Frontiers: Frontiers on food sustainability

A bowl of ring shaped breakfast cereal

Sustainability isn’t simple, but it’s good for the bottom line as well as the planet, General Mills chief sustainability officer Jerry Lynch told University of Minnesota students, faculty, staff and other community members last week as the first speaker of the Institute on the Environment’s Fall 2013 Frontiers in the Environment series.

Lynch discussed some of the sustainability challenges and opportunities the Twin Cities-based food business faces in his presentation, “Inside Food: How a Consumer Company Works Toward a Sustainable Food Supply.”

Throughout the hour-long talk, Lynch emphasized that General Mills strives to make sustainability a major consideration in its business operations, not just a talking point.

“We’re not a sustainability company; we don’t sell sustainability,” Lynch said. “So my mission is to integrate sustainability into the things we do every day so that by the time I retire, this job becomes defunct.”

The first step, according to Lynch, is to get a better understanding of the company’s business model and learn why General Mills has a legitimate interest in a pursuing sustainability.

“We take the output of Mother Nature, we transform it in ways that are relevant to consumers’ lives today, and we sell it to consumers,” he said. “That’s our basic business model. And what it tells us is if the engine at the front end of this model breaks down, if Mother Nature breaks down, we’re in a world of hurt.”

The company has set ambitious goals of reducing the water, energy, and fuel intensity; greenhouse gas footprint; and waste of its operations 20 to 50 percent by 2015.

But sustainability starts long before the ingredients even reach the company’s facilities. In order to incorporate sustainability principles into all aspects of production, General Mills teamed up with the World Wildlife Fund and the Rainforest Alliance to identify 10 raw materials where the company has the greatest opportunity for improvement. From reducing deforestation resulting from palm oil production to keeping children out of cocoa plantations, General Mills is working to bring sustainable practices to agriculture worldwide, Lynch said. Given that the company produces around 5 billion kilograms of food products annually, these efforts could have a tremendous impact.

Sustainability and multi-billion-dollar corporations may not always seem to work hand-in-hand, but Lynch hopes the actions General Mills is taking today will show that sustainability isn’t just the right thing to do, but it’s good for business as well.

“The question is, how do you make it as simple and as motivating and as relevant to the business case as possible, which is why we have really pushed very hard to make this a business strategy and integrate it into the business, and not make it a social responsibility strategy,” Lynch said. “It has social responsibility aspects to it, but if we can make it primarily a business strategy, we’ll get a lot further along the way toward it sticking for the long term in the organization.”

Watch Lynch’s presentation online.

John Sisser is a communications assistant with the Institute on the Environment.