General Mills, Walmart, Target and compassion

compassion-wordThe other day, I went to a daylong meditation retreat about lovingkindness. One of the themes: how to find ways to bring an attitude of loving kindness not just to friends, but to strangers and even to the most difficult people in our lives. My rabbi, Fred Dobb, with whom I ordinarily spend my Saturdays, touches on a similar theme when he talks about widening our circles of compassion, to go beyond family and friends; the edict to  love thy neighbor extends not just to the folks next door but to the needy around the world. I don’t mean to go all Biblical on you here but it is written in Exodus 23:9: “And a stranger shalt thou not oppress; for ye know the heart of a stranger, seeing ye were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

What does this have to do with corporate responsibility, and sustainability, the topics of this blog? A lot, actually, as I realized when a pair of stories that I wrote for Guardian Sustainable Business were published in quick succession this week. Both stories are about big, publicly-traded companies that seek to enhance shareholder value with considerable vigor. But both, at heart, are also about the idea that good companies increasingly take an expansive, as opposed to a constricted view, of their place in the world, and their obligations to the world.

Yesterday, I wrote a story about General Mills’ new climate policy. Here’s how it begins:

Two months after Oxfam launched a campaign urging food and beverage companies to take stronger action to curb climate change, General Mills has promised to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in its agricultural supply chain and to advocate for government climate policy.

General Mills on Monday detailed its new policy on its website, saying: “The imperative is clear: Business, together with governments, NGOs and individuals, needs to act to reduce the human impact on climate change.”

In a news release, Oxfam praised General Mills as “the first major food and beverage company to promise to implement long-term science-based targets to cut emissions from across all of its operations and supply chains that are responsive to the goal of keeping global temperature rise below 2C.

“It’s a major leap,” said Heather Coleman, climate change manager for Oxfam America.

What’s noteworthy about the General Mills’ policy is that it dig deep into the company’s agriculture supply chain, where its environmental impact is greatest, and that it commits the company to be more politically active on climate issues. Put another way, this big food company is taking responsibility for trying to reduce the environmental impact of oats that go into Cheerios. You can read more here.

Today, the Guardian published my story about an unusual collaboration between Walmart and Target that aims to insure that beauty and personal care products are produced more sustainably. Here’s how that story begins:

In an unlikely partnership, rivals Walmart and Target have joined together, working with suppliers “to improve sustainability performance in the personal care and beauty industry”.

Their first event, the day-long Beauty and Personal Care Products Sustainability Summit, will be held on 4 September in Chicago. It’s being organized by Forum for the Future, a UK-based NGO with an outpost in New York.

Up until now, Walmart, the largest US retailer, and Target, the fourth-ranked retailer (according to the National Retail Federation), have taken divergent paths on sustainability. Why are the two companies now joining forces around the sustainability of soap, toothpaste, hair care products, shaving cream and cosmetics?

The story goes on to say:

It may be – and this definitely falls in the category of informed speculation – that Walmart and Target have come to realize that they are not as powerful as they want to be when dealing with big consumer brands and their suppliers in the chemical and fragrance industries.

The secrecy around ingredients in beauty and personal care products, along with the complexity of chemical formulations, creates information asymmetries. The brands and their suppliers know a lot more about product formulations than the buyers at Walmart and Target. They often tell critics that there’s no readily available substitute for a “chemical of concern.” And they are unwilling to share information about whether they are researching or developing safer chemicals.

An industry insider told me: “There’s so much that’s hidden in these supply chains that even Target and Walmart don’t know what goes into everything on their shelves.”

The point is, Walmart and Target are digging deeper than ever before into their supply chains, seeking to understand the chemicals that go into cosmetics or hair care products, or the impact of packaging.

You can see these shifts across the field of corporate responsibility. Look at the apparel and electronics industries which, over time, have agreed, at least in theory,accept responsibility for the working conditions and environmental practices deep in their supply chains, in places like China and Bangladesh.

