Leading Sustainable Organizations
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Wood Turner has been working in sustainability for 20 years. In 2006, he left his work at a sustainability and brand strategy firm in Seattle to lead Climate Counts, a nonprofit incubated within Stonyfield. Climate Counts scores and ranks 150+ large companies in 16 sectors on what they’re doing to address climate change. In his role as VP of sustainability innovation at Stonyfield, Turner has continued his work on bringing climate-conscious practices into the core of business operations, with a focus on engaging consumers by illuminating Stonyfield’s supply chain.
In an interview with MIT Sloan Management Review’s Nina Kruschwitz, Turner described the collaborative processes that make this strategy work for Stonyfield.
What are some of the challenges you’ve faced in developing Stonyfield’s sustainability collaborations?
We’ve had a cross-functional collaborative effort here at Stonyfield since 2006 that we’ve called our Mission Action Program. The actual sustainability team is quite small, but there are people in other functions who support our mission by working on sustainability projects.
Those projects are ongoing collaborations that we have with purchasing, with logistics and supply chain, with manufacturing and engineering, and so on. And those are important and challenging, because the people in those areas are being measured on other indicators and metrics that don’t always align perfectly with what we’re trying to do on sustainability. It gets complicated in terms of how successful we are in building bridges to other functionsto advance our sustainability leadership.
Can you give me an example of an internal collaboration that was successful?
We recently completed a project called Source Map. It’s a website that allows anyone to see where we source or obtain the materials for our products. It has a great graphic interface, with a lot of information and stories. You probably remember that the Sourcemap platform used to live at MIT. Leo Bonanni [formerly of MIT’s Media Lab, and founder and CEO of Sourcemap] built a relationship with us at Stonyfield years ago to move the Sourcemap platform forward at Stonyfield. It was a great collaboration internally between sustainability, the purchasing team, our communications and social media team, and our digital marketing team to bring something forward that had resonance for customers and consumers. And it’s been very successful, very well received already by the media, retail customers and consumers.
It’s one of those projects that people in our organization have been instantly excited about. These kinds of collaborations reinvigorate people about what it is that we’re trying to do. People get caught up sometimes when they’re working with blinders on and in their individual silos working on their specific responsibilities, they lose sight of the higher meaning or the bigger meaning that we’re trying to advance here. And this kind of collaboration really recharges the team and builds bridges inside the organization. It’s been very successful.
And what about external collaborations?
For a company like Stonyfield, the external collaborations come much easier. We have 31 years of credibility in sustainability and can go out to NGO partners, cocreators, funders or whoever it is and make the case for different collaborations with a high degree of integrity.
Are you working on any projects right now that involve more than one other organization?
We’ve been working for several years with a group called the Sustainable Food Lab, a nonprofit based in Vermont, on a supply chain innovation project. We have been buying bananas from a grower association in Costa Rica for many years and have a great relationship with them. The fruit is beautiful. We buy incredible banana puree made from Gros Michel bananas, which are quite rare. These are non-plantation bananas that grow in the forest alongside cacao and other tropical fruits.
But they [the grower association] have historically relied on downstream processors, contract processors that turn the banana into puree that we can use in our yogurt. Over the years, there’s been a lot of instability on those downstream processors. They’ve lost processors, they’ve had to rely on much bigger processors who don’t have the interest in small-batch, organic banana processing in the context of the much, much larger processing that they do.
It’s really put a squeeze on our growers and has affected their ability to see any significant margins. And it affects our security of supply, which creates all kinds of challenges for us.
So we’ve decided — in collaboration with them — to disrupt their business model by installing small-scale processing capability at the grower-association level. The goal is that they’re not just responsible for growing bananas but that they’re growing bananas and processing them, and then selling them directly into the global marketplace.
So you’re really changing the market. And who is involved?
It involves us, it involves the suppliers, [and] it involves the Sustainable Food Lab, who acts as our NGO project manager. They really have a lot of expertise in this area in terms of building capacity and driving the viability of smallholder farms in many parts of the world.
But it also involves a collaboration with our parent company, Groupe Danone, because Groupe Danone is quite interested in solidifying the ecosystems in its business. And by “ecosystem” — they use the term to talk about the ecosystem that exists in the communities where we do work, where their business is, around suppliers. What’s happening in those communities? Is there a social impact from those engagements? Is there job growth? and so on.
They’ve been actively involved in this project, and [they] are looking at us and saying, “Well, if you can show us that smallholder processing capability is a viable model, this could be something that we’d want to see happen around the world, because it allows us to take a link out of the value chain and really begin to do something powerful in increasing the money that goes back into the communities where we do business.”
Many companies are not operating collaboratively at that level of sophistication or complexity yet. They are more likely to be tackling efficiencies, or something like packaging.
We have always been very, very interested in packaging. Even though, from a lifecycle perspective, the end of life of our packaging is not as important as where we source the material that goes into our packaging, we’re still very interested in end of life and recycling in particular. And we’ve tried to move [toward] that for ourselves. But, as you might imagine, we’re not a huge company. It’s difficult for us to have the kind of influence on the market for recycling that we could if we had more players involved in trying to find solutions for hard-to-recycle materials.
So we’ve been in collaborations with other like-minded companies around how to advance hard-to-recycle materials. So that involves other packagers, but it also involves potential processing partners, it involves resin suppliers, it involves a lot of different players that help to round out a perspective.
