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Two Steps Forward

How Cargill's employee summit put sustainability on the menu

How does a company inspire and empower employees to embrace — and help shape — its sustainability strategy? Cargill created a pretty good recipe.

Getting broad internal buy-in on sustainability is a challenge most companies face. Whether the impetus for sustainable business comes from the top, bottom or middle — there are good examples of each — pushing it out to the entire organization can be a significant barrier to success.

Earlier this year, Cargill, the giant food and ag company and the largest private corporation in the United States, held a sustainability summit to begin to address that challenge — successfully, it seems. 

Over the past few weeks, I’ve had the opportunity to talk to a number of those involved with the summit to understand how it worked, what took place and how it is raising the profile of sustainability within the company. The summit represents a good case study for building engagement on sustainability for employees at every level, and what happens when you invite others to weigh in.

Cargill Protein Group — a recently created business unit that rolled up the company’s North American meat, poultry, egg and related businesses — is the result of a reorganization the sprawling, 152-year-old company has been undergoing over the past year or so. The goal of the reorg was to group independently operating business units focusing on related value chains under one roof. In addition to farming, ranching, processing and foodservice operations, the new protein unit also includes lines of fresh, frozen and cooked meats, sauces, soups and other packaged goods.

The organizational shuffle led the company to look at its sustainability strategy, given the growing interest by its customers — restaurants, supermarkets, packaged goods manufacturers and individual consumers — in food origins, ingredients, packaging and other matters. Prior to the reorg, some of Cargill’s individual businesses had sustainability leaders and goals, but not all.

Prior to the reorg, some of Cargill’s individual businesses had sustainability leaders and goals, but not all.
For Cargill Protein, based in Wichita, Kansas, it was time to build sustainability’s profile within the organization and to its suppliers and customers. To do that, "We needed to develop a strategy," said Jill Kolling, Cargill Protein’s sustainability leader. And that strategy would benefit from getting early input and buy-in from across the organization.

Kolling, previously senior director of sustainability in Cargill’s Wayzata, Minnesota, headquarters, led the effort, speaking to customers, partner NGOs, government relations folks and others both inside and outside the company. That led to a proposed vision — "where we think we should be focusing our efforts and where the opportunities are," she explained.

To validate it and flesh it out, Kolling wanted to engage the larger organization: "We knew that many of the folks who don't live and breathe sustainability every day — which is most people — didn't really know a lot about what sustainability was."

She and her small team decided to hold a sustainability summit.

Passive listeners or active participants?

Kolling invited colleagues from across Cargill Protein in a variety of roles — supply chain, procurement, plant managers, finance, IT, sales, marketing, communications, legal, R&D, corporate affairs and government relations. The invitation made it clear that attendees wouldn’t just be passive listeners — they would be active participants.

The goal, said Kolling, was "to educate them on sustainability issues, present our straw-man vision of where we're going and then get input on whether they thought this was the right direction, and some actions they thought the sustainability team should take."

Enthusiasm for the summit grew quickly. "I was afraid we were going to have only 15 people," said Kolling. But soon after the invitations went out, she got e-mails from colleagues she’d never met, saying things like, "I was supposed to be invited to the summit, and I wasn't. Please add me to the list." In the end, 40 people confirmed.

Among them were Kolling’s boss, Chuck Gitkin, chief marketing officer at Cargill Protein, who joined the company last year from Smithfield Foods. Part of Gitkin’s charge at Cargill is to focus on consumer insights and innovation.

"One of the strategic decisions that we made was to include sustainability as part of that," Gitkin told me. "Our identity and sustainability are linked very closely, and so what we do as a company, what we do in the sustainability space and how we work with all of our stakeholders, that's really all part of one ecosystem."

For Gitkin, one key goal of the summit was "having people in the room who operate plants, who deal with our customers every day, and having our marketers, R&D food scientists and people like that in the room. They're each going to bring a different perspective and help us develop a much better sustainability platform."