Are companies becoming more compassionate? I don’t think so, at least not in the since that people can seek to become more caring. But are they recognizing that the long-term health of their business depends upon their reputations as corporate citizens, not to mention the health of the planet or the safety of the products they sell? Yes, they are. It’s a very slow and imperfect process, but it’s real.

Walmart’s index: Better than sliced bread?

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This is the second in a series of three stories about Walmart’s supplier sustainability index. An overview of the index can be found here. 

Can Walmart change the way wheat is grown in America?

The company is trying to do just that. Here’s how.

Start inside a Walmart store in Laurel, Maryland. On sale here are nearly 40 brands of flour, many more varieties of  bread and countless other products made from wheat, including cookies, cakes, crackers andpancake mix.

In theory, Walmart has influence over every one of those products. The giant retailer (2012 revenues: $469 billion) sells more groceries than any other supermarket chain. Brands like Pepperidge Farm and Arnold and Sara Lee need access to its shelves.

To make agriculture more sustainable, Walmart has begun asking its suppliers probing questions about the grains they use. What percent of your grain is provided by suppliers that track fertilizer use and have goals and a program in place to optimize fertilizer use? What percent of your grain is provided by suppliers that monitor soil fertility and have goals and a program in place to minimize soil degradation and erosion? What about fuel use? What about water? What about pesticides? What about managing biodiversity?

Whew.

For the flour and bread makers, this is new territory.  Most never deal with the farmers who grow their wheat. They buy from middlemen.

“When you run into production agriculture, with thousands of growers, the product is commingled, it’s by definition a commodity,” says Fred Luckey, a retired Bunge executive who is now chairman of Field to Market, a nonprofit group that is working with Walmart.

Now they have to did deep into their supply chains, if they want to stay in the good graces of Bentonville. No company has ever tried anything like this before. [click to continue...]

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. [click to continue...]

Oxfam America: Big Food is failing the poor

fig-2-brands-72dpi-1280px-nologosNew research by Oxfam America into the social and environmental policies of the world’s 10 biggest food and beverage companies puts Nestle, Unilever and Coca-Cola at the top of the list and Associated British Foods, Kellogg’s and General Mills at the bottom. In the middle of the pack are Pepsico, Mars, Danone and Mondelez International (formerly Kraft).

Oxfam American said in a presss release that the Big 10 food and beverage companies, which together make $1 billion a day, are “failing millions of people in developing countries who supply land, labor, water and commodities needed to make their products.”

That stark accusation was tempered more than a little during a telephone news conference where Oxfam America launched a new global consumer-focused campaign called Behind the Brands.

Ray Offenheiser, the president of Oxfam America, described the big food companies as “recognized industry leaders.” Jane Nelson, a senior fellow at Harvard who specializes in corporate responsibility, went further, saying these are among the “most responsible, best managed, well governed companies” in the food sector.

So which is it, really? Are these companies industry leaders or are they failing the poor?

Maybe a little of both. [click to continue...]

A question about GMOs for Naked Juice, Silk, Cascadian Farm, Kashi and Honest Tea: Which side are you on, boys?

Naked Juice says it doesn’t use ingredients produced using biotechnology as a matter of principle.

Silk, the company that put soymilk on supermarket shelves, says:

We’re proud to participate in the Non-GMO Project, a no a nonprofit, multi-stakeholder collaboration committed to preserving and building sources of non-GMO products, educating consumers and providing verified non-GMO choices.

Cascadian Farm (“We were organic before organic was a trend”) assures consumers that “you can know when you see the “certified organic” USDA seal on the front of our package that GMO crops have not been used.”

You’ll hear much the same from Kashi (“seven of our foods are now officially Non-GMO Project Verified“) and Honest Tea, which says:

Honest Tea doesn’t use any Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOS) and supports the idea that more transparent labeling will help consumers make clear choices.

The thing is, each of these upstart brands, which tout their commitment to natural or organic product, and to transparency, is owned by a big food conglomerate that opposes GMO labeling.

