Bringing Life to a Healthy, Sustainable Vision with Caitlin Leibert of Whole Foods

February 27, 2024

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As Vice President of Sustainability for Whole Foods Market, Caitlin is responsible for creating and implementing the company‚Äôs sustainability vision and strategy in more than 540 stores worldwide. From climate strategy, to waste reduction, to water and land stewardship, Caitlin works to improve Whole Foods Market’s impact as a company and plays a key role in helping the company achieve its purpose of nourishing people and the planet.

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John: Welcome to another edition of The Impact Podcast. I’m John Shegerian, and I’m so excited to have you with us today, Caitlin Leibert. She’s the Vice President of Sustainability for Whole Foods Market. Welcome Caitlin to the Impact Podcast.

Caitlin Leibert: Oh, thanks, John. I’m so happy to be here. Thanks for having me.

John: I’m so happy to be here, too. Because of the wonderful technology that exists today, I’m sitting in Fresno, California, and you’re sitting in downtown Austin. As we shared before, we went on the air above the original Whole Foods Market right in downtown Austin, which I’ve been to and I love, and I just think it’s such a great place to be and to explore. So welcome to the show. This is Whole Foods, first time on the show, your first time on the show, and again, thanks for taking the time to join us today.

Caitlin: Thanks for having me.

John: Hey, before we get talking about all the important and impactful work that you and your colleagues are doing at Whole Foods Market, can you share a little bit about your background? It’s a fascinating background. This is not your first rodeo. Where’d you grow up even and how’d you get on this fantastic and important journey that you’re on in sustainability?

Caitlin: Yeah, I am a proud daughter of Cleveland, Ohio. I am a Midwest girl through and through. I loved growing up there for many reasons, but it actually is part of my journey. I grew up in Ohio in an incredibly rich agricultural area with the coolest farmer’s market. Shout out to North Union Farmer’s Market in Cleveland, Ohio. Really fantastic work they’re doing. My great-grandparents were farmers from Germany and very much grew up understanding and appreciating food, seasonal eating our connection to the land which is really the start of it all.

John: Wow. When did you decide, I mean, having those kinds of great roots and appreciating the environment and agriculture, and coming from a farming family, you do get to have sort of an innate DNA feeling and tangibility to the importance of the environment. But when did you decide to actually make it a career? Because your career is rich already in experience, and it seems as though you picked a great career because the upside and the impact that we need you to make is massive. So when did that like all come together and become your “aha” moment? “That’s the path I want to follow?”

Caitlin: Well, it started with my first job out of college.

John: Oh.

Caitlin: I was an undergraduate journalism major with, a business and psychology minor. I say that because I really feel like my journalism degree set me up so well for this work. And part of that is being an incredible listener. It’s partly asking the right questions and really comprehending and understanding cutting through all the words to really get to the point of this work. So I’m really proud of my foundational work and I think it’s set me up well. I started with Chipotle Mexican Grill right out of college.

John: Wow.

Caitlin: I started in a job that doesn’t exist there anymore, but think of it as like a community coordinator.

John: Sure.

Caitlin: I started in Northern Ohio and then moved out to New England to pretty much open up that market. As part of my work, I was connecting with these local communities and meeting all the local suppliers. I built my own personal brand of marketing and local store marketing around bringing our local suppliers into the stores for our openings and really connecting our customers with our suppliers. I will date myself probably 2007, 2008, 2009. It was around then that Chipotle recognized the need for a leader around sustainability that even though it was part of everybody’s role and it was really baked into their DNA there, they needed someone to oversee it full time. It really is a case of part just digging in.

I knew in my gut it was the right role for me and part luck too. I mean, from what I understand, about a thousand people applied for that role. It was about six months of interviewing, and part of it is absolutely that I was in there advocating. But part of it is luck. I don’t think that could happen again, right? Someone overseeing sustainability, who at that point had a real passion and an understanding of our company. I was an internal leader but didn’t have a formal background in it, which wasn’t abnormal at the time. There weren’t many degrees in it at that time.

John: Right.

Caitlin: I was really given a chance, that’s how I saw it. For me, I have never looked back. I knew that if I had the opportunity to get that job, I would do everything in my power to meet the opportunity. And that, for me, first meant going and getting a certification in sustainability leadership and implementation from DU, the University of Denver. Then as I grew in the role and as the company grew, it meant getting a master’s degree in sustainability leadership from Cambridge in the UK.

