Mary Jane Melendez stewards General Mills’ sustainability and philanthropy efforts and is responsible for advancing collaboration and integration across the organization to achieve company-wide Global Impact commitments.
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John: Welcome to another edition of The Impact Podcast. I’m John and I’m so honored to have with us today Mary Jane. She’s the Chief Sustainability and global impact Officer for the Iconic and amazing General Mills brand. Welcome Mary Jane to the Impact Podcast.
Mary Jane Melendez: Thank you, John. I am absolutely thrilled to be here.
John: Well, we’re honored to have you and before we get talking about all the impactful and important things you’re doing with your colleagues at General Mills, can you please share with our listeners and viewers a little bit about yourself? Where did you grow up and how did you get on this fascinating and amazing journey that you’re on now?
Mary Jane: Oh, I would love to share my story. It’s not a typical career path nor journey to General Mills for sure. So I grew up in St. Paul, Minnesota. I’m the oldest of four children, and we had a great upbringing and I would say that I credit the reason that I’m here today to my parents actually. So I didn’t go to school to study environmental sciences or sustainability, anything like that. In fact, it wasn’t really an expectation when I was growing up that we would go to college. My parents had not been down that path and we didn’t really know how we were going to be able to pay for that. But I remember my mom saying to me that we always needed to be attentive to the needs of others. One of the things that my parents did when I was about 10 years old is we opened our home for adult foster care, so to care for adults with disabilities.
John: Oh my God.
Mary Jane: It was the most amazing experience that taught me how to be again, attentive to the needs of others and actually put me on the trajectory to want to have a job where not only I could support myself, support my family, but I was doing good for others and leaving the World in a better place. That expectation is actually what led me to want to work for a foundation. So I went to college. I was very thankful and lucky to get a lot of scholarships and a lot of financial aid I was able to attend. I’m the only one in my family and I studied business administration at the University of St. Thomas here in St. Paul, Minnesota and was interviewing with General Mills and in the wrong interview at the right time, I thought I was interviewing for an internship and it ended up to be a full-time position, 22 years later, here I am. So this was constantly not a plan, but when I came to General Mills, I started working in our… actually it was our customer service division and it was a great experience because it really allowed me to understand the business.
It helped me to understand just the breadth of brands that are under the General Mills umbrella, whether it’s Nature Valley, Cheerios, Haagen-Dazs, Blue Buffalo, just amazing beloved brands at this company, at Steward’s today. I had a great experience in their sales organization, but for three years I told every manager that I wanted to work at the General Mills Foundation and they were like, well, so do you and about 40,000 other people, so that’s great. But for me it was something that was just very deeply ingrained in me to do something that allowed me to be in service of others. So General Mills had a foundation and I said I wanted to do that. That was my goal and I was so fortunate that in about 2005 a position opened and I was able to make that move in the foundation. For the next about 10 years, I held a variety of positions in the General Mills Foundation, including as executive director.
Then we had done a strategy refresh and we’re doing really great work and this was my dream job by far. I could not believe that I was getting paid to do this work. If I would’ve won the lottery, I would’ve come to work the next day because it was just so cup filling. I mean, every day you got to make the World a little bit better, improve communities, help alleviate hunger, engage employees and volunteerism. It was the best. I remember my manager approached me and said, ”We would like you to take on the role of Chief Sustainability Officer and the number one priority needs to be a strategy refresh like what you led in the General Mills Foundation.” So in the first few years of this role, what we have done is we have worked to combine what was formally sustainability and the foundation philanthropic team into a broader global impact organization where we are now leading a very clear sustainability strategy that is supported through philanthropic resources, through employee engagement, through different food expertise that the company has to offer and it has been by far the most challenging, but the most rewarding professional experience I’ve had during my 22 years at General Mills.
John: Well, it’s quite an internship, it’s been for 22 years, huh?
Mary Jane: It sure is. I’m so grateful that I was in the wrong place at the right time.
John: Are your parents still with us? Are they still alive?
Mary Jane: So my mother is still alive. My father passed away about four years ago, and she’s still a great mother reminding me always, even in this job that I can always continue to do more and to give back and to invest time, whether it’s with my nieces and nephews or within my community. She has been a great personal… just a role model for me, a great friend, a great woman and a great mother.