Think of it this way: Naked Juice (PepsiCo.), Silk (Dean Foods), Cascadian Farm (General Mills) Kashi (Kellogg) and Honest Tea (Coca-Cola) are like kids who don’t agree with their parents.

These, though, are family arguments with big consequences for food shoppers. Big food and agriculture companies funding a campaign which has raised more than $23 million to defeat California’s Proposition 37, a ballot initiative that would mandate clear labeling of genetically engineered (GE) ingredients on food packages. PepsiCo, for example, has donated $1.7 million to defeat Prop. 37, while Coca-Cola has spent more than $1.1 million. Kellogg ($612,000), General Mills ($520,000) and Dean Foods ($253,000) are big donors, too. Biotech companies Monsanto and DuPont have given even more — $4 million apiece — according to data compiled by public TV station KCET. [click to continue...]

Nature Valley? Read the fine print.

Visit the website of Nature Valley and there’s no mistaking the message. The company, which is a unit of food giant General Mills, makes granola bars, protein bars, nut clusters and cookies that are invariably displayed against a backdrop of mountain ranges, forests, ski slopes and seascapes. Nature Valley supports our national parks. Nature Valley is “proud to be the official natural granola bar” for the US ski team and the PGA.

Everything–from the company’s name to the “100% Natural” label an its products–just screams natural and, in case you still don’t get the point, there is this:

Though much has changed since Nature Valley introduced the world’s first granola bar in 1975, one thing hasn’t: no matter how many new flavors we create, you can be assured that with Nature Valley you’re always getting The Taste Nature Intended®.

The Taste Nature Intended. Really? Try finding high-fructose corn syrup, high-maltose corn syrup, and maltodextrin in nature. You can’t. But they’re all in Nature Valley snacks.

“Natural” is probably the most overused word in food marketing. To combat the misleading marketing, the Center for Science in the Public Interest last week filed a lawsuit against General Mills accusing Nature Valley of “unfair, deceptive, untrue or misleading advertising” as defined by California law and seeking damages on behalf of consumers who bought the project, thinking the ingredients were natural. [click to continue...]

Can one person change a company? Discuss…

I’m giving a speech to the grocery and food manufacturing industry–and I’d like your help.

I’ll be the closing keynote speaker at a Sustainability Summit in December in Arlington, Va., organized by the Food Marketing Institute, a trade association of grocery retailers and wholesalers (Ahold, Kroger, Price Chopper, Publix, Wegman’s, Winn-Dixie,  etc.) and the Grocery Manufacturers Association, a trade association made up of the companies that produce much of what we eat (Campbell Soup, Coca-Cola, Dannon, DelMonte, General Mills, Kraft, H.J. Heinz, Kellogg, Kraft, Nestle, PepsiCo, Unilever and many more).

These folks, needless to say, can have a huge impact on the environment and on our health. So it’s a great opportunity for me.

Because I’ll be the last speaker that people hear before they go home, my plan is to give a talk called “The Power of One.” It’s about how one person can change the world–not by himself or herself, of course. But by mustering the right arguments, and enlisting the right allies, one person can change a company, an industry and eventually change the world. I’ve seen it happen, more than once. In my 2004 book, Faith and Fortune, I devoted a chapter called  “Can One Person Change a Company?” to a woman named Barbara Waugh and her impact on Hewlett Packard which was, then and now, an enormous global company.

Where do you come in? Well, I have some stories in mind of people who have had an impact on corporate America, but I’m eager to hear more. If you know of someone who, with their passion and commitment and smarts and strategic thinking, helped make a company, big or small, more sustainable, please let me know. (Post in the comments below or send an mail to marc.gunther@gmail.com) I’m going to write  about some of those people for this blog and tell their stories in the speech. They need not work in sustainability or corporate social responsibility–in fact, I’m interested in individuals or small groups of people  who broke through silos or made things happen without having institutional responsibility.

