Meet Sir Kensington's first sustainability leader

Meet Sir Kensington's first sustainability leader

Rebecca Gildiner, Sir Kensington's
Rebecca Gildiner, Sir Kensington's

This is the first in a new GreenBiz series featuring companies that have recently hired their first dedicated sustainability leader. What has the start of their journey been like? In each article, I speak with the person who has taken on this new role, and someone in the company involved in creating it.

Sir Kensington’s is a condiment company with character. It specializes in better, healthier,and more interesting ketchup, mayo and mustard. The company was founded in 2010 by Mark Ramadan and Scott Norton. They realized there was a gap in the market for better condiments, and filled it with products are non-GMO, organic or vegan. (My favorite is the avocado oil mayonnaise.)

In April 2017, the company was acquired by Unilever, which added firepower to its socially conscious ethos. Less than a year later, in January, Rebecca Gildiner came on board as the social impact and advocacy manager, with the exciting job of leading the company towards greater social and environmental mindfulness. I caught up with co-founder Scott Norton and Rebecca Gildiner in the company’s New York headquarters. The conversations have been edited for clarity and length.

Mia Overall: Congratulations, Scott. Your company now has a social and environmental leader. How did this role come about and to what degree was it related to being acquired by Unilever?

Scott Norton: The effect of the acquisition was extremely positive. Unilever has a 100-year old history of being governed by a conscience. So what impact our business was having on society and what impact we were having through advocacy were questions from the beginning. Last summer, I started engaging in longer term thinking about the impact of the business. People are looking to enroll in responsible companies that share their values. As a consumer product that is so personal — something edible — we had an opportunity use this intention that people have to buy something they like. Being acquired gave us the resources to consider hiring someone for this role.

Overall: How was the role initially scoped?

Norton: When I started thinking about this, I polled the company to find out what the role should be. We knew we couldn’t be all things to everyone but we felt strongly about people. So originally the role was scoped to focus on social impact over environmental impact. It’s where our heart is and what is most relevant to our company. So there was a focus on responsibility, though not sustainability per se.

Step one was making sure our products do no harm and being cognizant of their impact on our bodies and society. But that has evolved. We are in the process of renaming the job as we learn more. For example, we’re realizing we want to raise the floor by doing the basics like a life cycle assessment or measuring the carbon footprint. We also want to raise the ceiling by introducing ways of managing post consumer waste. Since Rebecca joined, we still have the view that it’s all about people, but I personally and the company have become aware that there is also an important environmental component. 

Overall: How does this role fit into your company?

Norton: My approach to entrepreneurship and management in general is that sales is culture, management is culture, sustainability is culture too. For a company like Sir Kensington, we needed someone who could understand and tweak all the different parts of the business — the way the operating people source, the way the marketing people think about communicating in a campaign, etc. The role is really hard because the person needs to be present in the highest level of strategy in defining the new products.  But they can’t do so as a force of conflict or tension with the business. They have to layer on value with the business and teach the primary person doing sales or marketing to incorporate sustainability across each function.

Overall: Where does Rebecca sit on the org chart?

Norton: She reports to me. It’s a fairly senior position in that her ideas and perspective are designed to permeate everyone’s thinking. For example, she looks at people’s goals and reviews company strategy. There are titles, and there is also seniority through trust. In our company, the org chart is more like a circle. There are people that are closer to the center of the circle that have more to do with strategy and there are people that are towards the edge of the circle that keep operations running. We need her at the center, on strategy.  We also need her on specific operations, working with the office managers setting up volunteer days.

Overall: Do you see this role as philanthropic or altruistic?

Scott: No, I don’t see this as altruism. I see it as additional nodes in how Sir Kensington creates value. If you think of all the ways we create value — for customers, for suppliers, their farm workers and for the business itself, managing things responsibly is just another way we create value. Also, luckily for us, our entry into this space was not reactive. It wasn’t in response to some kind of a crisis, it was all about longer term opportunities.

Overall: Rebecca, it sounds like you have a trailblazing job. One of your tasks is to work with colleagues across the company to integrate responsibility into their functions. How are you doing that? Can you share some examples?  

Rebecca Gildiner: Yes. Working cross functionally is one of the most exciting parts of the job and also one of the most challenging. It’s something I hope I’m getting better at. It varies widely across teams. Some people were excited that I was here and began coming to me asking for guidance. With others, I’ve needed to pursue them and find ways to invite them to the table. Every team member has a different level of awareness about sustainability, social impact and environmental impact.