John: What a lesson to teach such an impressionable young woman like you and your siblings to get out of your own self instead of thinking about yourself, but to think about others first. Most people go through a lifetime of therapy and all sorts of other self-help behavioral methodologies that exist today to try to get out of themselves and try to be more empathetic to others. But to get that at a young age where you’re that impressionable and then to take that forward, bravo to your mother because that’s not happening as much as it should in this World and that’s such a great lesson and such a great tool that she gave you and a skillset that you got to take forward in life. So good for mom, man. That’s a great thing.
Mary Jane: I’m quite grateful.
John: It’s such a fascinating title that you have because literally when I started my recycling company, when we started this show 16 years ago, chief sustainability officers didn’t exist, really. It wasn’t a thing. Most universities didn’t have sustainability programs that were codified and professionalized and Global Impact Officer surely wasn’t on anybody’s vernacular or lexicon. You have now, like you said, combine those two titles you have and the fascinating part about it, Mary Jane is we’ve done this show now for 16 years, over 2000 guests with amazing people like you with iconic brands like General Mills and what we find is the interesting part is they could be as wide as you want it to be, and it could be as narrow as you want to be. So how do you decide with your colleagues, how wide or narrow to decide what sustainability and impact should mean and how do you choose the initiatives that you and your colleagues want to attack at General Mills and make the World a better place in?
Mary Jane: Such a great question and there’s so many pieces that go into the priorities because it’s a big space and there’s a lot of activity that you could engage in. But what’s really important is that we are selective and that we prioritize so that it’s not just activity, but it’s impact.
John: Oh, great.
Mary Jane: So at General Mills, we have always been guided by the belief that doing good and doing business go hand in hand. Those two things do not live in silos. We are a global food company that has been around for 155 years plus, and we are completely dependent on Mother Nature and on this planet for its natural resources in order to operate our business. If we can’t get oats and wheat and dairy, good luck meeting any other business objectives if we can’t actually get food onto the shelf and fulfill our purpose of making food the World loves. For General Mills, what’s really interesting when you look at all of these environmental issues, whether it’s the climate warming and the fact that greenhouse gas emissions are continuing to rise and that we’re seeing more and more extreme weather events, these things are directly impacting our value chain and if we don’t help to mitigate that risk and take the responsibility that we have as a global food company to try to improve the way that we operate, we’re not going to be able to be in business for another 150 years.
So this is really absolutely a business imperative for General Mills. It is not a nice to do, it is a must do, and we understand that importance to help really mitigate these risks that are happening on the planet to invest in Mother Nature, to learn from her properties of regeneration and to say, how do we help to ensure that we are operating, whether it’s at the farm level, whether it’s helping to drive consumer education, on how to recycle packaging, how do we help to continue to advance that? Because when all of these things are working together, we will see that impact happen and we’ll go beyond the activity and be able to reverse some of these things. What I always say is this is not, it’s a business imperative, it’s a planetary imperative, it’s also an imperative for humanity. Mother Nature is really resilient, and if we think that we’re going to destroy the planet, we’ve got it wrong, it’s actually that we will destroy ourselves and Mother Nature will shake us off. I think George Carlin said it like a bad case of the fleas because she is very resilient. But do we want to change in terms of our quality of life, the way that we’re experiencing weather on this planet, we’ve got a responsibility and what a great opportunity right now from these seats to try to drive that change.
John: That’s really true. So with that being said, I sit in Fresno, California today, which is one of the biggest Ag belts in the United States. So agriculture as you just well point out, is critical to your business model. You’re making all these delicious and amazing products for us to enjoy, but they start with Mother Earth. Talk a little bit about this issue that’s now getting more and more publicity of regenerative agriculture. What does that mean to General Mills? What does that mean to your supply chain, and where are we in that process of getting more and more farmers to engage in regenerative agriculture practices?
