Bob Branham has worked at General Mills for 28 years but became customer sustainability director only two years ago. “We created the position because our retailers continue to be more engaged in the space and we are as well, so there’s always a conversation about collaboration potential and shared best practices,” Branham said. I spoke with Branham recently to learn more about the company’s sustainability priorities and goals as we approach the 42nd Earth Day.
What do you see as customers’ biggest sustainability concerns, and how is your company addressing them?
The opportunities in sustainability are extraordinarily broad and include sustainable sourcing: where and how we’re getting commodities. I think our retailers share all of the same concerns, from way upstream on the sustainability value chain to all of the way downstream, to food waste and waste management overall, including packaging. We talk about the overall awareness of the social and environmental impact we have, of disposing of 30% to 40% of what we process. We spend a lot of time talking about food-waste mitigation.
At General Mills specifically, we have several publicly stated goals on waste reduction and how we create less waste in the first place. We’ve also set goals on energy, gas and water usage. Water is a critical component — water quality and availability and water as a commodity is incredibly important to the work we do. But we also have a packaging goal and a transportation goal. We try to establish ourselves as a company that’s working between our four walls to be a better steward of the planet. So when we’re out talking to people, we have reached a level of credibility. We can say, “We haven’t reached all of our goals and you haven’t either, so let’s talk about how we can do them better together.”
What are the industry’s greatest accomplishments in sustainability since the first Earth Day in 1970?
Subjectively, there’s a much greater awareness of the impacts we have as an industry. On the more practical side, there’s been great work done on packaging improvements, with better materials, better innovation to extend the shelf life and convenience of products. There have been transportation improvements, reducing road miles and efficiencies. From a manufacturing point of view, we’ve made great efficiencies in operations, looking at it through the lens of cost saving, but then realizing the phenomenal environmental benefit of how you manufacture, package and transport products. That’s how business can and should choose to look at this — there’s a great financial benefit to becoming a more sustainable food company. There’s no downside in this space; you can only improve. There’s no risk, per se.
The brand people would say, and rightly so, we can’t be accused of green washing, so we have to be careful with our claims, careful to not take a fact and build a story around it that doesn’t take into account some of the impacts that are not included in that fact. So, in the food industry, you don’t see a ton of environmental claims. Sometimes these things are much more important as internal tools and claims you can make with your retailers, but you don’t necessarily need to talk to consumers about it. Consumers want price value; they want their food to be safe, taste good, be convenient and, nowadays, they want it to be affordable. There are a lot of attributes consumers really want from us, so when we make an important and smart packaging improvement, we don’t run out and make a 30-second spot about it.
What are the next sustainability challenges, and how is the industry — and General Mills — preparing to tackle them?
The big one right now that’s at the top of my list and the industry’s is food-waste mitigation and landfill avoidance. As an industry, we need to find better uses for food scraps. We landfill or incinerate far too much of the food we have grown and processed. The environmental impact we have on the front end, including the water and energy that went into making the product, and the land use, only to turn around and have it go to waste, is staggering. And we have 50 million Americans who have food insecurity, so we need to find a way to use more of that stuff that’s broadly classified as food waste. I would call that the next big thing.
At the same time, the other issues I’ve touched on are ongoing, including packaging improvements and better water management, using less water in packaging and growing crops we use. More farmers are moving to drip irrigation, and we’re working on making sure we have a better handle on ethical sourcing. It’s about understanding not only where the cocoa comes from but also how we can help the grower have a greater economic impact from growing. We want to be smart about it.
What kind of Earth Day events, if any, is General Mills planning this year?
We’re having our first-ever sustainability week April 16 to 20. We’re calling it Feed the Future. Employees love that they work for a company that’s overt about sustainability efforts, whether it’s on the social side, such as helping villages in Africa feed themselves through our foundation, or employee volunteerism or environmental sustainability. We want to get them from awareness to greater understanding of what it means to be a sustainable company. It goes beyond the environment to economic and social issues and long-term concerns. We need to know that when there are 9 billion people on the planet, they all have access to Cheerios and that there will be oats for those Cheerios.