With marketing, its been great because they’ve looked to me to understand how we should communicate things we are doing to our consumers in a responsible way. For example, what’s the best way to talk about our partnership with the Food and Finance High School, where we provide skills training? Or what can we say about the fact that our eggs are Certified Humane?

In other areas of the business it’s been more challenging. Often, this is because we’re a fast paced, quickly growing company and people have a lot on their plate. Integrating sustainability into our operations is a harder, longer-term task. We’re a [consumer packaged goods] CPG company that sources a lot of products. I’ve had to get to know various supply chains, identify the risks and talk to colleagues about them. It takes time to talk to farmers to understand how they are doing things.

I’ve tailored my approach to each department and each individual. I’m trying to make clear the materiality of sustainability in their role. In order for the business to do well, every leader needs to be empowered to make good decisions. So the focus of this year has been that — getting people to think behind the curtain.

Overall: Scott likes to talk about management as culture, social impact as culture, sustainability as culture. What does that mean for you in your work?

Gildiner: One of the first things I did was bring composting into the office. Some people wondered why we hadn’t done it sooner. Others had never composted. I also brought our compost hauler in for a lunch and learn about waste and its relation to climate change. Composting created a daily touch point related to sustainability for the whole team, and this somehow shifted the culture towards thinking about where something goes after it leaves our hands. My goal is to shift our culture so it becomes second nature to think about the impact of our decisions as a business.

Overall: Since you started, the role has evolved. What was it when you started and where are things heading?

Gildiner: The job was initially focused on developing a social impact strategy. What is Sir Kensington’s going to be known for, how are we going to give back? There were bits of sustainability in the job description but it wasn’t the focus. In the third interview, I did a SWOT analysis for the impact strategy the company had drafted. While I offered what a strong social impact strategy would look like, I also emphasized what a strong upstream management of impacts would look like. We need to walk the walk before we talk the talk.

When I arrived, most people felt like we didn’t have much of an environmental impact because we were so small. But the environment is everyone’s business, so I’m working on embedding responsibility into our actions. I’m now starting to develop a sustainability strategy, working with the sourcing team and the packaging team to understand impacts. I’m also developing a social impact strategy that is more related to philanthropy. Scott and Mark have been very receptive and open to understanding how social and environmental impacts should affect decision-making.

Overall: You are the first person at the company to have this job. In what ways has that been easy and in what ways has that been hard?

Gildiner: Having the freedom to shape the role has been easy and hard. I’ve probably designed 95 percent of my job. It’s been a lot of research and learning and listening. It’s given me an opportunity to lay the foundation for how this role will integrate with the rest of the company. I’ve come in and been able to shape the communication streams and the work streams and how impact will be structured into the company. We are still figuring it out. This is still really new for all of us.

Some of the questions I ask other sustainability managers is how sustainability is structured in their company. Who do they report to? What meetings are they in? When you build a strategy, whose jobs does it touch? When I build a strategy it's a company wide thing and that needs to affect the goals of the organization. Figuring out how to do this part is one of the hardest parts of my jobs. There are times when I am brought to the table and there are times when I need to ask to be brought to the table. Those are more challenging conversations. 

Also, doing everything from social impact to environmental impact to awareness raising and education to supply chain is a lot of stuff.  We’re looking up to role models like Patagonia and Ben and Jerry’s and it’s hard to dial down our ambitions in line with the resources we have at this moment and set our sights on growing to that eventually.

Overall: What advice would you give for companies that don’t have this role yet

Gildiner: It’s never too soon to think about your impacts. Even if you are too small to think you have an impact or to have the resources to go out and create robust initiatives, as the company grows, your impact will only grow and then it will be harder to go back. Even just shaping the culture, getting employees to think about stakeholders, opening minds beyond the office or the confines of the bottle is an investment that will have a long-term payoff.

Overall: And to someone starting in a similar role at another company?

Gildiner: Find allies. I have found allies everywhere, internally and externally. I’ve even found allies in companies that might be considered competitors. There is always room for collaboration and best practice sharing. Working with people is always going to be the hardest part of a job. You are always needing to get buy in and you can’t be at every meeting — so finding allies in your office that can help internally educate and advocate are important for success — and sanity.

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