John: Wow.

Caitlin: I did my dissertation foreshadowing maybe on grocery stores and how they might enhance local food systems. That was really fascinating to me. I learned a lot about retailers and our role within the food system. So that got me more and more excited. I will say I have adored my time at Chipotle. I was there for almost 15 years, and oversaw sustainability for 10 years over a decade. Built the department, built the team and I love the work that they do there.

I’m still a number one fan. Whole Foods had reached out and basically said, we need you. We need you to come here and build this vision and this department. They were so authentic in their request. Really, I knew that if I felt my life’s work was around driving positive change in the food system, there was not a better platform by which to do that. My research taught me that the data, the science, and also my gut.

I knew in my gut that even though it was scary, and even though I didn’t want to leave, I loved what I did at Chipotle and the people that I worked with, I knew it was the right move for me. So similarly, I’m now two and a half years in on my journey here at Whole Foods. It has been remarkable. It is so inspiring every day here. I went from 57 ish ingredients to 500,000 items on our shelves. So a very massive learning curve.

John: Wow.

Caitlin: Many more food systems, many more ingredients learning about those production areas of the world that I wasn’t as familiar with. And in part now that’s led me to this next stage of my career, which I’m here, but I’m also part-time getting my PhD from Prescott College. So I continue to try and grow and lead to the very best of my ability and checkpoints throughout my career recognized like, “Man, the urgency is so real with this work. I want to ensure I’m doing every single thing I can possible to be the best practitioner of this work.” So I’m excited to continue my learning journey.

John: What a fascinating thing. So you’ve really done a fascinating mix, Caitlin, of both on-the-job education and formal education. Let’s just say you’re also an intrapreneur because you created these divisions, especially at Chipotle from the ground up, that didn’t exist before within a larger structure. I mean, what a fascinating mixture of learning points and learning curves along the way. I’m sure enriched your experiences and made you even a greater leader and made you better and better and able to take on bigger and more vast roles, like you said, going from wonderful Chipotle, which I’m a huge fan of that great brand as well to then the vastness of Whole Foods ingredients and product mix and everything else. Wow. What an experience.

Caitlin: It is. I will say, like, I feel uniquely poised and so grateful.

John: Yeah.

Caitlin: It’s this combination of recognizing the opportunity and working really hard for it, and having extreme gratitude that my life met that, right? So for me, when I look back I think what a weird niche to have the experience in, right? Of building out these sustainability departments and visions and strategies for these iconic brands that are really known for sustainability. So I feel very fortunate. I just have to say both brands have so much authenticity in the work that they do, and that, for me was a major thread. I knew I could not do this work everywhere. It’s really important for me to work for an organization that authentically desires to drive positive change.

John: Right.

Caitlin: So I just want to note that.

John: No, that’s great because everything I’ve ever seen and learned about both those great brands, they have a great genesis story with great founders who are really doing it for all the right reasons. That then just created a cultural DNA that becomes kind of unbeatable, you know? Good for you. First of all, for our listeners and viewers to find Caitlin and her colleagues and all the amazing and wonderful food at Whole Foods, you could go to wholefoodsmarket.com. VP of Sustainability having done this now 16 years and a couple of thousand guests can mean a lot of things. What does your role and title really mean at Whole Foods Market? What were the parameters they gave you when they handed you the whiteboard and said, “Draw this up and execute it?”

Caitlin: Yeah, I’ve been very blessed. I was hired for my vision and my strategy here.

John: Okay.

Caitlin: The parameters here were, how do we double down on our legacy? Whole Foods Market has such a rich legacy in this work.

John: Right.

Caitlin: When I was brought in, there was a real desire, and it remains a real desire, to ensure that we maintain our leadership stance in this space. So part of what I did when I came in, and I would say at the highest level my team’s work is to measure, understand, and ultimately improve the impact that we have both on the environment and society, right? People on the planet. Our purpose here is to nourish people in the planet. So my team is doing the work to understand our impact and ultimately improve it.

John: Sure.

Caitlin: And what that entails, we have five key focus areas. First and foremost is responsible sourcing. I mean, we’re a grocery store, we’re a retailer. How we raise and grow food and products matters. So we have a fantastic rich group of experts, think of like leading subject matter experts in animal welfare and seafood sustainability, in body care and beauty, right? We have rich experts that help inform our quality standards and the work that is on our shelves, but also what’s not allowed on our shelves, which is really where a Whole Foods Market shines. So think of that work as responsible sourcing. Then we also have a focus on climate and carbon, and I really hope we get to talk about the difference between those two things because there is one.