In the end, Gitkin said, he hoped the event would "create champions" throughout the company on sustainability.

At Smithfield, Gitkin had seen firsthand how to re-orient a company towards sustainability. Under the leadership of Chief Sustainability Officer Dennis Treacey, Smithfield, the world’s largest pork processor and hog producer, underwent a transformation from a company seen as emblematic of industrialized farming and its environmental ills to one seen as a leader in animal welfare and sustainable meat production.

If it's just something where there's one person who's leading the charge on sustainability, then it's not going to work.
Working with Treacey influenced Gitkin: "Some of the things that Dennis brought forward that I certainly learned from is transparency and visibility, where nothing is hidden and there's no reason to hide anything, so we're all out in the open." In addition, Gitkin learned that sustainability needed to become central to a company’s focus. "If it's just a nice-to-do, if it's just something where there's one person who's leading the charge on sustainability, then it's not going to work. To make it really part of the fabric of what we do is critical."

Gitkin hoped that Cargill’s sustainability summit would provide the impetus to make that happen.

Bringing the outside in

The one-day sustainability summit, held in February, was designed to be an internal gathering, but Kolling knew it was important to "bring the outside in," as she put it, by including the voices of key stakeholders. Her team produced a series of videos to show at the summit, featuring customers, NGOs and the meat-eating public, the latter through a series of "man on the street" interviews.

For the NGO video, Kolling and her team asked key partner organizations — World Wildlife Fund, the Nature Conservancy and World Resources Institute — to comment on water issues, greenhouse gas issues and antibiotic usage in the protein supply chain. "We asked them, ‘What are the issues that you feel we need to be thinking about?’ and ‘Who do you admire among our competitors and other protein supply chains?’" she said.

One interviewee on the video was Larry Clemons, director of TNC’s North America's Agriculture Program.

"They're obviously a significant player," Clemons told me by phone from his home near Fort Wayne, Indiana. His main message on the video, he said, was that Cargill has a unique opportunity to lead in the space of animal agriculture. "I think they're seeing opportunities around sustainability in this business unit, and that really excites me."

The NGO video was an eye-opener, said Kolling. "People were like, ‘We didn't know NGOs would want to partner with us.’ They were surprised that NGOs brought up, for example, issues around feed, and row crops being grown for feed, because you have a tendency to think, ‘Is that really our problem? That's so far upstream. Why would we play in that space?’

"I think there was a realization that people are holding us accountable really far upstream and that nobody was talking about these issues in our plants. People were saying, ‘These are things we don't control, but we're going to have to figure out a way to influence them.’"

Man on the street

And then there was the "man on the street" video, filmed in downtown Chicago, in which a variety of people were asked, "What does sustainability mean to you?"

"It was really interesting to hear what people had to say," said Kolling. "Things like, ‘Retailers owe it to us to tell us what we're putting in our body and where it came from.’ An older woman said, ‘Twenty years ago, the word sustainability was not in my vocabulary, and today it is.’"

Yet another video was a fast-paced compilation of current events of relevance to Cargill and its customers — for example, about a company committing to cage-free eggs, or about another company getting criticized by an investor group for its animal welfare policies.

Teri Trullinger was among those who liked the videos. "I liked hearing what they're saying about what we're doing," said Trullinger, group vice president, field sales at Cargill Foodservice. "I loved the ability to be open about our feedback. I think Cargill does a lot of really great things, but I think we don't merchandise it enough. Sustainability can be so broad, and we can narrow it into specific customers or specific segments within our customers. That's a huge opportunity for us."

I think Cargill does a lot of really great things, but I think we don't merchandise it enough.
The videos helped set the stage at the summit, providing perspectives about both sustainability and Cargill itself. Kolling and her team also sent out a five-page pre-read that included backgrounders on issues material to the company, such as climate change, water resources and food waste. 

Moreover, every attendee was assigned one of six customers, competitors or industry peers to research ahead of time, and asked to come to the summit prepared to answer a couple of questions, such as "What do you admire about what this company is doing in regards to sustainability?"