And, if you work in the grocery or food business, by all means come to the summit. Ken Powell, the chairman and CEO of General Mills, will give the opening talk–it’s always an encouraging sign when a CEO is willing to give a speech on sustainability. Other speakers include Matt Arnold of Pricewaterhouse Coopers, Gwen Ruta of Environmental Defense, Jason Clay of the World Wildlife Fund, Jon Johnson from the University of Arkansas (who is leading the Sustainability Consortium), writer Andrew Winston, Dave Stangis of Campbell Soup, chef Barton Seaver, Aron Cramer of Business for Social Responsibility–and those are just people I’ve met or interviewed. I’m looking forward to reconnecting with then, as well as meeting new people. As my friend Joel Makower likes to say, networking is great–and not just because it’s only one letter away from being not working!

A tipping point on BPA?

Muir-Glen-Coupons-259x300So is BPA–the controversial, much-debated chemical that, right now, is almost surely lurking somewhere inside a can in your kitchen cabinet–dangerous? Or is it safe?

Scientists can’t come to agreement. Nor can regulators. Nor, unsurprisingly, can corporate America.

Fact is, it’s a daunting job for companies to figure out how to deal with BPA, as recent events at General Mills and The Coca-Cola Co. show. General Mills inched away from the chemical, by agreeing to keep it out of its Muir Glen brand of organic tomatoes. By contrast, Coca-Cola opposed a shareholder resolution asking the company to report on its plans to deal with BPA. The resolution got 22 percent of the vote at Coke’s annual meeting last week.

While the science of BPA remains clouded, there’s growing evidence that consumers aren’t willing to wait around for a decisive verdict from the lab. So smart companies at the very least should explore alternatives.

As Rich Liroff of the Investor Environmental Health Network wrote recently in a guest post here:

smart companies will change the way they communicate about BPA and as well as search for alternatives to better align themselves with consumer concerns. Some companies could gain reputational benefits and free media attention from supporting proposed legislation restricting use of BPA.

The IEHN supported the Coca-Cola resolution on BPA.

Some background for readers who haven’t followed the debate:  Bisphenol A is a chemical that’s widely used in products ranging from plastic water bottles to eyeglass lenses. As I wrote (How Wal-Mart Became The New FDA)  back in 2008:

BPA is everywhere, used to make polycarbonate, a rigid, clear plastic for bottles, bike helmets, DVDs and car headlights. It’s also an ingredient in epoxy resins, which coat the inside of food and drink cans. About 93% of Americans tested by the Centers for Disease Control had the chemical in their urine.

Since then, the debate over BPA has only intensified. Canada and Denmark have banned the [click to continue...]

Shop with your (gay-friendly) values

67838081_e8084e86acWith the (yuk) holiday shopping season upon us, this weekend seems like a good time to devote a series of blogposts to the idea of shopping with your values. But before I get to today’s topic–the Buying for Equality guide published by the Human Rights Campaign–let me first humbly suggest that one way to express your values this season, if you care about leaving a more sustainable planet to our children, is not to shop at all, or to shop less.

Over-consumption is a problem. If all of the 6.8 billion people on the planet lived like Americans we’d be in trouble. Today, Black Friday, the busiest day of the year is also known as Buy Nothing Day. This year the organizers are saying:

We want you to not only stop buying for 24 hours, but to shut off your lights, televisions and other nonessential appliances. We want you to park your car, turn off your phones and log off of your computer for the day.

This is a nonstarter for me. I’m not parking my car, turning off my phone or shutting down my laptop (obviously). No way, no how. Indeed, I worry that a call to action like that turns off more people than it inspires. I much prefer the holiday messaging from the Center for a New American Dream, which exhorts people to simplify the holidays, by planning a holiday with more fun and less stuff. But most of us still want at least some stuff. Today, and over the next couple of days, I’ll try to suggest some ways we can acquire stuff that aligns with our values. [click to continue...]