John: Yeah.

Caitlin: Then waste and packaging always going to be essential. I like to say that, not every customer is going to interact with a source for a good banana or a fair trade chocolate, but every single customer that walks into Whole Foods is going to interact with our packaging, even if it’s just the grocery bag, they take out, right?

John: True.

Caitlin: So it’s really important, it remains an important focus for us. Social impact is fourth and fifth is transparency, reporting, and engagement. This is really unique. For those of us listening today in this space, we would say, “Hey, that feels a little bit different as a material issue.” Again, Whole Foods has really built its brand around authenticity and trust. So transparency reporting and engagement are how we continue to stoke and fuel that authenticity and trust in our brand. I’m proud to say that this past year we published our first-ever impact report, right? Yeah, we’re continuing to evolve and raise the bar there as well.

John: Let’s talk about the impact reports. Your first-ever, what month did it get published?

Caitlin: July. It was a fast follow-up to Amazon’s larger sustainability report.

John: Does it live in perpetuity on wholefoodsmarket.com?

Caitlin: It does, yep. So you can find it there.

John: Perfect. So it’s fascinating. I think just the process itself of putting together, we put together our own impact reports at our company. I think the process is fascinating because it has to galvanize all the better thinking. Also, like you said transparently share what you accomplish and also share sort of what your goals are in writing and for the world to see. So it sort of creates this level of accountability and transparency that I think creates sort of a flywheel effect and actually gets people even more into the great work and important work that you’re doing. Do you find that to be true over at your place as well?

Caitlin: Yeah, I think when done well, it can be a flywheel. I think the importance there is, I think we have to know that consumers can smell greenwashing a mile away, right?

John: Oh, yeah.

Caitlin: I think at worst reporting can sometimes feel like a press piece.

John: True.

Caitlin: I find it extremely important to approach reporting, like all work with authenticity. I’m sure you’re picking up on that theme there.

John: Yeah.

Caitlin: But there is such a thing as authenticity and corporate sustainability, and I’ve been fortunate enough to really work in that space, and make my career that corner of the corporate world.

John: But Caitlin, truth be known rarely do I get a chance to meet and interview someone as young as you and that’s all with, of course, total deference. Also, a huge compliment that has had already OG-type experience in sustainability going O7. There were very few companies that had Chief Sustainability Officers, nonetheless, Chief Impact, Chief Diversity, or any of that stuff. That stuff was all sort of new back then, and almost hard to find.

It’s now become much more, of course, in vogue. There’s a whole generation of folks, young people, matriculating either from high school or college that are seriously excited and very interested in not only making a paycheck but also making a difference as well. At the same time, you’ve been now doing this since approximately O7 and building two programs from the ground up. What inspires you and what do you use as benchmarks out there when you’re looking for inspiration, and also the aspiration to create a program that’s both authentic and transparent and also impactful?

Caitlin: I will say one thing on what you said these roles are definitely in vogue, but they’re also essential.

John: Oh.

Caitlin: I know that you know that.

John: Oh, 100%.

Caitlin: I think it’s important that this work to weave it back into the topic remains authentic so that these positions aren’t a passing trend, but really seen as a driver of key strategic thinking throughout the organization. Because at its best, sustainability isn’t just about doing good, right? It’s about sustaining our organizations. Yeah, look, I think part of what really good corporate sustainability comes down to is I embedded in the culture of the business, right?

Again, I feel like one of the luckiest practitioners alive that I’ve gotten to the chance to work with two brands, and right now Whole Foods. My inspiration, I spend one shift in a store. I spend one shift in a store, and I talk with our team members, and I look at the products on our shelves, and I talk with our customers about why they’re in here and why they shop at Whole Foods. For me, that is really such a grounding experience.

John: Yep.

Caitlin: It’s important to do that. My team is actually in store today helping out around the Thanksgiving time of year, which is really our Super Bowl, right?

John: Right.

Caitlin: For us, the reason why I say that is not like a pat on the back. It’s like, “Listen, if we’re creating a strategy that lives so far out in left field that like, it doesn’t resonate when you’re in the stores.” We’re not being strategic enough, right? So for me, I think it’s really important to roll up your sleeves, get in there, understand the core of your business and really understand what matters to your stakeholders, right?

