5 revelations from a talk with Temple Grandin

Animal Behaviorist Temple Grandin on stage with Executive Editor Joel Makower during GreenBiz 20.
Gordon Murray
Animal behaviorist Temple Grandin on stage with Executive Editor Joel Makower during GreenBiz 20.

If there was one phrase I remember from my time in Scottsdale, Arizona, for GreenBiz 20, it is, "The suits have got to get out of the office.”

Those were the words uttered repetitively by Temple Grandin, the animal behaviorist who helped McDonald's develop strategies for treating beef more humanely, when she spoke to a room of more than 1,500 sustainability veterans, emerging leaders and everyone in between.

But that is not the only point I took away from her solo talk that was followed by a conversation with GreenBiz Executive Editor Joel Makower. Here’s more context for her call-to-action for the suits and other key takeaways from Grandin’s time on the GreenBiz 20 mainstage.

1. The suits have got to get out of the office and on the ground.

People in the C-suite of companies that are trying to do sustainability work need to make decisions that are informed by what they see in real life. That means leaving their offices and seeing how people in different parts of the company are doing their work.

"I don’t care what industry it is," Grandin said, with a response of clapping from the crowd. "[They need to find out] what’s going on on the ground."

Grandin is a visual thinker. This sentiment of getting on the ground echoes her message that we need all types of thinkers to solve problems. When people — even more so for those who are visual thinkers — see what the issues are with their own eyes, they can better assess the situation and figure out how to fix it.

2. Companies sometimes implement solutions that are supposed to be sustainable. But in actuality, they aren’t.

Grandin pointed to the example of wood chips that were created from young and mature trees in the Southeastern United States, shipped on boats to the United Kingdom and burned in power plants. 

"What's sustainable about that?" she pondered. "Like, you’ve got to be kidding me."

As the saying goes, everything in moderation. A little bit of biofuel with wood chips is fine, but too much can be detrimental. When companies engage in activities such as burning wood chips, they have to figure out when to stop so that it won’t cause harm.

"Implementation ... it’s not abstract," Grandin said. 

Later on in her conversation with Makower, Grandin noted that companies could solve more problems if they simplified them and got to the root of the problem.

3. Pay on farms needs to increase.

Many jobs on farms require skills that have to be learned and take a lot of time. Grandin pointed specifically to stockmanship, which can be defined as the art and science of handling cattle or other farm animals.

"Stockmanship needs to get credits," she said, noting that the pay and treatment of people who do this work varies widely but that pay and management for this skilled job needs to be good across the board.

She noted again that if suits got out of the office, this problem could be addressed, pointing to her time working with McDonald’s and Wendy’s. When executives visited the farms and saw "half-dead cattle going into their product," things began to change, she said.

4. Meatless meat companies might need cattle to succeed. But you can’t overwork them.

Grandin is "a big believer" in regenerative agriculture. "Animals are part of the light," she said, referencing a breakout session that she attended the morning of her talk. During that session, she learned about a farm using chicken manure to fertilize vegetable crops.

"That’s part of regenerative agriculture," Grandin said. "[Animals] are part of the land but we’ve got to use them right."

Similar to the point raised in implementing sustainable solutions, they have to be done thoughtfully and with intention

"The thing that people don’t do is what’s optimal. OK, you have a cow produce tons and tons of milk but she has difficulty breathing," Temple said. "You see… what’s optimal, not maximal?"

5. Write about the work you’re doing and include details about how it’s getting done.

This point is a throughline of GreenBiz 20 for me. At many sessions in my schedule, speakers discussed the importance of sharing information — from the successes of pilots and collaborations to the failures of their efforts (which might be even more important than the former). 

During her talk, Grandin highlighted her book "Improving Animal Welfare: A Practical Approach" and website, in which she documents how people can improve farm animal welfare. Transferring knowledge is imperative.

"Get the stuff out there," she said. "Write about how you actually did it."