Mary Jane: I love talking about regenerative agriculture, and maybe I’ll take one step back to provide a little bit of background context. So at General Mills, we have 10 public commitments. They’re on our website and they range from reducing our greenhouse gas emissions, advancing regenerative agriculture, making our packaging recyclable or reusable, mitigating water risks, et cetera. So all of that’s out there, but we’re differentially focused on greenhouse gas reductions, regenerative agriculture and packaging and regenerative agriculture is a very unique space for General Mills. As I mentioned, we are dependent on the health of the planet for the success and resiliency of our business. In 2019, general Mills was one of the first companies to make a public commitment to advance regenerative agriculture. We have committed to advancing regenerative agriculture across 1 million acres of farmland by 2030 and I’m really excited that today, just four years in and we are more than halfway to that goal with just over 500,000 acres now advancing regenerative agriculture.
When we talk about regenerative agriculture at General Mills, what we say is this is a holistic principles-based approach to farming and ranching that seeks to both strengthen community and ecosystem resilience. For us, what’s really important is the focus on outcomes. This is not about a checklist of certain practices that you implement on a farm. We believe that regenerative systems have to deliver measurable improvements in soil health, in carbon sequestration, in biodiversity, whether that biodiversity is soil microbes or earthworms or biodiversity above the ground in terms of bugs and birds on the land. We look at water quality and water quantity, and then we look at farmer economic resilience. This has to be profitable for the farmer. If it doesn’t work for them, it’s not going to work for anyone. When we think about those practices, we’re really talking about a set of principles, again, not a checklist of practices, but really principles that are heavily informed by both the Soil Academy and NRCS, the Natural Resources Conservation Service. Those principles are, first and foremost, understanding the context of your farm operation. What may work for a farmer in North Dakota may not be the same things that you put on a farm if you’re in India or if you’re in Kansas, we talk about minimizing disturbance. So disturbance to the soil, whether it’s chemical or physical disturbance. We want to minimize that because Mother Nature, the principles of these soil health, they all work together. Mother Nature has full of intelligence.
We talk about maximizing crop diversity, animal diversity on the land. Nowhere in nature do you see a monoculture. You may see that if you go to a farm that’s just growing corn or just growing soybeans, but you don’t see that in other areas of nature. We talk about keeping the soil covered. So we want soil to have a natural protected, just like we have skin protecting our organs, we want soil to be protected because if it’s exposed to the sun, it gets warmer. It is harder for those microbes to thrive, and hence we see planetary warming. So these things are all interconnected. We want to maintain living roots in the ground year round because roots act like straws that take nutrients out of the atmosphere, take carbon out of the atmosphere, put it into the ground where it is nourishing a whole network of life. Again, those natural nutrient cycles are really important. Then what we’ve also seen is when farmers integrate livestock and animals onto their land, you see regeneration happening at a faster pace. So that’s when we think about regenerative practices or regenerative principles, excuse me, those are the things that we’re talking about that we are investing to help farmers bring onto their land. So we’ve done a couple things at General Mills where we have invested in farmer education. So we have brought along the likes of farmers like Gabe Brown who are coming in and teaching farmers who are growing ingredients in key areas where we source from, and they’re helping them to understand what is it going to take to move to more regenerative practices.
What I also really have appreciated learning on this regenerative agriculture journey is that you’re never done. You never achieve regeneration and say, okay, there’s no more to do because Mother Nature has always has another lesson to teach humanity, another lesson to teach a farmer. We have just had incredible learnings from this process. So one, I would say there’s extreme interest from farmers and wanting to get educated and have technical support and assistance as they step along this journey. They want to do the right things. They care about the success and resilience of their farm, and when they see the changes on their farms cape, whether it is soil that now if you take a shovel full of this soil is like a piece of chocolate cake that smells so good, it’s moist, it’s full of earthworms. Soil on some neighboring farms that we’ve visited before are just, it’s more disintegrated. It’s not the same color, it’s just not as healthy.
It’s really powerful to be able to take someone out and actually see regenerative agriculture on a farm versus teaching them them what regenerative agriculture is through a PowerPoint presentation, for example. I think what’s been unique about our approach is farmers are learning from other farmers who have done this for decades and who have seen the outcomes and who have proven what is possible. That is a significant inspiration, and I hope that the demand signal that we have put out into the World in terms of how we want to source our key ingredients, we’ll send a signal for other farmers to step into the space to try new things, because this is all voluntary. We don’t require farmers to do this. We’re inviting farmers who want to participate in this movement to step on and to get onto the journey and to get resourcing and support from General Mills over the long term.