The pre-event homework helped get attendees’ heads in the game, said CMO Gitkin. "One of the interesting surprises was how ready for action everybody was," he recalled. "Part of the summit was to help develop our strategies and start to benchmark and set targets and plan the work, and we had people coming into the room so ready for this mission that they were almost expecting us to talk about how we're going to do everything. We had to make sure and have people realize that we are just getting started."

Three easy pieces

The videos led directly into the first of three small-group tabletop discussions to which summit participants were assigned. In the first round, everyone at a given table had been asked to research the same company. Each table’s assignment: Share what they admired about their researched company; what they thought it could do better; what surprised them. Each table reported out to the larger group.

For the second round, the tables were reshuffled to be cross-functional — a mix of supply-chain people, customer-facing people, finance people and so on. The assignment this time was to brainstorm on how to harness the power of the entire Cargill organization to create sustainability solutions. "We had them think about what unique relationships or capabilities Cargill has as a whole," said Kolling.

This is no small task. Cargill is a multi-tentacled organization with more than 50 business units — a cornucopia of diversified operations and products, including grain, cotton, sugar, petroleum and financial trading; food processing; futures brokering; health and pharmaceutical products; animal feed and crop protection; and industrial products such as biofuels, oils and lubricants, starches, salt and fertilizer for crop and livestock farmers. Cargill is one of the leading grain producers in the United States, one of the largest U.S. meatpackers and a major U.S supplier to McDonald's, providing the burger behemoth with eggs, oils, sauces and beef. It operates in more than 70 countries.

How to leverage such sprawling operations and knowhow in the name of sustainability is in some ways a delicious dilemma: When you operate at nearly every level of the food chain and across so many commodities, you can influence a lot of things. In the past, Cargill has operated each of these as discrete businesses, which diluted each unit’s potential influence. The reorganization that created Cargill Protein — itself a $20 billion business within the larger, $110 billion (fiscal 2017) company — was intended to remedy that.

"Those of us who work in sustainability know that this is really a systems thing, so we really wanted to get people thinking about our corporate objectives as well, and how we can work together," explained Kolling.

In the third and final breakout session, each table received a set of pre-printed cards offering potential strategies or tactics Cargill Protein could take to address sustainability — reducing and optimizing packaging, for example, investing more in renewable energy or helping salespeople engage with their customers on sustainability. The tables were reshuffled yet again — this time, grouping participants with their functional peers: customer-facing people at one table, supply-chain and procurement people at another, etc.

Each table was asked to sort the index cards into three piles, labeled "Critical," "Nice to Do" and "No Way."

The six tables turned out to be fairly well aligned. A couple of items rose to the top, deemed "Critical" by all groups: creating a sustainability training and toolkit for the sales team; and setting a greenhouse gas reduction target for the protein division.

One item that made the "No Way" pile: to use no antibiotics, ever.

It wasn’t that the group loved antibiotics, but it felt that sometimes they’re necessary. "We believe strongly that if an animal needs treatment, we should treat it, from an animal welfare perspective," explained Kolling. "That animal can then go into a different supply chain so we can still offer ‘no antibiotics ever’ products. But our people believe we need to treat sick animals."

All in all, the conversations flowed as well as Kolling and her colleagues had hoped. And despite fears that some participants might be reticent to open up, that didn’t happen.

It's very easy for certain functions to sit in a room ... and really just think about their space and the negative impact that things might have on them. We didn't have that.
"It's very easy for certain functions to sit in a room and be a little defensive or parochial, and just think about their space and the negative impact that things might have on them," said Gitkin. "We didn't have that. We had people who really wanted to figure out how to do this and bring the best intentions."

Added Kolling: "I was worried that it would be all just learning. People wouldn't know enough or have enough awareness to come into it knowing enough that they could truly provide input. But it seemed like everyone did their pre-work and already had some enlightening before they showed up that day, and they had a lot of opinions. That really exceeded my expectations."

