Few companies are as deeply invested in protecting the environment as Stonyfield Farm.
That’s because the New Hampshire-based organic yogurt company was literally born from a mission to help family farms achieve sustainable agricultural practices.
20-nine years ago, Chairman and former CEO Gary Hirshberg and his partner, Samuel Kaymen, began selling yogurt as a way to finance a rural education centre where people could learn about organic farming.
That idea eventually turned into a business, and in 1988, five years after Stonyfield produced its first batch of yogurt, the founders left their hilltop farm for a modern industrial plant in Londonderry, N.H.
Today, despite the leap from cottage industry to large-scale enterprise (the yogurt maker is now a $400 million company), sustainability continues to be a key part of Stonyfield’s identity and core value system.
We spoke with Wood Turner, Stonyfield’s Vice President of Sustainability Innovation, about his role as a leader of the company’s environment initiatives.
Business Insider: What do you do?
Wood Turner: Our company is split up into two pieces. I do all non-agricultural sustainability and we have another person, our director of organic and sustainable agriculture, who is responsible for our organic leadership and interactions with key agricultural suppliers. I am responsible for manufacturing sustainability and operational sustainability as a processor of yogurt.
BI: That’s very technical. Could you describe a sample day?
WT: I’m responsible for not only how we communicate about our activities externally, but I’m also focused on how we communicate internally with our employees and keeping them engaged in our programs. I may be involved in a strategy session in finding new and more innovative ways to communicate with the consumer about our packaging design, transportation, or zero-waste strategies and then I’ll move into another session that’s entirely focused on how we integrate objectives from one of our environmental programs into the manufacturing structure of our company.
A company like Stonyfield can’t be successful as an environmental leader if we’re only focused on a single green team. We have to function as a company-wide green team. I engage with our operation teams on a regular basis. I talk to marketing and salespeople about our relationships with customers. I’m heavily involved in supply-chain engagement and training new employees.
BI: How long have you been with the company and when was your position created?
WT: We’ve had this position at the company for 15 years. We’ve been very focused on sustainability from the beginning. I was the founding executive director of ClimateCounts.org, a nonprofit that Stonyfield helped start. So I’ve been in the Stonyfield universe since 2006. I came into this role last year.
Bi: Do you have an environmental background?
WT: Yes, I’ve been focused on sustainability for 20 years from a variety of perspectives: non-profit, business, and policy. I knew I wanted it to be the focus of my career since I was very young, and when I came to understand the breadth of our global environmental challenges in college, it sealed it for me. In addition to my professional experience, I have a graduate degree in urban and environmental planning as the technical basis for my understanding of and expertise in sustainability.
BI: Who do you report to?
WT: I sit in our sourcing development group. I send our reports to the VP of sourcing.
BI: How is sustainability incorporated into the company’s culture and business strategy?
WT: A company like Stonyfield is relatively small, but we have a disproportionately large interest in sustainability leadership, not only in the manufacturing sector, but also how our food system operates, how food is produced and farmed and what agriculture looks like in the U.S. and the world.
We’ve been focused on environmental leadership since the beginning. It’s always been much more about leadership than compliance or any kind of category benchmarking. We’re focused on setting the bar for leadership in the marketplace.
Being focused on sustainability is a key point of differentiation for us; it’s essential to how we continue to build a deep relationship with our consumers. The organic market place creates value for the consumer in terms of helping nutrition. It creates value for the environment in the way of reducing pesticides, herbicides, and synthetic fertilizers being applied to the land. It creates value for farmers who are able to get a more livable pay price for their milk — those things come together to create a product that consumers are drawn to.
BI: OK, so how does Stonyfield measure its environmental impact?
WT: We’ve been focused on key metrics related to environmental impact for many years. We were the first U.S. manufacturer to offset 100 per cent of our facility greenhouse gas emissions. One of the things that I’m responsible for is our cross-functional, multi-team MAP (Mission Action Program), which focuses on nine key areas: facility greenhouse gas emissions, water, zero waste, green chemistry, packaging, transportation, milk, non-milk ingredients, and SWOT (Stonyfield Walking Our Talk) program, which is focused on employees reducing their own footprint.
These teams that span the company focus on setting targets over the year. The plans are approved by our COO, who is extremely invested in the results that come out of these MAP teams. Each year they reconstruct their plans based on the results. We’re focused on the reduced environmental impact, but what is really interesting to us are the costs that we’re able to avoid by virtue of having teams focused on reducing those impacts. From the beginning of this MAP program, which launched late 2006, through 2010, we were able to avoid upward of $18 million in expenses to our business. We were founded on the idea that you do the right thing, that you embed these environmental values into your business, but overtime we’ve realised that focusing on impacts also reduces cost.
BI: Your yogurt is now sold in leading supermarkets all over the United States. Stonyfield Canada produces yogurt in Montreal and Stonyfield Europe has ventures in France and Ireland. How do you handle explosive growth with staying true to your organic, locally-sourced roots?
WT: We’re a relatively small facility that’s deeply focused on operating as efficiently as possible. We’re invested in renewable energy. We have an anaerobic digester on site, which allows us to process any waste yogurt or water with less energy and reduced greenhouse gas emissions. We’re constantly attacking any inefficiencies in the way we operate.
BI: What would you say to people who talk about the “organic paradox,” referring to the challenges of replicating organic food production on a mass scale?
WT: It’s easy to think that when companies go beyond their modest beginnings they automatically become out-of-sync with their environmental mission. But when companies that are deeply committed to those values continue to succeed, it grows the community of people who are touched by those messages and their way of doing business.
I think there’s a paradox that businesses can’t operate more efficiently. At Climate Counts — which evaluates large companies and what they are doing to address climate change — one of things that I noticed over my five years there is that much larger companies have seen a company like Stonyfield achieve great success in terms of producing great products and keeping environmental impacts down while meeting consumer needs. A lot of those companies are now coming around to doing business that way.
BI: So you see yourself as setting an environmental standard for other corporations?
WT: If you read business environmental media, every day you see examples of large companies that are becoming more invested in renewable energy and more focused on zero-waste strategy, responsible packaging and transportation solutions.
It’s when large companies see examples like Stonyfield, Seventh Generation or Patagonia — all companies that have proven themselves as environmental leaders over the last decade — that they begin to embed their own environmental initiatives into how they work. Our focus is to show that being a good actor can move other companies that have historically not been focused on these issues. Our point of view has been that the more we’re able to reach and touch in the marketplace, the more market transformation will happen across the board.
BI: Over the last decade many global companies, including Coca-Cola, AT&T and DuPont have installed Chief Sustainability Officers. Why do you think that is — is just window-dressing or is it more than a PR move?
WT: It has to do with the intersection between environmental action and cost. Having come within a company responsible for evaluating decisions that might otherwise be wasteful, being able to weigh in on operations that could shed light on costs that could be avoided is what most of these companies are trying to do. You have to understand the culture of each company on its own. In general, for any company, focusing on sustainability is a reflection that the company has recognised that environmental impact equals waste, which equals cost. That’s what companies have to avoid in this increasingly competitive marketplace.
BI: What goals do you have for the future?
I think we can all be more focused on engaging our entire sphere of influence in a sustainability strategy. I don’t think consumers really understand how much what they say drives companies to act. We spend a long time educating and building loyalty with consumers around our environmental initiatives, but sometimes we don’t hear from as many consumers as we like. Consumers don’t even recognise how loud their voices can be heard inside companies. I get really excited when I hear from consumers who are interested in environmental activities because it helps us continue to raise the bar. That’s what gets me up in the morning.
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