John: But you’re giving them the assets and the education on a peer-to-peer basis, which can be very inspirational, motivational for them to get on that journey with you.
Mary Jane: Exactly, right. There’s no more powerful voice for a farmer to hear than from a farmer who has actually lived and breathed the journey and where they can talk about challenges, they can talk about lessons learned, they can talk about what accelerated improvements on the farms cape. It’s been really incredible to see that happen.
John: Do you feel very good about where you are in that process, that you’re already at a half a million acres on your million acre goal by 2030, you’re going to get there and you’re probably going to exceed it?
Mary Jane: Yes, absolutely.
John: That’s exciting. You mentioned those 10 top initiatives. Let’s talk about two of the other ones that you mentioned, the greenhouse gas one, which with the Inflation Reduction Act and all the talk that’s going on in the media now, we just had climate week last week. Decarbonization is really one of the, we’re living through the hottest year ever recorded in World history. So decarbonization is on the tip of everyone’s tongue. You’ve said that you want to reduce your greenhouse gases by 30% by 2030 and go to net zero by 2050. How is that journey going and talk about level of difficulty challenges and how you’ve overcome some of the challenges on this journey?
Mary Jane: I think greenhouse gas reduction is probably our biggest challenge in terms of how do we help to reduce emissions that are outside of our control. So at General Mills, you mentioned our goal. We have made incredible progress within Scope one and two. Those are the emissions that are within our own control. So since 2020, we have reduced emissions within scopes one and two by 49%.
Mary Jane: We have had incredible support from leadership to make investments in things like renewable electricity, renewable energy, improving equipment, improving transportation and supply chain. You can see a path forward when you have control and when you can drive the investments. What’s harder is that our Scope three emissions or the emissions that are outside of our own four walls are coming a lot from agriculture, hence why we are investing in regenerative agriculture and wanting to return soil to the natural carbon zinc Mother Nature intended it to be.
Then the other piece where we have emissions hotspots are around consumer use. So when a consumer is baking a Betty cracker cake or a Totino’s Pizza in their oven with a gas oven, it, and again, things that are outside of our control. So there are macro forces that need to come to life in a specific way in order for not only General Mills to meet this equipment, but for every company that has a commitment and for frankly the World to decarbonize. So I would say lessons learned have been, first of all, take care of your own house. Get your own house in order before you start going to your suppliers or to others, the requests that they do good and come on this journey with you. I think in this space, if you want to have credibility, you need to demonstrate leadership and show your impact that you’ve made within your own operations and within your own control.
So I’m very, very proud of what the company has done in that space. I think, again, for us, the challenge is if the grid doesn’t green faster or if we don’t move to renewable electricity faster, or if they’re not more EV fleets available, that’s going to be really, really challenging and it’s expensive. You have to balance all of these different pressures that the business is seeing. I think that we are going to have to as a CPG sector come together to really understand how can we do more work together rather than everybody trying to do these things on their own and then taking credit for that. It’s like if we can forego credit being the number one thing and just say, you know what? We actually want to get to impact, to be able to show that together, we can make this difference because we didn’t get here alone. The World got here together because of how we have been living on this planet and engaging with Mother Nature. How do we change the way up and down the value chain that that work comes to life so that everyone benefits, people, planet companies, we’re all in this together. Yes, we may have separate goals, but we all have one thing in common. This planet is our home.
John: That’s such a great way of putting it Mary Jane in that people have to start realizing this is not a zero sum game anymore. Really, collaboration is really going to get us much further faster, and like you said, when the environment heals and gets better, we all win. Our families win our friends win our colleagues win, our clients win. Everyone wins. So there’s no sense, although, like you said, it’s fun to compete in the marketplace, but it’s great to collaborate behind the scenes to try to improve where we are today and where we all need to go in the future.