John: Brilliant.

Caitlin: Ultimately, that will be done through, of course, these interpersonal meetings, but also data, data, data, right? So in addition to just pressure testing, does this even make sense? Hopefully, the strategy is rooted in materiality and data first and foremost. I think you have to advocate as a sustainability practitioner for your strategy to continue to be grounded in materiality and data, even when that’s a challenge.

John: Sure.

Caitlin: Again, it’s really easy for sustainability to sort of be the flavor of the month, or for us to get really preoccupied with flashy news articles, or what other brands are doing. Yes, all of that is part of really good materiality and therefore strategy, but we have to continue to maintain focus on what is vital to our brand. That is where my success, I feel like, has really been, as a practitioner doing just that.

John: That’s fascinating. I’ve rarely heard that answer before, but it’s great to what you say, listening to your stakeholders, your clients, your customers, and the people on the floor. There’s an argument to be made when you travel our beautiful country enough. There’s a decent argument to be made that almost every state feels a little bit like its own country.

Caitlin: Yeah.

John: I had the wonderful ability to grow up in New York and New Jersey, and now living in another wonderful state, California. But we have facilities all across America. You have locations all across America. Do you get to go in and engage with stakeholders across the country and aggregate that information? Because we know you’re sitting upstairs in Austin. Austin is one type of wonderful community in a wonderful state. Again, huge fan of Texas. Shout out to Texas. We have a facility down there as well. Do you aggregate all the information from stakeholders, from all your different regions, et cetera?

Caitlin: Oh, yes.

John: Right.

Caitlin: Not just domestically, right? If you think about our stakeholders at Whole Foods, we have half a million products on our shelves. There’s hardly a corner of the earth. We don’t touch on our shelves. Think about that, right?

John: Wow.

Caitlin: We have a duty to really understand and engage with our stakeholders. Again, I think that that’s a real differentiation for Whole Foods Market, and it shows in our assortment and the passion that our team members have when you ask them what their favorite product is. Which by the way, you should all do. We have the best team members. I know everybody says that, but it was very rare to have a VP hired from outside of the organization. Most people you speak to will have been at the organization for 15, 20, 25, 30 years here at Whole Foods Market.

I don’t mean just in our store support offices. I literally mean in the stores, as people are staying, and there’s a reason why people stay, and their wealth of knowledge is incredible. So please, when you’re in our stores, ask our team members what their favorite product is. The stories they will be able to tell you about where it comes from what they like and the flavor of it, right? This is really great.

John: That’s true.

Caitlin: I think it comes to life in our stores.

John: For our listeners and viewers who’ve just joined us, we’ve got Caitlin Leibert with us today. She’s the Vice President of Sustainability, the Whole Foods Market. To find Caitlin and her colleagues in all the important work they’re doing. Also, to find some of the greatest food on the planet, please go to www.wholefoodsmarket.com. Caitlin, let’s get right to that issue that you brought up a little while ago. Climate versus Carbon.

Talk about the differential. We’re in a race. We are in a massive race, to solve this issue of climate change. Obviously, when you read the papers or watch the news, there’s this huge decarbonization effort going on right now. Sometimes the concept of net zero is thrown around, sometimes it’s thrown around too loosely, frankly speaking. Talk about what you mean by climate versus carbon and why it’s important to differentiate those terms.

Caitlin: Yeah, gladly.

John: Yeah.

Caitlin: Let me say differentiate and have both, and I’ll tell you why.

John: Okay.

Caitlin: Yes, a lot of race to net zero, a lot of decarbonization efforts. That is important.

John: Right.

Caitlin: It’s important because we know carbon and carbon equivalency leading greenhouse gas emissions are a key driver to climate change. So absolutely, it is essential that we as corporations, as companies are out there measuring and working to abate our emissions, our carbon. But I’m seeing a lot of carbon tunnel vision. My feeling is, we are not going to spreadsheet our way out of the climate crisis, right?

John: Yeah.

Caitlin: Beyond carbon, beyond abating our emissions, what are we fundamentally doing to improve our impact on the climate, to lessen our impact on the climate, to understand our impact on the climate? So for me, that’s what I mean there is a difference between carbon and abating carbon or carbon equivalency, or emissions alone, and a robust climate strategy.

John: Right.

