Sustainability by anecdote

imgresI write stories. I read stories. I love a good story.

“After nourishment, shelter and companionship, stories are the thing we need most in the world,” says the British novelist Philip Pullman.

The corporate sustainability movement needs stories to inspire people, to win over customers, to change the world, as we heard last month at the GreenBiz Forum in New York.

But we need the right kinds of stories. Stories about people and companies that are having a meaningful impact. Stories that, ideally, drive broad and systemic change.

We’ve got big problems. We need big solutions.

Instead, my inbox overflows with stories that by themselves don’t get us where we need to go. Or stories that lack context.

Sustainability by anecdote, I call it.

Here’s one example that came in last month:

General Mills and Häagen-Dazs today announced an initiative designed to foster greater economic vitality for smallholder vanilla farmers in Madagascar and ensure the availability of high quality vanilla for future generations.

Now, this has to potential to be a good story. The words Häagen-Dazs get my attention, of course. So do smallholder farmers in Africa, who need all the help they can get. Big US brands supporting farmers in poor countries is an example of how globalization can be a win-win. I’m intrigued.

But  the next paragraph in the press release says that Häagen-Dazs

with the General Mills Foundation, will invest $125,000 over two years to benefit villages in Madagascar’s Sava region, home of the world’s highest quality vanilla.

Hmm. $125,000 over two years. That $1,201 a week. I bet the person who wrote the press release earns more than that. General Mills made $1.567 billion in profits last year, on sales of $16.7 billion.

Vanilla farmers in Madagascar
Vanilla farmers in Madagascar

Still, $125,000 goes a long way in Madagascar (which produces about 80% of the world’s vanilla) and the initiative, announced last month, could deliver knowledge to Malagasy  farmers that will help them earn more money and protect the environment for years to come. General Mills is also helping to fund research into the vanilla genome at UC-Davis.

On the company’s blog, Steve Peterson, the company’s director of sourcing sustainability, is quoting as saying:

In Madagascar, vanilla is the only source of income for these farmers. Through this program we are really trying to put more money in the pockets of these growers to improve living conditions.

What’s more, General Mills says, its commitment to smallholder farmers extends to Mexico, where its “Green Giant team of agronomists are working with broccoli and cauliflower growers to encourage adoption of drip irrigation practices”; to a village in northeast China where small farmers “have increased their household income four- to eight-fold by growing corn exclusively for General Mills’ Bugles corn snacks”; and to Kenya, Zambia, Tanzania and Malawi, where with a nonprofit partner the company is working with food processors to become more efficient and grow their businesses. so the Madagascar project is not a token effort.

And yet.

imgresIn a report that also came out last month, Oxfam America rated 10 big food companies on their social and environmental policies, and General Mills ranked  No. 8 out of 10.  Oxfam’s Behind the Brands scorecard examines company policies in seven areas critical to sustainable agricultural production, yet historically neglected by the food and beverage industry: women, small-scale farmers, farm workers, water, land, climate change, and transparency.

I emailed Ben Grossman-Cohen of Oxfam America to ask why the company was ranked so low. He replied:

General Mills ranks near the bottom on the Behind the Brands scorecard because they do not have publicly available policies or commitments on a number of key issues. In particular they have not publicly articulated policies that will address their impacts on community land rights, small-scale farmers in developing countries, climate change, women’s equality and overall transparency.

The scorecard prioritizes policies and practices that look comprehensively at the sourcing operations across company supply chains in developing countries. The focus is also on how companies use their power to shape the behavior of their suppliers. General Mills’ supplier code, which is a critical document that demonstrates what standards it requires from suppliers, has close to nothing that protects the interests of small-scale farmers, the rights of women and community land rights. For example General Mills recognizes the issue of climate change, but it fails to ask its suppliers to meet any specific requirements to address it, particularly around reducing agricultural emissions and helping farmers adapt to climate change.

General Mills does have important individual projects on farmers. It received credit for these projects in its score on the farmers theme. But individual projects are only one part of how we assess the company’s impact on farmers….

On transparency, for example, General Mills discloses very little on the volumes and source of origin of commodities it buys. It only discloses total volumes for palm oil and not for any of the other commodities coming from the developing world that were considered in the scorecard. It also says very little about who and where it sources from. Publicly releasing this information is critical to help to bring accountability to food industry supply chains.

A detailed picture of how General Mills scores were calculated for each theme can be found in the company data sheet which is publicly available at:

So what are we to think about General Mills? Should they be cheered because of their work with farmers? Or jeered because their policies lag those of food-industry leaders like Nestle and Unilever? Or both?

Stories are great. But only if they reflect what’s really going on.


  1. Ed Reid says

    I find it fascinating that organizations such as Oxfam have such great confidence in the governments of developing countries that they have made private corporations that do business in those developing countries responsible for the normal and customary functions of government.

  2. Andy Harris says

    First of all, I’m going to pass up the temptation to remind other readers that “mischaracterization is the first resort of a man who has no argument”. OxFam has hardly “made private corporations” responsible for anything. All actions taken by a unregulated enterprise are voluntary, and chosen by management in fulfilling the mandate of shareholder value creation.
    Second, do you have a constructive comment? Or just a rhetorical stick-in-the-eye that appears intended to inflame adversarial passions rather than drive collaborative dialog on what reasonable people agree is challenge of integrated social, environmental and economic problems?
    Your fascination may be well placed. Regardless of its accuracy, such skepticism shows you are a engaged thinker. With that aptitude acknowledged, I ask what would be your approach for the issues that OxFam is trying to address?

    Waiting patiently,


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