Mary Jane: Absolutely. I tell our investors all of the time, we compete fiercely at the shelf, the physical shelf, and the digital shelf. We do not compete when it comes to doing good. That’s where collaboration comes to life.
John: For our listeners and viewers who’ve just joined us, we’re so excited and honored to have with us today, Mary Jane. She’s the Chief Sustainability and Global Impact Officer for General Mills to find Mary Jane and her colleagues in all the important and impactful and relevant things they’re doing in sustainability and impact, please go to www.generalmills.com. We all grow up in America. I’m 61 years old, so General Mills is one of the greatest and most iconic brands and brands that we’re so proud of to be part of our childhood, our adult lives, our children’s childhood in the United States and around the World. Talk a little bit about the size and scope of General Mills, although you’ve been around 150 years, how many employees approximately do you have and how widespread is General Mills reach around the World?
Mary Jane: So General Mills has been around for more than 155 years. We operate in more than a 100 companies globally. We are a $20 billion global food company that has about 35,000 employees all around the World. That’s one of the things that makes my job as Global Impact Officer very fun, is that I can start the morning talking to folks in India. I can end talking to folks in Asia. It’s just amazing the perspectives and the people that we are fortunate to partner with at General Mills to make this work come to life. On top of that, we are also a company of, I think it’s now $8 billion brands including Blue Buffalo, including Cheerios, Nature Valley, just incredible power behind the brands as well. So it’s been really exciting to be able to continue to steward this work in partnership with many of those brand teams.
John: As part of your work pre-COVID and even post-COVID, how often do you have to travel to different parts of the World to visit with your colleagues and see things for yourself in person?
Mary Jane: So we travel at least once a month, if not more. So one of the things that we do here at General Mills is for my team and more broadly, we come together for what we call moments that matter. So I actually bring my team together in person once per quarter because I’ve got team members that work across the country, but there is something to time together, building relationships, getting to know your team members and just that personal interaction that’s not the same when you are on a Zoom call or behind a screen. That’s incredibly valuable to be able to take part in that. Next month, I’m actually headed to Amsterdam. I’m going to be presenting on a World sustainability Congress event, which is great, and that’s another wonderful opportunity to come in person together with other chief sustainability officers from all around the World to share those best practices, to talk about the challenges that we’re facing to start seed planting opportunities for collaboration and partnership. So I can’t stress enough the importance of that human interaction and human contact that time together really, I think is helping to seed and nurture good work that will happen down the road. Always starts with a trusting relationship.
John: A 100%. I also, I’m a huge believer in that travel for the purposes to get together with colleagues around the World and to go actually see where they live and work and eat the food that they’re accustomed to and breathe the air and walk the streets that you’re no longer Mary Jane in many ways in what you do. No longer just a citizen of St. Paul, no longer just a citizen of the United States. You’ve become in the work that you do, a global citizen, which I think informs you to even be better and greater at what you do.
Mary Jane: That’s exactly right, and there is something to that travel and that experience. I am an experiential learner. I can take things in through reading and all that type of thing, but when you have the opportunity to experience something to your point and get all of the senses engaged, it stays with you. That helps to shape, I think learning decisions that are made going forward, strategy. The more you can broaden that perspective and bring outside voices, outside perspectives in and say, hey, I know we do it this way here, but do you know what they’re doing in Europe on recycling? That type of thing. Just really that continued, that learning mindset I just think is so critically important in this space because to your point, companies haven’t had chief sustainability officers for 50 years. It’s a new World field and it’s emerging and it’s changing. As climate science changes, we have to continuously be on what is the science saying? Where are innovations happening? Who are other people that we can connect with in this space to help drive that impact? It’s an exciting space to be in because it’s always changing and every day you are guaranteed to learn something new.
John: I fully agree with you. Going back to some of your key pillars and some of the ones that you mentioned earlier, now let’s talk about the recyclability of packaging. You mentioned earlier you have goals for packaging by 2030. Share with our viewers and listeners a little bit about those goals and where you are on that journey as well.