Caitlin: That’s where I think we all need to be moving, certainly within agriculture or agriculturally based organizations, this is essential. We know roughly a third of all greenhouse gas emissions are related to agriculture or food in some way, right? Think about that. The slice of the pie is massive. It’s also really hard to measure and it’s hard to measure for a couple of reasons. But if we’re stuck on focusing on just how we’re designing our stores or the emissions related to electric vehicles. I have a fact for you to think about transportation as an entire sector that is equivalent to animal husbandry alone as an entire sector, right?

John: Right.

Caitlin: We have to really move beyond just thinking about carbon. We absolutely have to please do not miss words. It’s important, but additionally, we need to be thinking about biodiversity. We need to be thinking about soil health. We need to be thinking about the impact of climate on humans, right? So that is a robust climate strategy. In the coming years, you will see it will be equally as important that we’re measuring, reporting, and improving our climate impact as we are just our carbon impact.

John: You mentioned biodiversity and also some of the other farming terms. Where does that fall within this greater macro trend towards regenerative agriculture? How important is regenerative agriculture to your efforts to, again, be the most sustainable food marketplace on the planet?

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Caitlin: Yeah, it started with organic, right?

John: Right.

Caitlin: Way back when, when we started that was really at the core, right? Bringing organic to market and saying, “Hey, there’s a safer way to grow and raise food.” Starting with an apple, right?

John: Sure.

Caitlin: Regenerative is absolutely an exciting form of agriculture that we continue to invest in and have at our store. Certainly, very excited about the implications of regenerative agriculture. I will say what I’m really focused on, and what Whole Foods is really focused on, is climate-smart agriculture. There is no one silver bullet in the climate crisis or in the poly crisis, frankly. Whether it’s the climate crisis, the humanitarian crisis, the economic crisis, right? There are all these crises, let’s call them a poly crisis. There’s no one single solution.

And within agriculture that’s particularly true. We need all of the more climate-smart and climate-supportive forms of agriculture in order to drive change. So organic, yes. Regenerative, yes. Biodynamic, yes. We know for a fact that climate-smart agriculture, just what we had chatted about in the last little portion, is about climate versus carbon, right? We’re improving soil health through climate-smart agriculture, we’re enhancing biodiversity, and ultimately, beautifully, we’re increasing the opportunity to capture carbon right back down into the earth, right?

So, to me, it’s less important to focus on one form of agriculture, or even worse, when we pit those forms of agriculture against one another. And more so to say, everyone comes along with us, right? All of the more climate-supportive, all the more sustainable forms of agriculture, we need them all to move the needle.

John: Got it. You mentioned your impact report, the first one you put out ever in July of of this year. If I were to ask you, what’s the thing that you’re most proud of, the achievement you’re most proud of in that first report, and the area that you said when we write this up, make sure everyone understands this is where we’re going to make the biggest difference next year. What are those two? Give me those two bookends.

Caitlin: Well, certainly reporting is an evolution. Having taken two very large organizations through this, I was partly responsible for bringing reporting to Chipotle as well, right?

John: Sure.

Caitlin: It is a massive evolution.

John: As is sustainability. It’s a journey.

Caitlin: Absolutely. It’s a journey.

John: Right. It’s a journey.

Caitlin: Yeah, I’ve ever done, which is the beauty of it.

John: Right.

Caitlin: But I will say where I hope we go is in alignment with Amazon’s framework, right? So we did not report to an international framework such as GRI or SASB this first year. I hope to continue to evolve to more disclosure.

John: Right.

Caitlin: What I will say is really what I think the most important thing we were able to accomplish, and we will continue to do this, is bringing our products to life.

John: Yeah.

Caitlin: Understanding the rich history we have as a company and investing in win-win partnerships with our suppliers. It is really such an incredibly beautiful place to be that when we do the call for content, it is an inundation of stories and content that it was truly — we were wall to wall on our ability to publish, right? We had negotiated a certain number of pages. We had to continue to trim and trim, and that is so rare, right?

Like, for anyone who’s done reporting, you’re like peeking under the little stones around the org, like, “Could we talk about this?” It is the complete opposite here. I think we hopefully brought that to life. The storytelling, the ability to really connect with what makes Whole Foods special, which is that win-win partnership and the products on our shelves and our team members, I think came to life really well.

John: Well, that’s wonderful because first of all, one of my favorite things is, last week I was in Boston, I live here in Fresno. I told you we used to live in Manhattan by that underground store at the AOL, Time Warner Center. It’s just so much fun going into different cities and finding the closest Whole Foods to my hotel, and then walking in, and just reading all the local stories that you have in each region.

