10 minutes with Leigh Ann Johnston, Tyson Foods

The Inside View

10 minutes with Leigh Ann Johnston, Tyson Foods

This column is about the people of sustainability. What makes them tick? What’s their unique way to create impact? What have they learned that works? This time, it’s Leigh Ann Johnston, director of sustainability for Tyson Foods, Inc.

Bob Langert: The latest step that Tyson has taken seems really big to me. Describe this latest sustainability evolution.

Leigh Ann Johnston: This is an exciting time for Tyson Foods. Earlier this year we announced our new purpose statement, "Raising the world's expectations for how much good food can do," as well as our strategy to "sustainably feed the world with the fastest growing portfolio of protein-packed brands."

As part of our new focus, we are deepening our commitment to sustainable food. This is the next step in our ever-evolving effort to be sustainable and to be more transparent about who we are, how we do business and how we strive to be a responsible corporate citizen.

Langert: How does Tyson’s purpose resonate with you and what's the connection with sustainability?

Johnston: Our purpose resonates with me because it's filled with opportunity. At Tyson, we're constantly seeking to do things better. And the purpose statement is forward-facing by saying we're raising our expectations of ourselves. In other words, we believe big food has the potential to do tremendous good and we aspire to set the example. So, we're striving to position ourselves as a sustainability leader, so we can thrive today and into the future.

Langert: Can you give me an example of how you're transparent today versus 15 years ago?

Johnston: One for me that’s not easy to talk about but is part of our past involves public reports of animal welfare issues, both in our direct operations and our supply chain. That path of transparency has really taken us in a direction where we've stepped up and owned these situations. And we've talked publicly about the corrective actions that we've taken. These actions can include an employee losing their job or farmer losing their contract to raise animals for us.

Langert: What are you hearing from customers and their journey for sustainability, and how has that influenced Tyson?

Johnston: I am a little hesitant to make a blanket statement, but I would say that it's fair to say now more than ever businesses in the U.S. are more in tune with sustainability. And they're asking Tyson or other supply partners to do the same, to really understand their sustainability impacts, whether that's environmental or social or economic. Customers are asking companies, including Tyson, to be more than a product. They want assurance that we’re a responsible corporate citizen.

Langert: "A Day in the Life" by the Beatles just celebrated its 50th anniversary. Describe a day in your Tyson life.

Johnston: To paint a picture, I would say exciting, inspiring, challenging. Exciting because every day is truly different. Inspiring because I really appreciate and respect the holistic approach to sustainability, the approach we're taking, that focuses on social equity, ecological stewardship and economic vitality. But it’s challenging as well. And that's because, frankly, there's a lot to do. We see opportunities and it can be a challenge to decide where to apply our resources first. But we have got amazing support from our leadership team and I feel that we are going to be a leader.

Langert: What’s a recent example of "exciting, inspiring and challenging"?

Johnston: A good example is we just completed our annual CDP filing. This year, we expanded those questionnaires to not only include water and climate, but also forests. And so there have been several days over the last four to six weeks where it has been a day of reaching out to various stakeholders across the business, internal subject matter experts, explaining the purpose of what we're doing, because it was somewhat new to them. I call it like the cruise director role, where you're really trying to facilitate a process at the ground level.

Langert: Is it tough for Tyson to take a stand on climate change?

Johnston: We actually recognize that natural disasters such as extreme weather, droughts, floods, excessive heat or cold could impact not only our operations but also the health or the growth of the livestock that we procure. We launched in 2016 an initiative to help us to better understand the risk and opportunities related to our business, including climate change. And in May, we announced a collaboration with the World Resources Institute to become an industry leader by setting science-based greenhouse gas emission targets for our operations, as well as our supply chain. We are anticipating announcing these targets in calendar year 2018.

Langert: Companies such as Tyson and other big companies can be misunderstood or stereotyped. What do you think is the most misunderstood thing about Tyson and your sustainability efforts?

Johnston: Unfortunately, some people wrongly believe that we're only focused on one area. We really are taking a holistic approach to sustainability in order to minimize tradeoffs. So, our true focus areas involved healthier animals, healthier communities, healthier environment, healthier food and a healthier workplace. And we feel these areas are representative of a balanced approach to sustainability for our company.

Langert: What are you proudest about in Tyson’s sustainability efforts?

Johnston: I think one of the interesting things that maybe is least known about Tyson is that we've been involved in sustainability for a long time. It's not new to us. We released our first sustainability report in 2005, and that was the time when we started to speak about sustainability. But a lot of the practices that were discussed in that report had already been in place in our company for years.

Langert: Do you talk about trust within the company and what you need to do to gain trust?

Johnston: Yes, we do. I think that's one of the key elements of our executive leadership team mission, to increase transparency. We believe transparency can build trust. So, we feel that we have to show our worth and our value over time. We believe that we will be recognized for that. We really haven't done a great job of communicating about our efforts in the past. But that's something we're changing. And we believe trust will come in time.

Langert: Many critics think big is bad. A lot of people define sustainable food as small and local. How do you contend with this stereotype that big is bad?

Johnston: We're glad to see local farmers doing well at a farmers market or a lot of restaurants specializing in locally sourced food. We think that's wonderful. But the food needs of the world's population, which is growing about 1 percent every year, cannot be met solely on a local scale. So, we see it as our responsibility to help provide quality food for the world. It’s another reason for us to continue to sharpen our commitments to sustainable business practices.