Mary Jane: So in 2019, General Mills made a commitment to have all bar packaging, a 100% of it be recyclable or reusable by 2030 and I am incredibly proud of the outstanding progress that the company has made in the space. Today in our largest business segment, we are at 92% recyclability or reusability, which is just, it’s amazing. I am so proud of what our research and development teams, our sourcing teams, the collaboration that has happened internally across all of these groups has been really phenomenal. What I would say is, while we’ve made great progress, boy, in this job, I have learned the last 10 to 15% of any commitment gets really challenging and it gets really expensive.
So we are right now looking at how do we continue to look at food grade recyclable materials that maintain internal food safety standards, that maintain our remarkable consumer experiences. That is really important. We don’t want to compromise those things for our consumers. I’m really excited about what some of our brands have done in terms of helping to educate consumers on recyclability because this global issue on packaging plastics recyclability is because consumers necessarily are not educated on how to recycle. In the United States, we have a very fragmented recycling system with more than 10,000 different municipalities all managing different recycling rules, regulations. So something that may be recyclable where I am, might not be recyclable where you are…
John: A 100%.
Mary Jane: So consumers need education and one of the really remarkable things that our Nature Valley brand did is they moved to a store drop off recyclable wrapper for their crunchy bars about 18 months ago, two years ago now. What I really loved about their launch of this is that they coupled it with a consumer education campaign. So all of their marketing was coupled in education around this wrapper needs to be brought back to a store. Then it’s brought into a recycling system that is helping to make park benches or playground equipment so that consumers could understand the full loop of where that wrapper was ending up at the end of the day and I think that our other brands took that as a great best practice to continue to take in the opportunity to educate consumers that not everything goes in the blue bin.
Our consumers do a lot of wish cycling and hope that if I put it in the blue bin, somebody on the other side will figure out where it needs to go, and that’s not always the case. So the consumer education has really important. The advocacy for a more effective and efficient recycling system in the United States is incredibly important. We partner hand in hand with our government affairs group to continue to advocate for improvements to that system at a national level. So I’m proud of not only the work we’ve done to make the changes to our packaging, but the work that General Mills has done to focus on the other pieces that need to fall into place for the whole system to work.
John: Well, you bring up a great point because you just said 10,000 municipalities. It’s a patchwork quilt of different rules, regulations that they all have. So let’s talk a little bit about that because when I’ve had the honor and pleasure to interview other folks in your position at other great brands, the word that keeps coming up that they’re focusing on is harmonization. Harmonization, not only here in the United States of rules regulations and some sort of structure around recyclable, recycling and sustainability practices, but also you are a global impact officer. You’re a global chief sustainability officer, harmonization in terms of the World laws and regulations, and how do we get better at that as well? Talk a little bit about that and your experience in working with your colleagues and other folks and other government entities around the World in terms of harmonization of recycling and best sustainability practices and what can we do to make this better so we could get the World in a better and environment in a better place, in faster form?
Mary Jane: I think there’s a few things that can be done, and I think your point on harmonization is so well taken in the recyclability space, and I think for any other sustainability professional that hears this, harmonization is also needed on the ESG, Environmental Social Governance reporting and disclosures requirements coming out of the woodwork all over the World. So that is really important that we are all working towards a north star because the more fragmentation we have within these systems, whether it’s on the recyclability side or in the reporting side, the more we are all spinning our wheels, and again, we’re doing activity not driving impact and right now we are in a situation where the World needs us to act for impact and not continue to recreate the wheel and make things more complicated.
So a couple things I think that need to happen is I think we all need to be just have open hearts and open minds about new ways of working, about collaboration, about maybe saying my first priority is not going to be able to take credit, my first priority is going to be I want to leave this region, this jurisdiction, this community better after our collaboration has done its work. I think that we do need to continue talking globally about the regulations, the standards, the system, the expectations that are in place, because when you have one set of expectations, for example, in reporting against the corporate sustainability reporting directive in Europe versus what might come out of the Securities and Exchange Commission on Climate, you don’t want to be putting out two different sets of numbers and then causing greater confusion, but rather, I think we have to all continue to come together to advocate for consistency, for clarity and for that harmonization so that when an investor or an NGO or a consumer picks up a report from a company that they don’t feel like it’s not apples to apples, we’re just going to continue to drive more confusion if we don’t figure out how to come together.
