ConAgra Foods' green strategy: Award employees for sustainability efforts

ConAgra Foods' green strategy: Award employees for sustainability efforts

Last year, ConAgra Foods -- the U.S. packaged-foods company behind such well-known brands as Hunt's Ketchup and Reddi-Wip -- saved millions of dollars while dramatically cutting its energy consumption. It accomplished this by not relying on major process changes or heavy investments hailing from top executives. Instead, it turned to its employees.

The accomplishments stemmed from an awards program, launched in 1992, developed to encourage employees to proactively look for ways to eliminate waste and reduce water and energy consumption. By allowing different divisions to set their own sustainability goals and awarding employees that met those goals, the Nebraska food giant saved 300 million gallons of water, eliminated 61,000 tons of landfill waste and reduced its carbon emissions by more than 43,000 metric tons. These efforts also saved the company $28 million.

Gail Tavill, ConAgra's vice president of sustainable development, spoke with GreenBiz about how the program works, lessons learned and challenges the program has faced. 

GreenBiz: How did you reduce water usage by 300 million gallons of water?

Tavill: Almost half of that was from one manufacturing facility. The winner this year was a potato processing facility, which reduced water by 24 percent -- 150 million gallons -- by tracking daily water usage and posting daily metrics in the plant. That gave employees awareness about how much was being used and where. They did not invest a whole lot in this, it was more about green awareness from the metrics posted. Within six months, the water reduction began because of employee efforts, and not the re-engineering of processes. The team did simple things like changing nozzles and finding out where water was wasted, then found ways to avoid it. In terms of expenses, it was a month's payback.

GreenBiz: Where did the balance of the water savings come from?

Tavill: Our pudding factory saved about 5 million gallons of water. A frozen foods plant in Arkansas put together a drip team that located drips wherever they found them, and fixing drips led to water savings. What we found on water conservation is it's really more behaviorally-based, rather than requiring capital-intensive projects.

GreenBiz: So was there thoughtless wastage before?

Tavill: Here's a conundrum we face -- water is undervalued. Any business focuses on things with high value. Until we made water usage a goal, it wasn't a focus because water is cheap. Until we started to give water a business value beyond dollars, it wasn't a priority. That is why we made water conservation a specific target when we set sustainability goals two years ago.

GreenBiz: Did employee attitude make the difference in energy conservation too?

Tavill: Energy continues to be a big area for us to work on -- there are a lot of savings associated with it. It also tends to be more capital intensive than other areas like reducing water use. We're looking at how much we can save through behavior improvements and how much through capital investments, so we're working hard on balancing both sides. We went into this thinking we'd have to save energy with capital investments and we're finding there's a lot of opportunity to save energy through behavior improvements.

GreenBiz: How did you communicate the goals from top down to the divisions and then to the shop floor?

Tavill: Solid waste is my particular passion with solid opportunities for our divisions. We set a goal to divert at least 75 percent of our solid waste from landfills to other uses. We knew some of it went to animal feed and so on but we didn't track it, so the first challenge we had was that we had no data. We knew there was opportunity there, both from cost savings and cost avoidance, so we set that goal.

We then spent the first six months collecting that data. We spoke to suppliers and we worked with the farmers to whom we divert food waste for animal feed. Then we looked at how to handle this -- is composting better? We knew diverting from landfill was important, so I spoke to the [US Environmental Protection Agency], used their hierarchy for handling waste, then told our management we wanted to use this for our facilities.

For food waste, we used EPA hierarchy to move up the value chain, and for packaging we tried to reduce or recycle and also reduce what we sent to landfills.

We set individual goals for manufacturing facilities and threw out a challenge to them: The company would recognize anyone who reduced waste by 95 percent. I have been absolutely thrilled with how quickly our factories have gotten onboard with this. We passed our 75 percent diversion goal already and we are closer to 90 percent diversion.

Now we are focusing on reduction of actual waste generated -- not only landfill, but also that which we divert.

GreenBiz: What about reducing packaging?

Tavill: It's really just putting a new name on something that's been going on for years -- packaging professionals have worked on less expensive packaging for a long time, but now it's termed "sustainable." Design goals have focused on using less material, less resources and therefore less money.

One of the dangers of reducing packaging too much is that it could allow the food to spoil, so we're very sensitive to that.

Traditionally, when you buy something in an aerosol can, it's in a three-piece metal can with epoxy coating. That technology hasn't changed in decades. We found an opportunity to work with a company to change that to a two-piece can and in converting to that process, we found ways to dramatically reduce the steel needed and use much less chemicals to create the can itself. The product ended up having superior quality, and it took less energy and material to manufacture.

So it really hit that sweet spot of performance, cost and environmental benefits. PAM and Reddi-Whip cans use this new technology, which comes from a new supplier.

GreenBiz: What are some lessons learned from this process?

Tavill: One of the biggest lessons we learned is that waste is a cultural phenomenon, in that when you manufacture something, since the industrial revolution, a certain amount of waste is considered acceptable as part of doing business. So challenging that thinking was one of our issues.

The financial accounting of waste materials has no value in our systems, which we found when we dug into those streams going to landfills or compost or animal feed, so we began thinking of their environmental value and how to push them up the hierarchy value.

For example, we make meat snacks. When we make them in long strips and cut it into pieces, you lose the ends. The waste generated was then diverted to landfills. They were edible but ugly looking, so we put together a proposal with a food rescue organization close to our facility to take that waste and repackage it for people who are food insecure. So we've diverted more than a million servings of protein from landfills to help feed those people.

We're constantly looking under rocks for opportunities to avoid waste and divert it to food rescue and other outlets.

The Grocery Manufacturers Association and Food Marketing Association, between them, represent most of our industry and have policies and best practices on food waste. We work with them on addressing those issues, since we waste a lot of food in this country.

GreenBiz: Were there challenges in getting different divisions on board with these goals, given they have their own bottom-line concerns?

Tavill: We knew we had to have external goals, so we went through an internal process where we worked to build the goals from the bottom up so they could buy into it, and we also worked with our leadership teams, so that when we proposed the goals they'd be happy to communicate it. So we worked top down and bottom up. You make an important point about each division having their own goals and checks and balances.

Not all plants or products were created equal, so we couldn't set the same goals. So when we began, we knew that our potato process facility would have more impact on our water goal than our popcorn plant. On the other hand, the microwave popcorn plants could deliver much bigger results in terms of waste reduction or diversion.

So we didn't unilaterally say every plant would have a set goal, since that wouldn't make sense.

The reason we do these awards is for these plants to strive to reach best practices goals that can be communicated across the company. It's easy to share it passively by posting goals or sending it out, but it's more effective to set goals and reward divisions or plants and have these facilities talk to each other about how they went about it. It's easier than for them to come to us -- when they talk to each other, that's when it's really rewarding for us.

Photo courtesy of ConAgra Foods