Caitlin: So good.

John: It’s actually really, it brings each store and region to life. It makes it feel so personal.

Caitlin: It is so personal. It is so special.

John: Yeah.

Caitlin: Everything from some of the largest suppliers in the world.

John: Right.

Caitlin: To one supplier at one store, one product.

John: Right.

Caitlin: That’s really bananas in the best way. It really is such an authentic, beautiful bit of work that’s being done, right? I mean, really the coolest thing for me was stepping into this role. I didn’t really know what to expect, and I was so moved by the decades of truly Herculean effort at the individual level to keep sustainability alive and vibrant here and that is so moving. For me, this is not about me. It’s about continuing that work and carrying that torch forward. It’s really remarkable work being done here day in, day out, that you should feel when you walk into our stores.

John: We never lose fact. You’ve been doing this long enough that I know you fully get it but explain it to our listeners and viewers. It used to be when a CEO or another leader CFO heard that we’re going to hire a Chief Sustainability Officer or bring sustainability to X, Y, or Z brand or organization, the CFO or the CEO would roll their eyes and say, “Oh, this is just how much money is this going to cost me?” Conversely, times have massively changed in these great leaders and communicators like you, who are able to share not only the journey in sustainability, which is never-ending and for good reason, but also sustainability as a business case.

Talk a little bit about why it’s important to always keep in mind that Whole Foods can’t make the world a better place unless it stays in business as a real business enterprise, taking in revenue and making a profit after it pays old salaries and overhead. Why is sustainability truly not a cost any more and a liability? It’s an asset if used the right way. Also, it can actually help the organization be more sustainable itself.

Caitlin: Yeah, a great risk mitigation tool. That’s for sure.

John: Right.

Caitlin: I’ll start by answering that question with an observation, which is that I do a bit of guest lecturing and I have for a long time.

John: Yeah.

Caitlin: I’ve seen an evolution in the questions that I get asked but a decade ago, the people that were getting really passionate about sustainability and wanted to have my job.

John: Right.

Caitlin: And wanted to get in this space, were what I would classify as activists, right? They were very passionate about it. They had some personal connection to it. Part of what I think makes a successful practitioner of sustainability in business is that you have to have the knowledge and the passion of an activist, but you have to have really a stealth sense of business paired with that. You can’t have one without the other.

It’s a bonus if you also have an academic lens by which to help guide both of those works. But ultimately, I think where companies get into trouble is when it’s one or the other. You have to have both of those lenses, ideally all three of those lenses, when doing this work. That is because, to your point, it would be an incredibly exhausting place to be in corporate sustainability as a whole. If you were dead set on doing the right thing 100% of the time, all the time, right when it was needed at the very minute. Can’t be today has to be yesterday, you’re out of your mind. What are you doing? This is well, right? That is not the way business works.

John: Right.

Caitlin: So you lose credibility when you come at it from an activist lens alone. Now, you need to understand what activists are talking about. You need to understand the direction. You need to think a hundred steps out and 10 steps back. You need to be aware every single moment of where people are at because you need to meet people where they’re at in order to be effective in business. Sometimes that means like, “Hey, I see you, I acknowledge you here the north stars over there.” But I recognize that feels a little weird right now. So let’s talk about 10 steps out, right?

Let’s talk about next year. Let’s talk about this year, what we hope to accomplish, and why, right? So for me, I think sustainability practitioners as a whole have really evolved. I think at best we’re seen as strategic partners in business. I think we can absolutely be seeking opportunities for cost savings, but there are things we do need to invest in, right? Cost avoidance is just as powerful as a risk mitigation rate as P&L savings as well. Thinking about this work, both short and long-term is really important in the business sense. Again, you have to be somebody that when people see you down the hallway, they don’t turn and run away, right?

That’s not going to work in business. They’re going to want to say hi to you. They’re going to want to ask you about your week and how you’re doing. That doesn’t mean that we need to put on a mask or a face about this work, but we need to authentically meet people where they are and bring people along, right? We have to show up and know the plan guide people along the plan, and also listen when that plan isn’t going to work for the current situation, we are constantly thinking battle war, right? There are some places that you’re like, “Okay.” This isn’t where we’re going to push forward, but the beautiful part of the business is that there are other places we can push forward as well.