John: You’re right, confusion then leads to frustration and then people throw up their arms and say, well, I’m just not going to do anything and that of course sets us way back. So why do that? Like you said, let’s aim for impact instead of more complication. It makes no sense to layer on more complicating rules when really we’re just trying to… we all have similar goals. I mean, what person have you not met in your travels both with competition in the CPG space and also colleagues around the World that don’t want their families to breathe cleaner air and drink cleaner water. We’re all in this together. It just makes no sense. So talk a little bit about opportunities in sustainability and impact in the CPG space. Where do you see some of the greatest opportunities and what work to date are you the most proud of?
Mary Jane: So I would say there is a lot of value and a lot of opportunity when you can get large companies with scale with the potential for investment that can put resources into a movement. There is such power in that work. If we can figure out as companies how we work together, pre-competitively to contribute to those shared landscapes, those shared communities that we all care about, and again, worry less about attribution or that credit for what each of us is doing individually, that is where there’s opportunity.
I think if as an industry we can get our minds around collaboration to drive true and lasting impact effectively and efficiently, there is value there that has not been yet realized today. So that’s what I’m really excited about that potential. When I think about the work that I am most proud of, I have to say every time I talk about regenerative agriculture, I can’t help but be inspired and full of hope because of what that can do for our planet. It is not just in terms of one outcome, there are so many benefits to regenerative agriculture when you think about the outcomes potential and the fact that we have four years into our commitment already hit the halfway mark there, that we’re starting to see more and more interest from farmers that we’ve actually inspired other companies to set regenerative agriculture targets. That is fantastic. The more the better.
I am just so proud of the collaboration that has not only happened internally across teams at General Mills, but the will and the excitement from other groups, whether it’s farmers, whether it’s nonprofit partners, whether it’s groups like the Nature Conservancy or World Wildlife Fund or activities happening in that climate, it feels like there’s this really powerful momentum that’s coming behind the regenerative agriculture movement that makes me so proud because I believe that through that movement, not only will we help save the planet through improved soil, putting carbon back where it belongs below ground, bringing biodiversity back, improving farmer profitability, improving water, there is so much potential for a healthy planet and for functioning ecosystem services. That is just… it’s really exciting to me because if we can do that, we are not going to pass this responsibility along to our kids, our grandkids, to have to figure out from these seed. So we have the potential and I think the responsibility to put this planet on a different trajectory.
John: What month of every year do you produce your annual sustainability and impact report?
Mary Jane: We publish that every year in April during Earth Week.
John: Got it. That lives on your website, generalmills.com.
Mary Jane: It sure does.
John: Oh, that’s wonderful. Mary Jane, I’m not going to let you go without asking you, what’s your favorite General Mills product?
Mary Jane: Oh my gosh. My favorite General Mills product is Cheerios, Oat Crunch, it’s Oats and Honey. I love Cheerios. I grew up eating Cheerios. I mean, we had the fan that when you left church there were Cheerios all over in the pews and on the floor. So I’m a Cheerios girl through and through, and I love Oat Crunch. In fact, I don’t know if you can see this, but I actually have a box here with me because I snack it. I don’t just eat it for breakfast. You can just grab a snack during the meeting as you’re going into a meeting. It serves all purposes.
John: It’s a big World where still this whole sustainability impact and ESG movement is still relatively young. Like you said, they’ve been market managers for your great products during the 155 years of General Mill’s existence. They haven’t been chief impact officers and chief sustainability officers. So talk a little bit about what you’re most excited about that you’re allowed to talk about publicly that’s coming in 2024 and beyond. What’s got you going? What’s coming next that you’re excited about unveiling in the work that you do at General Mills?
Mary Jane: I am most excited to be able to talk about continued progress against our priority commitments. Another piece of this… the reason that we’re making this progress is because we have a very clear governance structure. I report directly into our chief strategy and growth officer. On top of that, we report into a global impact governance committee. It’s chaired by our CEO of the organization. Every single one of his direct reports sits on that committee. So they are ensuring that the work gets done, the resourcing is there, we are making progress. That backstop to have that governance model there is ensuring continued progress and continued impact. So I’m really excited to share some of the innovation that’s happening around packaging. We’re testing with pilots and learning from our suppliers like what’s working, what’s not.
