How She Leads: Beth Sauerhaft of PepsiCo

How She Leads

How She Leads: Beth Sauerhaft of PepsiCo

Beth Sauerhaft, PepsiCo

How She Leads is a regular feature on GreenBiz spotlighting the career paths of women who have moved into influential roles in sustainable business. In this edition, Maya Albanese interviews Beth Sauerhaft, Ph.D., Director of Global Environmental Sustainability at Pepsi Co.

Beth works at the nexus of several important sustainability initiatives at Pepsi that include environment, agriculture, energy, health, and nutrition. She has a wealth of experience in the public and private sectors as well as a robust educational background in this field. In addition, she represents Pepsi on the World Economic Forum’s New Vision for Agriculture Project Board. Beth recently presented at World Water Week in Stockholm where Pepsi Co received the Stockholm Industry Water Award in recognition of the company's innovative and outstanding water stewardship initiatives. 

PepsiCo, Inc. (NYSE: PEP) is a global food and beverage leader with revenue of more than $65 billion and a product portfolio that includes 22 brands that generate more than $1 billion each in annual retail sales. Performance with Purpose is PepsiCo's promise to find innovative ways to minimize impact on the environment by conserving energy and water and reducing packaging volume, and respect, support and invest in the local communities where we operate.

In today’s interview, Maya asks Beth about the focus of sustainability at one of the world’s biggest food and beverage companies, and examines what goals have been achieved and which remain challenges in a complex role that covers global, corporate-wide territory.

MA: Could you start by explaining how you moved into your current role at PepsiCo?

BS:  It’s a great story that starts in the late 1980s. I was working on my Masters in Environmental Management and trying to decide what kind of work I wanted to do. I ended up going for a doctorate in Rangeland Ecology and Management and then working at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. I enjoyed the challenge of working there with farmers to combine our resources and ideas and improve environmental practices -- leveraging their knowledge of farming and my knowledge in environmental conservation and management. When I went to Washington, I started doing national policy work at USDA-NRCS (U.S. Department of Agriculture-Natural Resources Conservation Service), and then ended up moving across the national mall to work for the Environmental Protection Agency. I was one of the sole people at that time whose job was to focus on the nexus of environment and agriculture. I really enjoyed bringing people together to solve problems, but I had an itch to see what the private sector was like. In 2007, I saw a press release about PepsiCo’s renewable energy credit purchase to offset carbon and energy usage. It was a global company where I could move from focusing on national issues into a role focused on global sustainability issues. What happened next was an unusual and wonderful turn of events starting from a single cold email. I sent my resume to two men mentioned in that press release. There was no position open, but I managed to get in touch with them and was hired within Pepsi Cola North America Beverages as a sustainability person. That was five years ago, and a year-and-a-half ago, I moved into my current role, which focuses on the connection between environment, agriculture, and health and nutrition policy.

MA: What are some of your main responsibilities?

BS: My team is like a small think tank within the company that assesses risk and opportunity. We build internal and external relationships to help mitigate risk and pursue opportunities. I focus on the part of our sustainability program that works to bring our agricultural suppliers on a journey of continuous improvement. I am also focused on a number of dairy issues, because I have a lot of experience with dairy farmers from my work at the Department of Agriculture -- and through my representation at the World Economic Forum’s New Vision for Agriculture, where I am part of global food security discussions.

MA: Was there an "Aha! moment" when you decided you wanted to work on environmental sustainability?

BS: Funny story -- I grew up in Westchester County and am probably the only person from my high school graduating class who now knows how to calibrate a manure spreader! But I’ve always loved being in the outdoors, hiking, and exploring rural areas. I think my sort of "Aha! moment" was the realization that I wanted to bring together all the different things I liked to do. When I finished up my master's (degree), I became a bit more strategic and started to do things that would open as many career doors as possible.

For example, I went to work in the rainforest in Madagascar to help a friend doing doctoral research on lemurs. Then, I began a research assistant position in Israel on desert rodents and snakes, which serendipitously led to my doctoral research project on arid land agroforestry with a different researcher in Israel. Now, in my current role, I get to bring together agriculture, economics, social issues, and business economics.

MA: When people hear about PepsiCo, they may just think of Pepsi Cola, but could you explain better the many different branches of your business and how sustainability is integrated?

BS: We do hear a lot of people say “Oh yeah, Pepsi Cola,” and they may not realize that PepsiCo is a global food and beverage company with revenues of more than $65 billion and 22 brands that each generate more than $1 billion, including our main businesses: Quaker, Tropicana, Gatorade, Frito-Lay and Pepsi-Cola. We have woven our sustainable business strategy of Performance with a Purpose into our entire organization. We really view sustainability as the catalyst for business growth and innovation. We can only be financially successful if we’re globally responsible.

MA: Is there a department dedicated to sustainability? How is it woven into the corporate structure?

BS: Sustainability is integrated into every aspect of our business operating model. There are sustainability-focused people in various areas of the company globally. For example, my position is in Corporate Affairs. All the people who are working on sustainability issues come together on different councils, so we can align our internal policies, goals and activities.