I do worry sometimes that when you’ve got companies in the same category who are trying to collaborate on issues together, it’s a recipe for not applying the right kind of urgency to the work. If you have different companies that have different interests but are engaging precompetitively, sometimes it’s hard to move the ball forward. Whereas, if you’re working on an end-of-life collaboration with other companies that may be in other categories, but may be dealing with similar materials or similar challenges, I think sometimes that’s a better collaboration for getting companies together.
Who convened that collaboration?
That one came out of relationships. I’d had conversations with different parties and said, “Look, we’re trying to wrestle with this issue, what about you guys?” They said, “Yeah, we really should get together on that.” So we convened the discussion.
Sometimes the best collaborations come out of relationships. You spend a lot of time talking to other colleagues at other businesses or other organizations, and in many ways that’s how you move things forward. But a fairly traditional approach for companies that have been less engaged over the long term in sustainability and don’t have a lot of standing relationships has often been to say, “We don’t know anything about this. Who could we talk to?” And then they go out and see if they can build those relationships.
We’ve tended to have those kinds of relationships in place and so [the discussions] come together a little bit more organically.
Can you talk a little bit more about your qualms about losing a sense of urgency?
Sometimes I worry that sustainability is being incrementalized to death. There’s been so much focus, particularly in larger companies, on how we report on sustainability. How we provide assurance about the sustainability efforts that we’ve done. How many multi-stakeholder processes we’re involved in. Or how many precompetitive engagements we’re a part of. That becomes the measure for a lot of companies about whether they’re engaged on sustainability or not. Not what the outcome is. It’s more about process than outcome.
And so I worry that this has taken some of the urgency out of the work. I think we’re at a challenging moment on sustainability in business. A challenging moment on sustainability in business where — particularly in consumer-facing companies — we really, really need to get the consumer involved. We need to make sure that the consumer is engaged on these issues and is considering sustainability when they make choices. I’m not Pollyanna-ish about this. I don’t believe that every consumer is going to make a decision when they go out and buy toothpaste about whether or not the company they’re buying it from is engaged on this issue or that issue.
But I do believe we need to find ways at the brand level to bring more consumers into the conversation. And I don’t think that happens, unfortunately, when the crux of your work is reporting, assurance and behind-the-scenes stakeholder engagement.
Yes, many people have said that the consumer is really the 800-pound gorilla in the room when you talk about sustainability, particularly in consumer-goods companies.
For me, we’re at a moment where sustainability needs to be more fully aligned with our innovation strategy. I know that a lot of companies are doing a reasonably good job of avoiding negative impacts, trying to avoid cost to the business, trying to drive some productivity in the business. But not enough companies are looking at sustainability and saying, “How can we use a strategy in sustainability to anchor a longer-term innovation process?”
Too few companies are saying, “How can we rethink the way we deliver our products, goods or services, to consumers in a way that welcomes them or engages them in a sustainability conversation?”
If you could partner with anybody on a goal, what might it be? Do you have a dream collaboration?
My dream collaboration is a really, really effective retail partner collaboration. Too often the relationships for CPGs [consumer packaged goods] with retailers is very much buyer-seller. It’s how do we excite the retailer this week, or next month, or next semester, next quarter? How do we excite them with something that they think is going to pull the consumer in within the near term? It’s a very traditional kind of relationship.
If we were really successful in engaging one or two or five retail partners in something that could really transform the way consumers could engage a category or engage with our business around sustainability, I’d be thrilled. Consumers are my passion, and I really believe that you may think all day long that you’re going to move the dial in sustainability by having good content on your website or good content in social media or whatever it is, but the heart of the matter is point of sale. The heart of the matter is what the consumer sees in the store. And if the retailers are not involved in that, it is so easy to lose sight of any hard work that’s going on at the company level.
I mentioned the Source Map project earlier. I would love to see retailers saying, you know, this is revolutionary. A map that shows a company’s supply chain is a great way to engage the consumer on how much they know about the food that they buy.
And if we could bring that to life in the store in a way that would help consumers say, man, the company that works this way, I want to buy from them. What if the retail environment were more enriching than it currently is around these kinds of issues? That would be an enormously exciting collaboration. I do think it’s the heart of the matter.
We’ve got to see more collaborations that allow us to engage the consumer in a different way to really accelerate sustainability. And I do think there’s some ripe territory for it. Granted, it’s a very competitive business. Retailers operate on very tight margins. But I think there’s an opportunity for differentiation and growth at the retail level if there were a fresh way to think about the retail environment.
There’s certainly been massive growth over the last several years in things like farmers’ markets, and in different ways of shopping. Look at the “sharing economy” kinds of businesses.
That’s a movement that is on solid footing that is ripe for adaptation by more traditional retailers, that could really bring some of this kind of information forward. And change the experience. I really believe that consumers are thirsty for new experiences.
I mean, think about it. You look at iPhones or you look at smartphones. Five years ago, people didn’t even know what was possible yet, or how that experience could change your life. I’m no huge booster of our collective technology obsession, but I do think there are some very basic benefits to our lives that these phones have had. And it’s all because I think consumers wanted something different, wanted to experience their lives in a different way.
And so I do think that companies like ours, the retail partners that we sell to, could do a lot more thinking about experience design. Brand experience. Like, what it means to actually engage with a company like Stonyfield. What it means to engage with your favorite retailer. What it means to be a participant in this marketplace.
So yes, this is a dream of mine. How it takes shape is a whole different question, but I think there’s a lot of opportunity there.