The Food Journal and Food, Nutrition & Science

An alliance between The Lempert Report and The Center for Food Integrity

Sustainability Series: General Mills

Sustainability Series: General Mills


July 29, 2012

General Mills is one of the largest food companies in the world, marketing in more than 100 countries on six continents with 35,000 employees. Their brands are known around the world for quality, beginning with Gold Medal flour in 1880, which to this day remains the No. 1 selling flour in the United States. Other brands include Pillsbury, Green Giant, Cheerios and Betty Crocker. We talked to Jerry Lynch, Chief Sustainability Officer, General Mills, about their focus on providing customers and consumers the best quality products while working to sustain the environment. 

How does your business define sustainability?

Being a responsible corporate citizen – socially, economically and environmentally – is at the core of General Mills Nourishing Lives mission, culture and business strategy. We believe that doing well for our shareholders goes hand in hand with doing well for our consumers, our communities and the planet. The definition of sustainability sets a very clear objective for us. Sustainability means “meeting the needs of the current generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs.” General Mills’ commitment to sustainability dates back decades. As early as the 1930s, the company was using recycled paperboard packaging, and our Green Giant Brand was using crop rotation practices. This foundation has evolved into integrating environmental sustainability initiatives into other areas of our business. Today, as the world’s sixth largest food company, we understand that a small action on our part can have a big impact elsewhere. We want that impact to be a positive one. Our environmental mission is to protect and conserve the natural resource base on which our business depends. We build consumer loyalty, societal trust and shareholder value by integrating sustainability into our strategies, our operations and our products.

How are you incorporating sustainable practices into your business?

Sustainability is very purposely seeded throughout our organization – from our manufacturing facilities around the globe to our corporate campus in Minneapolis. The responsibility to steward the planet we share doesn’t live within a single “green team” at General Mills. Instead, we operate with the expectation that all of our 35,000 employees around the globe view our business with a lens on sustainability.

What are your short term and long term goals?

We are committed to making General Mills an even more sustainable company, and we take our responsibility to be good stewards of the planet’s resources seriously. Since 2005, we have set global environmental sustainability goals in the area of water, energy, greenhouse gases and solid waste. In 2010, we established new, more aggressive goals including a North American transportation goal and a packaging metric. These goals will stretch us to continuously improve our environmental performance and further incorporate sustainable strategies, processes and products throughout our operations. By 2015, we aim to:

  • Reduce our water usage rate by 20 percent
  • Reduce our solid waste generation rate by 50 percent
  • Reduce our energy usage rate by 20 percent
  • Reduce our rate of greenhouse gas emissions by 20 percent
  • Reduce transportation fuel used to ship a pound of product by 35 percent
  • Improve 40 percent of our packaging volume

Furthermore our commitment to being good corporate citizens extends globally to our sourcing activities, suppliers and vendors. We’re working on a number of fronts to ensure that the ingredients we buy are sourced in a socially and environmentally friendly way. More information on General Mills progress is detailed in the company’s2012 Global Responsibility Report.

Where do you think you’ll have the biggest impact?

With help from several external organizations, General Mills has developed a sustainable sourcing model for ingredients we purchase to make our products. This is a major step forward in our mission to conserve and protect the natural resources that our company depends on. In 2011, we worked to complete a comprehensive, in-depth assessment of all the ingredients and materials we buy worldwide. Ingredients and materials were measured against dozens of potential risk categories, such as animal welfare, greenhouse gas emissions, soil loss, water quality and water use. In addition, because we recognize that General Mills accounts for only a portion of the environmental footprint of our products, we began asking our top suppliers to complete our “supplier scorecard,” which asks for data on energy use, greenhouse gas emissions, water use, and solid waste generation associated with the ingredients or materials we use to make our products. With our supplier scorecard, we will be able to make a greater impact on the total environmental footprint. With the model completed, we are now developing specific strategies for sustainably sourced ingredients.

How do you measure your progress?

We measure our progress against the goals we set. We are more than halfway toward achieving three of our 2015 global sustainability goals on water, solid waste and packaging. And we continue to drive down our energy consumption, greenhouse gas emissions and use of transportation fuel. Between fiscal 2011 and 2010, we have reduced the amount of solid waste generated by 7,000 metric tons, cut water usage by more than 550,000 cubic meters, lowered greenhouse gas emissions by 10,000 metric tons, and reduced our total energy use by nearly 50 million kilowatt hours. We are continuously working to improve our environmental performance and further incorporate sustainable strategies, processes and products throughout our operations. Some examples include:

  • General Mills’ Albuquerque facility is currently recycling 90 percent of its output – up from 48 percent in 2010. Every month, about 33 fewer tons of waste go into area landfills near the plant thanks to an expanded recycling program that includes corrugated boxes, carton cores, sacks, and other items that typically get tossed out.
  • We have installed “scoop showers” in about 30 of our Haagen-Dazs shops, which saves water and money. The new “scoop shower” is keeping ice cream scoops clean without running the water tap all day. The innovation, which reduced water use by 75 percent and estimated to save US$1 million per year, is now being installed in company-owned Häagen-Dazs shops around the world.
  • At our flour mill in Fridley, Minn., we identified a beneficial use for the 80,000 tons of oat hulls that were left over from the milling process. Thanks to the installation of a new biomass burner, the oat hulls are now used as an energy source to produce about 90 percent of the steam used to heat the plant and produce oat flour used to make Cheerios and other products. In addition to reducing solid waste, burning oat hulls on site has reduced the plant’s carbon footprint by more than 20 percent. The company also saves about $400,000 per year, mostly from reduced reliance on natural gas.

How do retailers factor into your efforts?

We actively partner with customers on initiatives that drive greater resource efficiency in our shared supply chain.

Why are sustainable business practices important to the food industry?

Our ability to continue to operate will be dependent on the future of ingredients that we use to produce the food we sell. Sustainability is not only something our customers, consumers and employees support, but it’s also good business. We believe this effort will drive financial, strategic, and competitive advantage. We work collaboratively to minimize the environmental footprint of our businesses. This includes efforts to further embed sustainability into our use of raw materials, our manufacturing methods, our selection of packaging and the distribution of our products.

Why are sustainable business practices important to the consumer?

Our consumers care. American consumers are paying attention to what companies are doing with regard to the environment. They are increasingly turning to companies that share their sensibilities and embracing firms that reflect their values.


*About the photo: General Mills’ agricultural team has been working with local broccoli and cauliflower growers in Irapuato, Mexico to encourage them to adopt a technology called drip irrigation that significantly reduces water usage. By directing water to drip slowly to the roots of the plants, drip irrigation uses 50 percent less water than the more conventional furrow irrigation. Drip irrigation is now being used in about 43 percent of the acreage. General Mills estimates that 1.1 billion gallons of water are saved annually. Drip irrigation also reduces the use of pesticides and improves yields, making it an effective, efficient and more environmentally friendly way to nourish crops. To encourage farmers to adopt drip irrigation, General Mills has provided farmers with interest-free loans to purchase equipment. Their intention is to provide the loans for 10 years so they can expand drip irrigation acres by about 5 percent a year.

In upcoming issues, we will feature interviews with food companies that are making strides in their sustainability efforts. If you are interested in telling us more about what your company is doing to get involved please contact us