MA: Why is PepsiCo deserving of the award it recently won for water stewardship?

BS: It was a really exciting moment when we heard the news of winning this award. I was in Stockholm for World Water Week when we received it. We knew we were in the running, but we were up against a lot of good competition. It was the culmination of a lot of hard work but also a catalyst that continues to get people excited about our goals. In 2011, four years in advance of our target, we reached our goal of reducing our water usage by 20 percent per unit of production from a 2006 baseline. Water is critical to our business, and being presented with this award was a validation of our efforts in making the most of every drop used.

MA: We know that water is a focus of beverage companies, but what is an emerging sustainability issue at a company like Pepsi? 

BS: As a food and beverage company, everything we make comes from an agricultural raw material. Increased flood and drought events and the threat of climate change make water a very important issue. We’ve worked on tools to help growers use less water and use drip irrigation in places and on crops that they may have never used it before. But another big issue is carbon.

We have done cradle-to-grave carbon footprinting on some of our products. We developed and are scaling up use of the Cool Farm Tool  in partnership with the University of Aberdeen, Sustainable Food Lab, and Unilever, to help farmers manage carbon in different parts of their operations. It’s something we’re excited about and ready to scale up now. Also, i-crop is the precision farming technology we created that helps farmers manage the amount of water they’re using for their crops while maximizing yields. In the UK, I have met with farmers using this technology during recent droughts, and we’ve seen major productivity gains. We’re seeing the same results in India through other kinds of water-saving technologies.

MA: What sustainability issues do you think your consumers care the most about?

BS: People want to rest easy knowing that the food they’re consuming starts with really sustainable practices. So we started developing our Sustainable Farming Initiative two years ago to help ensure that the raw materials continue coming to the back door of our manufacturing plants, to decrease risk for the farmers and for PepsiCo, and to help build resilience in our supply chain and maintain our social license to operate. We have already piloted the environmental portion of this initiative and now we’re ready to pilot the social and economic parts. We will launch the complete program next year. We had several criteria for developing this program: It needed to be global in nature but locally relevant, applicable to any crop, any size farm, in any geography and with any farmer regardless of where they are in their embrace and understanding of sustainability.

MA: Which agricultural raw materials does your Sustainable Farming Initiative focus on?

BS: We can apply it to any crop anywhere, but when you look at our top brands like Tropicana, Quaker, Lays, and Doritos, it makes sense that our core crops would be oats, citrus, corn, and potatoes.

MA: What do you think is the best way for companies to make positive changes in their sourcing policies?

BS: Most of us in this industry see sustainability as a pre-competitive issue that requires peer-to-peer collaboration. We are a member of the Sustainable Agriculture Initiative out of Geneva, where we work with 40 peer companies on the core principles of our sustainable agriculture programs. By aligning on core principles, we can help reduce farmer fatigue that comes from responding to multiple sustainability program requests.

MA: Do you have programs specific to promoting women’s equality in the supply chain?

BS: In the agricultural pillar of our sustainability policy, we have a specific focus on women. We see diversity of gender in our supply chain as a real business advantage. We want our suppliers to mirror our employee and customer base, to be just as diverse. This diversity fuels innovation and sustainable growth. We also have different networks and employee resource programs for women that offer personal and professional development opportunities.

MA: What is a challenge you face now in your work?

BS: The biggest challenge I am facing right now is the global integration of our Sustainable Farming Initiative. We have to make the criteria work for any crop on any size farm anywhere in the world. With cultural, language, and climatic differences, and a whole myriad of other differences, it will be a big challenge to make this successful on a global scale while still remaining locally relevant.

MA: What are you most proud of accomplishing in this role?

BS: I am really proud of the development of the Sustainable Farming Initiative.  It is my concept, my baby, and I’m really excited to see it grow and come to life. I am also proud of raising the profile of a variety of nexus issues at PepsiCo, like health, nutrition, agriculture, energy and environment. While people usually focus on each of these issues in isolation, we should be focusing on them all together.

MA: What advice would you give other professionals aspiring to work on similar issues?

BS: First of all, I’d say to stick with it. If you get discouraged, don’t give up. You will face challenges in places where you least expect them. Hold onto your creativity and know that you’re doing the right thing. Focus on integrating sustainability into the DNA of any company.  Rome wasn’t built in a day. It is also important to be a team player. You can’t go this one alone. You have to be able to bring in other people from other areas of the business. This means knowing how to speak more than just your own language. Sometimes, you need to use hard science to convey the message to other functions.  So, stick with it, be creative, and be a team player.  

MA: Do you have any last thoughts to share?

BS: I am now in what I envisioned as my dream role in the late 1980s when I was finishing my Masters. I have the opportunity to weigh in on a whole array of important things like innovation and productivity, and I am very grateful to be in that position. Industry has moved along a lot the last twenty years, especially in the food and beverage sector. People really understand how sustainability needs to be integrated and this presents a great opportunity. So, if you want to do this, you CAN do it.

Photo of Beth Sauerhaft provided courtesy of PepsiCo