How She Leads: Kate Wylie, Mars Inc.

How She Leads is a regular feature spotlighting influential women in sustainable business.

For more than a decade, Kate Wylie has driven sustainable development within a range of big-name businesses, including Mars Drinks and eBay. She now reports directly to Barry Parkin, the chief sustainability officer of Mars Inc., where she heads the development of the company’s sustainable sourcing strategy. Mars Inc.’s six business segments include pet care, chocolate, Wrigley, food, drinks and symbioscience.

Here, Wylie discusses how one of the world’s biggest cocoa buyers can reduce its impacts while helping to solve some of our most dire social and environmental challenges.

Maya Albanese: When and how did you start working in sustainability?

Kate Wylie: Throughout my whole career, I’ve worked in some form of sustainability. I started out working for smaller businesses with social missions and then moved into larger corporations. Back when I was in university, there weren’t jobs titled “sustainability,” so I had to do a lot of research to find out where I could work in it. My first job was at a company that did carbon offsets, engaged people and raised awareness about environmental issues.

Albanese: How did you move into your current sustainability role?

Wylie: I started as the global sustainability director for the Mars Drinks division. I developed its sustainability strategy, which included the company’s wider sustainability perspective -- how the business operates, how all our raw materials are sourced and how to engage customers and associates on that journey. There I spent a lot of time focusing on coffee supply chains, which progressed into the sustainable sourcing strategy for all of Mars’ supply chains.

Albanese: How do apply your educational background to your current work?

Wylie: My economics degree also included classes on social anthropology and environmental economics. From this, I learned that business can be profitable and be a force for good in the world. As we embed sustainability into our businesses, we need to think about accounting and financials, and must understand how forces such as supply and demand work.

Albanese: What are your top responsibilities in your current role?

Wylie: How do we spread economic prosperity, and how are we going to feed the 7 billion people on this planet? My role is to think through how Mars can address some of these global challenges through its business practices. We create internal governance structures and also work on external communications around sustainable sourcing, including our "Principles In Action” summary.

Albanese: How does your position fit into the corporate structure?

Wylie: We have a central corporate sustainability team with seven people on it that works with all the segments of our business: chocolate, pet care, Wrigley, food and hot drinks. My role sits on this team and reports to the chief sustainability officer. I also work very closely with the sustainability and procurement leads in each segment. Procurement has to, as part of its job description, lead its sustainable sourcing strategy. All 72,000 associates at Mars are part of the sustainability strategy because everybody must work towards our five principles of quality, responsibility, mutuality, efficiency and freedom.

Albanese: What are some successful ways that you have engaged employees across Mars?

Wylie: We have a “Go Green” associate engagement program, which raises internal awareness about sustainability. At Mars Drinks, we have a sustainability champion and team in each division that comes together monthly to track and report on progress on our sustainability goals. The meetings have become a forum where associates can present their ideas on new programs and goals.

Albanese: What sustainability concerns are particular to a confectionary company such as Mars?

Wylie: Mars is unique in several ways. First, we’re still owned by the founding Mars family, which is just brilliant for our sustainability strategy because it allows us to think in terms of generations instead of just quarterly goals, like at many other companies. Next, we’ve always been a principles-led business. The founder’s business objective is based on “mutuality” and [he] believed business can only be successful in the long-term if there is a true mutual benefit for every partner in the supply chain. If Mars wants to be successful, then everyone in our supply chain must also be successful. Third, we take a scientific approach. Based on a scientific study, we identified three areas of environmental impact we need to manage in order to keep humanity working within its planetary boundaries: greenhouse gas emissions, water and land.

Albanese: How do you answer critics who say that a candy company inherently cannot be sustainable?

Wylie: Well, we’re committed to making sure our products are consumed and used properly. We want consumers to trust their favorite Mars brands, so we have a strict marketing code. In fact, Mars was the very first company to use guideline daily amount labeling on all its confectionary products worldwide, which provides full nutritional value information.

Albanese: Mars made an impressive public commitment to sustainable cocoa. How did you decide what the parameters of that commitment would be?

Wylie: By 2020, we will source 100 percent of our cocoa from certified sources: Rainforest Alliance Certified, UTZ Certified and Fair Trade Certified. In 2012, we purchased 90,000 tons of certified cocoa, making us the largest purchaser of certified cocoa in the world. The program is based on our core principles, like mutuality. Farmer productivity is at the heart of our sustainable cocoa program because if the farmers can produce more, they benefit and so does Mars.

Albanese: Do you work on any programs that support women in the supply chain?

Wylie: Economic empowerment of women in the supply chain not only promotes gender equity but also has shown to support family and community development. Mars has funded six economic development projects in the Cote D’Ivoire that help women develop local businesses such as animal-rearing that allow them to earn higher incomes. This is part of our “Vision for Change” program.

Albanese: What is a significant obstacle you’ve overcome in your work, and how?

Wylie: Sustainability professionals as a group have achieved increased credibility by making a good business case over time. Earlier on in my career, people hadn’t heard of sustainability and always viewed it as a cost to business. But through evidence, data, science and raised awareness, sustainability is now really seen as an opportunity that drives business value.

Albanese: What is a continuing challenge that you face in your work?

Wylie: Traditionally, businesses competed on everything. But now we are facing huge and dire challenges globally, and we need to work in a pre-competitive way. There are a number of organizations that bring global food companies together at one table for open collaboration, such as the Sustainable Food Lab. There’s a huge opportunity now for us to collaborate, but we still haven’t quite worked it all out. It’s like we’re all working with cocoa from the same places; why don’t we all just work together?

Albanese: What is one thing you’re particularly proud of accomplishing in your current role?

Wylie: We’re right on track for delivering our 2015 sustainable sourcing goals. And I’m just proud to work for a company such as Mars where I can drive impactful, positive change.

Albanese: What advice would you give others interested in working in a role like yours?

Wylie: Those who have passion and drive, and have done their research, are the ones who will stand out. If you’re not already working in sustainability, research, network, travel and meet with those who are working on sustainability to see how you can get involved. There’s a huge wealth of information out there nowadays. It’s a really exciting time when the business mindset is shifting. Everyone is starting to understand the value of sustainability and more interesting business collaborations are happening as a result. We may still have a long way to go, but sustainability is a growing and hugely rewarding field.