I think from us, what you’ll continue to see from General Mills is sharing more and more about not only what we learned in our successes, but also what didn’t work so others don’t repeat the same mistake or so others understand how we navigated some of those challenges. Because so much of these things are trial and error. When things don’t exist, when a packaging solution doesn’t exist or a greenhouse gas solution is not quite there yet, how do you share your journey in a way that others can learn and that you can help be a model? Because in some cases, we are ahead of where other companies are, in some cases we’re not quite where others are. So we constantly are learning from what others are doing, taking these outside learnings in, and then continuing to share out our own learnings so that we can hopefully be a light and an inspiration to those who are coming onto this journey and want to learn more.
John: That’s such a great point. I don’t want to relegate it just to the CPG space. You are part of a fascinating and growing fraternity of amazing human beings, some of the greatest people I’ve ever met in my life of chief impact officers and sustainability officers. How much do you benchmark yourself and the success that you’re having at General Mills in sustainability and impact against CPG companies and where do you find other inspiration from for yourself that you could then bring back to General Mills in terms of new things and new ways to think about things with regards to when you pick up other impact reports or sustainability reports that have nothing to do with the CPG space?
Mary Jane: Yeah, that’s such a great question. So we constantly benchmark against our peer group. We are always monitoring new commitments when they report on progress because not everybody does it at the same time. So we’re always keeping a pulse on what our peers are doing, not only because we want to know what they’re doing, but also to them when they have success. That is awesome. Again, the last bit of these equipment’s are really hard to do, so you want to celebrate their success when they’re making great progress because it’s not only progress for them, it’s progress for the planet. The other piece where we get a lot of inspiration is through different convenings, whether it’s green Bizz or sustainable brands or other convenience that are happening of sustainability officers, not just in the CPG space, but more broadly.
There are some amazing things, whether it’s a tech company or energy company, new things that they’re doing, new ways of working, new ways that they may be engaging their treasury department to advance sustainability investments. We keep a pulse on all of that, and internally we have, I mean, this may sound really simple, but we have teams, channels internally, and we are always sharing news and events and new messages are literally being posted on a daily basis, and you’re able to see what others are doing. We take that inspiration in and share it with our team.
We also share it up to our leaders so they understand the new emerging technologies, new opportunities, new breakthroughs, or even things that, oh, we thought that was going to be a promising solution. This company just proved that’s not working, and they’re going to go back to the drawing board. So I think continuously bringing in those learning is really important because then we can integrate potential changes in strategy shift, new different projects, new pilots that we might want to bring to life. Today, I just saw an article where somebody was talking about a new alternative to palm oil, and we all know palm oil is associated with deforestation unfortunately in other parts of the World. With this new alternative oil that’s come to market right away, our team shared it. We sent it right away to our innovation, technology and quality group to say, hey, want to make sure this is on your radar? Let’s make sure we’re looking at this. There’s always opportunities. So if we can bring that in and share that with the right internal teams, we’ll get to these goals hopefully faster.
John: Mary Jane, one thing I want to say is I know in doing all these interviews that sustainability, there’s no finish line and neither is there a finish line in impact. It’s a journey. I want you to know that you’re always invited back on the Impact Podcast to share General Mills fascinating and important journey in sustainability and impact, and next time, maybe you can bring some products on, maybe you want to bring one of your regenerative farmers on. We could show the recyclability of some of your packaging and some of the winds that you’ve gotten there. There’s so many cool things we could do, but I just want you to know you’re always welcome back here to continue your great story, and I’m just so inspired by you and all the work you and your colleagues are doing at General Mills. For our listeners and viewers to find Mary Jane, enter colleagues and their impact and sustainability reports, please go to www.generalmills.com. Under your leadership, Mary Jane G doesn’t just stand for good. I think G stands for great, and I really appreciate that you and your colleagues are making the World a better place. Thank you for joining us today on the Impact Podcast.
Mary Jane: Thank you, John for having me. I would be delighted to be back.
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