ consumers, customers and employees, and so addressing climate change is not only imperative to the long term viability of our company, but to each of us as individuals too.
As part of our efforts to conserve and protect natural resources, General Mills recently announced a commitment to reduce absolute greenhouse gas emissions by 28% across our full value chain – from farm to fork to landfill – over the next 10 years.
It’s an ambitious commitment. We did not approach this by asking ourselves, “What could we do to reduce our carbon footprint?” or, “How much do we think we can achieve?”
Rather, we asked ourselves a question, one I believe more companies, governments and even individuals must ask themselves: “How much of a difference does science tell us we must make to prevent the worst impacts of climate change?”
This first commitment is only the beginning. Looking to the long term, beyond 2025, General Mills aims to achieve sustainable emission levels in line with scientific consensus by 2050. Today’s scientific consensus would require a reduction of 50 to 70 percent in absolute emissions across our value chain.
A roadmap to a greener future
The path to addressing General Mills’ and the food system’s carbon footprint will not be easy. In fact, it will be quite challenging and even uncomfortable at times. It is going to require faster, harder work to reduce the environmental footprint within and upstream of our direct operations. New partnerships and more rapid innovation will be equally important too.
Because I believe the kind of commitment, and roadmap, that General Mills is making will be necessary for many more companies to undertake in the near future, I’d like to offer a brief look into the three primary aspects of our value chain: our operations, our upstream suppliers and our downstream consumers.
Within our four walls
In some ways, reducing our environmental footprint within our direct operations is the most straightforward aspect of our work, since this is where we have the greatest control and visibility.
General Mills set specific greenhouse gas reduction targets for our facilities in 2005. To date, we have reduced our absolute emissions by 13 percent within our four walls, which we achieved by investing in energy efficiency and clean energy innovation at our manufacturing facilities. This work will only accelerate, as our roadmap puts us on the path to invest $100m in energy efficiency and clean energy over the next 10 years.
Nearly two-thirds of our value chain’s total greenhouse gas emissions occur upstream of our direct operations, primarily in agriculture. Knowing this, my supply chain team is heavily focused on sustainable sourcing and advancing sustainable agriculture practices.
In 2013, General Mills made a commitment to sustainably source 100 percent of our 10 priority ingredients by 2020, which represent 50 percent of the company’s total raw material purchases and a significant portion of our total environmental footprint.
As part of our sustainable sourcing strategy, we are working with suppliers and farmers and customers to strengthen sustainable farming practices through coalitions like Field to Market: The Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture and the Sustainability Council of the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy, both of which allow us to make progress on our own roadmap while serving as a catalyst for action among agricultural companies, farmers, suppliers, NGOs, government agencies and universities that make up these coalitions.
Coalitions like Field to Market and the Sustainability Council are critical to addressing climate change within our value chain and as an industry. These coalitions focus on conventional farming practices and bring together key players across the value chain to encourage unprecedented collaboration, and provide growers and supply chain managers with tools and resources to improve sustainability at the farm level.
For example, using Field to Market tools like the Fieldprint Calculator, row crop farmers can evaluate metrics across seven key growing dimensions including land use, soil conservation, soil carbon, energy use, GHG emissions, water quality and use of irrigated water. A farmer’s final Fieldprint score serves as benchmark comparisons with district, state and national averages, along with data from other growers in the same district who share similar growing conditions.
General Mills hosts grower workshops with our suppliers to help farmers analyze their individual Fieldprint results to identify opportunities for environmental improvements and farm profitability.
Similar to Field to Market, the Sustainability Council of the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy enables dairy farmers to measure the carbon footprint of milk production on their farms through an online program called Farm Smart. General Mills is piloting this framework with producers to identify opportunities that deliver sustainability and farmer profitability improvements. The results of the pilot will enable the Sustainability Council to increase farmer participation.
Another key component of our roadmap is expanding our natural and organic business, sourcing from an additional 250,000 organic acres by 2025. We recognize that organic farming’s focus on healthy soils can help sequester carbon, enable farms to have a higher tolerance to drought and heavy rains and promote biodiversity so the farm can continue to be more successful in adapting to changing climate conditions.
Although much of the roadmap focuses on our upstream work, there’s no question that there are improvements to make downstream: packaging, for instance, plays a critical role in our climate commitment, representing 14 percent of our total greenhouse gas emissions across the value chain.
There are many ways to reduce the environmental impact of our packaging through better design: by decreasing materials use, using lower-impact materials and improving truckload packing efficiencies. Since 2005, we have improved nearly 70 percent of our global packaging volume.
A call for collaboration
While our success depends on our actions, I realize that our commitment is highly ambitious, and that we cannot get there on our own.
One company will not mitigate climate change alone. To this end, no one company controls their entire value chain. It’s only through the collaboration and collective innovation of farmers, suppliers, manufacturers, customers and consumers that we’ll achieve our goals. I hope you’ll join us.
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