How General Mills Worked with BSR to Set Ambitious, Science-Based Climate Targets

September 2, 2015
  • Matthew Raimondi

    Former Manager, BSR

  • Eric Olson

    Former Senior Vice President, BSR

Earlier this week, General Mills unveiled an ambitious set of climate commitments developed with support from BSR. The goals are notable for both their scope and scale: Achieve absolute reduction of greenhouse gas emissions of 28 percent by 2025 across the company’s value chain (“from farm to fork to landfill”), actively build and support adaptation efforts across General Mills’ key commodities and sourcing regions, and remain aligned with guidance from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) over the long term—achieving “sustainable emissions” by 2050. 

This is a big deal.

General Mills’ moves take place against a backdrop of increased momentum on the road to and through the upcoming COP21 climate conference, which takes place November 30 through December 11 in Paris. The General Mills commitment is one of many by a growing number of companies: Already, more than 250 companies and investors have made more than 400 commitments in areas ranging from setting science-based targets to renewable energy procurement through the We Mean Business coalition platform, which is working to amplify the business voice and catalyze bold action on climate change. At the same time, national governments—notably Brazil, China, and the United States—also have set meaningful emissions-reductions targets.

General Mills has set a new bar for leadership that should accelerate this progress, and since BSR worked with the company to develop the strategy for this target, we want to share some of the ingredients for this approach here—in the hopes that other companies will be interested in replicating the General Mills commitment.

First, the company’s new goals are based in science, meaning they align with IPCC guidance on the absolute reductions needed for the planet to stay within 2°C warming above pre-industrial levels. With this commitment, General Mills will be decreasing its total emissions, even as the business continues to grow.

Second, General Mills is one of the first major companies to set specific, time-bound greenhouse-gas-reduction goals across its entire value chain.

Third, the company is committing to further improve the ability of its growers and other suppliers to adapt to the inevitable consequences of climate change—even as the company works to reduce its severity.

At the heart of General Mills’ commitment, in terms of both the challenge and the opportunity for impact, is the company’s massive agricultural supply chain. Nearly 90 percent of the total emissions associated with General Mills’ business occurs outside of its direct operational control, mostly at the level of the farms supplying dairy, row crops, and other key ingredients. The idea of taking ownership for these far-flung emissions is daunting for any company, and for General Mills, the key was to understand the business case for action both in terms of risk and opportunity.

When BSR and General Mills looked at risk, we examined the impact climate change will have on the company’s supply chain and its ability to source high-quality ingredients. As CEO Ken Powell stated, “We think that human-caused greenhouse gas causes climate change and climate volatility, and that's going to stress the agricultural supply chain, which is very important to us. Obviously, we depend on that for our business, and we all depend on that for the food we eat."

The flip side of risk is opportunity, and in this case, the opportunity is to support General Mill’s growth and innovation agendas by building a more resilient and productive supply chain. It turns out that many of the interventions needed to address climate change—from building healthier soil to converting waste to power—also serve to improve productivity and livelihoods on the farm.   

None of this is to say that achieving these goals will be easy. As Powell noted, “While our success depends on our actions, we cannot get there on our own. We believe every company, government, and individual has a role to play. Climate change is a shared, global challenge that is best addressed at scale.”

Interestingly, it was precisely the complex and shared nature of the challenge that provided one of the key business arguments for General Mills to “go big.” Bold, aspirational commitments are far more likely than incremental approaches to catalyze the partnerships and support from other players that will be critical to the company’s (and our collective) success.

We will be working with General Mills and our other member companies and partners to build and scale the programs that will help make good on these important commitments. We invite you to join us.

Please visit BSR's climate page to learn more about how we can help your organization develop ambitious and pragmatic climate goals, strategies, and partnerships. 

Let’s talk about how BSR can help you to transform your business and achieve your sustainability goals.

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