At one time, corporate sustainability was all about taking care of what was happening within the walls of your own facilities. We thought it was enough to focus on efficiency — using less energy, and making sure we discharged clean water. Then we started looking deeper into our environmental impact, and it turns out that what was happening within our own buildings was only a small part a much bigger story. The impact from our supply chain was much larger – by our current reckoning, 48 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions and a full 99 percent of the water use associated with our products’ full lifecycle occur upstream in our supply chain.
Suddenly our view broadened, and our understanding of the risk to our business model as a result of environmental challenges expanded too.
Since then, we’ve grown in our understanding of the challenges we may face in the future from climate change and from water stress. We’ve set an ambitious climate goal, developed using science-based methodology, to reduce our carbon footprint: a [-28%] absolute reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2025. And on a closely related note, we are now announcing a water ambition: to champion the development of stewardship plans by 2025 for high risk, priority watersheds in our supply chain, with the long-term aspiration to achieve watershed health in those priority watersheds by 2050.
I say this is closely related because many of the impacts from climate change, and certainly many of the most noticeable impacts, deal with water. Increased flooding and more widespread and frequent drought, as well as shifts to annual precipitation patterns, will influence agriculture and industry. Like climate change, water-related risks must also be addressed throughout the supply chain, to have any measurable impact. What we know for certain is that collaboration is critical — one organization, whether a single farm or a company, is a drop in the bucket when it comes to addressing watershed health.
Water issues do, however, differ from climate change issues in that water issues are local. The unit operation for dealing with water stress is the watershed or aquifer, where water withdrawals must be balanced with recharge to the system for a sustainable system, which is why we have a commitment focused on addressing the most at risk and material watersheds in our supply chain.
Even when we narrow our focus to our priority watersheds, we know that we will still need many partners. Today, we work with The Nature Conservancy and Sustainable Conservation, both non-government organizations (NGOs) who have a pragmatic boots-on-the-ground mixed with an expert science approach to watershed health. We also work with the CEO Water Mandate and the Alliance for Water Stewardship, who help us extend our view beyond the horizon of our own supply chain and identify ways in which we can work with others for the benefit of all – agriculture, industry, communities and nature.
Even with these incredible partners, there still aren’t enough companies working on this today. It may be that the size of the water challenge that makes some companies hesitate from signing on to the task. Maybe they just aren’t sure how to get started. That’s where organizations like the CEO Water Mandate can help. Their water stewardship toolkit guides newcomers and veterans alike in starting the process of assessing supply chain risk and thinking about where best to focus. I’ll be using this toolkit as I begin the process of refreshing our watershed priorities at General Mills.
Even more important, though, is connecting with others who have started down the path, and being a member of the CEO Water Mandate can certainly help with that. General Mills has learned immensely from experienced water stewards such as FEMSA Foundation, MillerCoors and Coca-Cola. With our announcement of our 2025 water ambition, we hope to encourage others to also start down this road.
It is humbling to think that we may soon begin coaching others on the same path. That said, we welcome the opportunity. Our future, as well as theirs, depends on all of us looking over our walls and into the watershed beyond.
Ellen Silva has held a variety of roles in her 18 years at General Mills, Inc. She has developed Yoplait yogurt and Progresso soup, led nutrition science projects as well as developed nutrition strategy while a member of the Bell Institute of Health and Nutrition, helped change company innovation models while a member of the corporate connected innovation team, and led development efforts in many areas of ingredient and process technology as a manager in GTECH, the corporate central research team. In her current role, she is focused on watershed stewardship strategy implementation and packaging sustainability. Ellen earned a B.S., M.S., and Ph.D. in Chemical Engineering from the Ohio State University.