A seat at the table

Following the summit, Kolling spent about a month compiling what participants had written in the workbooks they’d been given at the summit, then feeding a synopsis back to the group. That effort helped Kolling finish a draft sustainability strategy and get it approved by the protein group's senior leadership team.

"The strategy was blessed, if you will, and then we were off and running," said Kolling. She then began socializing the strategy around the organization at various internal meetings.

Kolling is in the process of turning that strategy into a series of action plans that Cargill teams can take forward with measurable goals and reportable metrics. Some of that also will feed into public messaging and commitments. "Within the next three to six months, you'll see us come forward with more of an identity in this space," Gitkin told me.

Even before the summit, Cargill had been investing in new businesses that could become part of its sustainability story. Two years ago, the company purchased EWOS, which developed a way to grow sumo-sized salmon in record time, making Cargill’s animal nutrition business a leading player in the growing global aquaculture industry. Last month, Cargill took a significant stake in Memphis Meats, a hot Silicon Valley startup, one of a growing number of companies producing meat-free alternative proteins — in this case, beef, chicken and duck — from the cells of living animals, rather than from carcasses. This spring, Cargill invested in NouriTech, a Memphis-based startup, to build the world’s largest gas fermentation facility in the United States, producing up to 200,000 tons of fish food for aquaculture, called FeedKind, from microbes fed on methane.

Cargill will need such innovations — not to mention the growing crop of data-driven ag solutions, such as soil-mapping technologies; RFID systems that enable crop traceability and transparency; and precision farming tools, such as yield monitoring, field mapping, crop scouting and weather forecasting — to remain competitive, particularly in a world where population growth, the vagaries of climate and weather and shifting consumption habits seem to be continuously roiling the global food marketplace. 

Add to that the growing awareness of food origins by both B-to-B customers and individual consumers and sustainability appears to be on the menu for the food and ag sector for the foreseeable future.

Empowering employees

Despite the internal nature of the sustainability summit, one implicit goal was to enable and empower Cargill employees to tell stories to the external world. "Cargill has always been a strong company and a competitive company, but it really has been a quiet company," said Gitkin. "One of the very nice outcomes of this is that our customer-facing people know that we're open for business on sustainability and that we want to work with our customers."

"Quiet company" is one way of putting it. Others have spoken more harshly about Cargill’s historically reticent, closed-door operations. "Invisible Giant," a book published in 1995 (and updated twice since), took the company to task, in part for its secretive culture. That may be a prerogative of any privately held enterprise, but in a field so culturally and politically fraught as food and agriculture, transparency and collaboration are being increasingly expected, if not demanded. Under David MacLennan, Cargill’s chairman and CEO since 2013, the company has been making efforts to be more transparent.

The Sustainability Summit may have been one small step in that journey. Now, said Gitkin, Kolling and her sustainability team, five strong, are able to engage with Cargill’s strategic and core customers, some of which are much further down the road on sustainability than Cargill. "McDonald's, Walmart and companies like that have very strong sustainability plans, and we want to be good partners to them. And we have other customers who are just starting to figure it out, saying, ‘We're not really sure what we're doing; can you help us?’ I think we can add value there, too."

I think Cargill does a lot of really great things, but I think we don't merchandise it enough.
Adds Kolling: "We now have 40 ambassadors in our business that are much better educated and can explain things to others. They understand now why we’re choosing the actions we’re choosing, so that’s helpful."

And she’s hearing from the summit participants regularly, something that didn’t happen before. "Every time a competitor puts out a news story on something they're doing, I get emails from 12 people."

At the very end of the summit, Kolling played yet another video, this one a message from CEO MacLennan, who gave a short, inspirational talk to encourage participants to leverage what they’d learned into their everyday jobs and to help spread the word about the company and its emerging sustainability push.

MacLennan's final words to the summit participants also might sum up the company’s growing sustainability push:

"Go forth and conquer."

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