John: Got it. Makes sense. What keeps you up at night, Caitlin? You’ve been doing this now for 16 years. Overall, that’s a long time to be in sustainability and in a leadership position. What worries you the most on a macro level, and in the role that you have, which is a very important role, obviously?

Caitlin: Yeah, I’ll be honest, the science can be a little grim at times, for sure. The data can be grim, but specifically, I’m incredibly passionate about farmers and not just how food is raised and grown and produced, but who is doing that work. I think about the plate of the farmer, and I think about the plate of farmland. Those two things can be converging right now, and keep me up at night, so contextually, let me lay the landscape. Last year, 1.9 million acres of farmland were lost. That’s about 2000 acres every single day. That is literally, what is that? Let’s do the math. That’s like 4.3 acres a minute. Every single minute that goes by, we’re losing farmland.

John: Right.

Caitlin: This is irreparably lost. This isn’t farmland that is like, “Oh, someday we can get back.”

John: Right.

Caitlin: When it’s developed on, it’s not viable for farmland anymore. So we’re shrinking the area to grow our food on. And not just grow our food, but we know that land plays a vital role in climate change, right? We talked about that one-third of all greenhouse gas emissions.

John: Right.

Caitlin: Additionally, contextually, the average age of a farmer is 57, or over 57 years old.

John: Wow.

Caitlin: Think about that as a workforce. In the United States average age is about 40 in the workforce. So we’re skewing really high. And what that tells us is that we have a really challenging contextual situation here. Farmland is shrinking. Farmers are disappearing, right?

John: Right.

Caitlin: They’re aging out. That is not good news. That does keep me up at night. But I am so inspired by this next generation of farmers. And what’s really cool about this next generation of farmers is they are very different from my great-grandparents who are farmers. They’re very different than the average age.

John: How so?

Caitlin: These are farmers who are very passionate about sustainability. 80 plus percent identify as sustainable agriculture, right? They also are working on smaller land, right?

John: Mm-hmm.

Caitlin: Smaller bits of land.

John: Right.

Caitlin: Additionally, they’re not owning their land. There’s this new model of access to land that is happening, and that’s good and bad, but that’s the changing landscape of our farmers. So they’re nimble, they’re working, it’s a smaller size farm. It’s more sustainable, right? Agricultural forms. For me, that’s really exciting. It’s also one of the most exciting bits. These farmers are incredibly diverse, very diverse groups of farmers. That’s really, really exciting, right?

So by supporting this next generation of farmers, we’re ultimately supporting more diverse, more sustainable agriculture. That’s exciting to me. It does keep me up at night. I do worry about it. I think we need to preserve more farmland, urgently. We need to support our farmers better and more effectively. Whole Foods is on the front line of that right now. We’re advocating in the Farm Bill. We have to have a policy that supports both of those things.

John: Right.

Caitlin: We need everybody to be part of this. Everybody hopefully eats once a day, right?

John: Right.

Caitlin: At least.

John: Right.

Caitlin: Having access to food is an essential part of our lives. So if you eat, you should care about the Farm Bill.

John: That’s a great point. We talked about decarb a little bit and carbon versus climate. I know this is early in your tenure at Whole Foods. Have you yet set your own decarb net zero goals for Whole Foods? I know you read about some people it is 2050 some, 2040. How do you look at that, and how is that journey going at least for you so far?

Caitlin: Yeah, it’s really interesting. As a subsidiary of Amazon, of course, we work closely with the Climate Pledge and Net Zero by 2040.

John: Yes, sure.

Caitlin: Additionally, we’re really starting to dial in on our scope 3 carbon emissions. for those of you who aren’t familiar with Whole Foods, that would be the products on our shelves, right?

John: Right.

Caitlin: What is the amount of carbon that it takes to grow, raise, produce, and get those products to our shelves? This is really hard to measure. Carbon science and agriculture can take years and years, right? Sometimes to measure the soil impact, et cetera. We have really invested since I got here in better understanding our data. It is really fascinating that the majority of companies making commitments are doing so based on sort of industry average EIO data, right? So this is sector-ish-specific data, but we know at Whole Foods that we invest a lot in the differentiation of how we’re raising and growing food in the products on our shelves, right?

John: Right.

Caitlin: Whether it’s organic and our legacy, their regenerative, all the different standards we have. So for us, it was really important to invest in data transparency. This past year it’s been a really fascinating journey to better understand the individual ingredients in every one of our private label products. For us, that’s 365 in Whole Foods Market, what that carbon impact actually is, which is mind-bending work. It’s also incredibly exciting. While I can’t share the exact data yet, it’s not public it’s very encouraging to see that there is less emissions associated with the way that our products are raised and grown compared to the industry average and it’s significantly so. For us, that’s a good start.

We’re redefining and better understanding what our scope 3 impact is. Then I’m also really excited about our decarbonization efforts with some of our suppliers. This is a really incredible mix of some leading suppliers who are coming to us and saying, “Hey, we’re thinking about this.” Do you want to come to us? This journey with us and us going to some of them and saying, “Hey you’re one of our top 30 carbon emitters as a supplier we would like to partner with you. Here’s some ways in which we could tackle it right.” So those conversations are happening every single day. For me, that’s what a lot of the landscape is going to look like moving forward.

It’s going to be partnership-based. It’s going to take all of us. Ultimately, I think it’s going to take way more pre-competitive collaboration. It does not necessarily make sense for a supplier who’s selling to multiple grocery stores to be asked the same questions about decarbonizing and how they measure. We need to work together as an industry a little bit more effectively to decarbonize the food system.

John: Well, that’s a brilliant point because really when you think about, Caitlin, the environment as a whole, and climate change as a whole, it’s not a zero-sum game.

Caitlin: Right.

John: We all benefit if Whole Foods wins, we all win. We have a better world anyway. We have a better environment, we have a better infrastructure, we have more good sustainable farming, and all the other great benefits that come with it. The same thing goes for your competitors if they win. The ocean rises, and all our boats go up together when we’re speaking of climate change and making a real difference in the environment.

Talk about that other major trend that’s out there, AI. Is AI helping you modernize the analysis of your scope 3 emissions from all of your vendors and stuff like that? Getting it out of those legacy historical numbers, which were used as a baseline, which probably aren’t, as you point out, as relevant as they were 15 or 20 years ago?

Caitlin: I think there’s definitely a role for AI. I will say, that AI is only as effective as the data that’s public, right? That’s AI’s brain. That’s where it’s pulling from.

John: Good point.

Caitlin: I will say that there are some gaps there. There are also some inherent biases in public data. When we think about it, I would be remiss if an example of this is regenerative agriculture. I mean, we’ve had indigenous people for way longer than the internet or public data is available. Regeneratively farming, right? And cultivating. So the data that’s public, that’s what AI is using to pull from. I think it can be a tool, and one of the best ways I’ve heard of it explained is a seat at the table.

It cannot be the table. I cannot be the only seat, right? It can’t be the thing. Can it help inform? Absolutely. Do we need guardrails to ensure we’re not further ingraining and trenching the biases that are inherent in public data? Absolutely. Do we need to work to make public data to get more out there that is accurate authentic and reflective? Sure. Absolutely. So all of these things are true, and it can play a role. It’s not the only role.

John: 2024 is upon us. What are you most excited about for 2024 coming up?

Caitlin: I’m really excited to make some progress on some of our decarbonization efforts. I think it’s a bit of the Wild West out there in terms of insetting. Certainly, I think the world has lost a bit of appetite for offsetting, but what we’re seeing now is how are we working within our own system to decarbonize. I’m really excited about some of the projects we have on deck for next year. It’s a wide variety of different decarbonization efforts.

Ultimately, of course, it’s not just decarbonizing, but enhancing soil health, increasing biodiversity, and increasing the ability to capture carbon. All of these things, I’m really excited about being able to share some of that. Partnering with universities, we have really great science standing with us on this. It’s really an exhilarating time. It feels like this year is going to be really, really exciting in terms of how we’re able to use food as a force for good, and a force for change.

John: Well, I love it. I know you already are using food as a force for good, and a force for change besides being very authentic, impactful, and transparent. It’s been an honor to have you on our show today to share the journey at Whole Foods. We hope you get to come back sometime next year in 2024, maybe when your new impact report comes out. We could talk about that, or you could bring some of your vendors on or whatever you want.

This is your show. This is your place, Caitlin Leibert, we just thank you for your time today. We also thank you and your colleagues at Whole Foods, for all the great work you’re doing in sustainability that is making an important impact on this planet. For our listeners and viewers to find Caitlin and her colleagues, please go to www.wholefoodsmarket.com. Thanks again, Caitlin, not only for your time today but for making the world a better place.

Caitlin: Thanks, John. I appreciate you so much.

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