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How the Sustainability Journey Can Be a Powerful Tool for Change


August 10, 2022

At a recent Sustainable Brands virtual event, leaders from the CPG, restaurant and IT industries highlighted how they sold important ideas and ambitions around impact and responsibility internally, and how that translates to external success.

Before any company can tout sustainability work to its consumers, it must ensure there’s belief and structure for the ambitions within its own organization.

In June at Sustainable Brands™ Brand-Led Culture Change virtual event, three distinctive leaders discussed how they not only managed selling sustainability as an integral concept to company leaders, but also how to build buy-in across employee groups and other leaders outside senior leadership.

Sustainability means something much different now than it did even just two years ago; and that requires a new kind of thinking to help companies not only create specific goals and plans but follow those through to fruition.

The panel, Effecting Change from the Inside Out: Mapping the Sustainability Journey, was an insightful look into how three key sustainability champions built new foundations in this new era of sustainability and transitioned that into meaningful progress within their organizations.

At Panera Bread, VP of food beliefs, sustainability and HR Sara Burnett manages a responsibility-focused brand ethos, but within the more traditional structure of a large quick-service restaurant chain. Fellow panelist Niki King — head of sustainability at Unilever North America — faces similar challenges within Unilever’s food brands, but with the added complexities of some of the largest household cleaner and supply brands on the planet.

Rounding out the panel, Kevin Hagen — VP of ESG strategy at Iron Mountain — shared how sustainability factors into the modernization of an information management company founded to manage large quantities of materials, but now figuring out how to do the same with large quantities of data.

John Hanselman, founder and chief strategy officer at Vanguard Renewables, moderated the panel. A summary of the panelists’ responses is below.

How have you influenced behavioral change where it counts — at the factory, retail and customer level?

Burnett: One of our most successful programs to influence behavior change is the use of World Resources Institute’s Cool Food certification. By labeling low-carbon ‘Cool Food’ meals and engaging with our guests through email, social media and the e-commerce experience, we’re able to nudge our guests toward delicious, climate-friendly choices.

King: Behavioral change is incredibly difficult. Take consumers, for instance. Consumer behavior change remains key to achieving our sustainability goals. However, consumers are at different stages of their sustainability journey.

Today, consumers are vocal; and many make purchasing choices based on sustainable attributes, or because they believe in the company. However, there are also many consumers who do not. Therefore, it really has challenged us to innovate for sustainability because we know that we need to make sustainability easy for most consumers, removing the “hassle factor” for them. We think the most effective way of achieving this is not through asking them to change, but to change the systems around them. So, we have done things such as reformulating our laundry detergents so that they require less water and energy use. We have also launched refillable products, which are designed to support behavior changes. These are just a couple of examples of how we are influencing behavior change; but there is so much more to be done!

What are some examples of ‘big & ambitious’ sustainability goals you shared publicly, but missed? What was learned from the missed goals?

Burnett: To date, we have not missed any of our ambitious goals.

King: As part of our Unilever Sustainable Living Plan, which ran from 2010-2020, we had a goal to source 100 percent of our agricultural raw materials sustainably. As the plan came to an end, we were at 67 percent. This was partly because of our lack of scale to achieve sufficient change across all crops that we source. And partly because the length and complexity of some supply chains make it very difficult to develop a line of sight on the farmers at the very beginning of that supply chain, and thus to reassure ourselves that their practices are sustainable. We refocused our sustainable sourcing efforts on a set of 12 priority crops which are not only crucial to our brands, but also where we can have the most impact within their agricultural sectors.

Despite missing our target to source all agricultural raw materials sustainably, for the 12 priority crops that make up around two-thirds of our total volume of agricultural raw materials, 92 percent were sustainably sourced in 2020.

What have been the biggest challenges and how did you/your team overcome them?

Burnett: A challenge we have experienced most recently is maintaining supply of high-quality ingredients that meet our standards. For example, over the past two years, supply chain volatility has led to limited supply of meat raised without antibiotics. To overcome this challenge, our team has taken a 360-degree approach from choosing to market items with more stable supply chains to bringing on new supply partners. The one constant is staying true to our commitments and maintaining integrity with our mission and purpose.

King: Truly embedding sustainability is the biggest challenge that I have witnessed. ‘Truly embedded’ means that everyone at the company understands their part when it comes to achieving the company’s sustainability goals. This means there is a sustainability culture in place. Overcoming it is not easy, but it can be done by:

  • Ensuring accountability — one of the best ways to do this is through a governance structure. Some organizations also choose to make it part of annual objectives or OKRs.
  • Educating employees — do they understand what you are trying to do and why? One of the things that I try to do now is to bring my key internal stakeholders to sustainability conferences to broaden their thinking.
  • Creating a culture where employees are not scared to take risks or innovate when it comes to sustainability

How has the pandemic impacted this journey?

Burnett: While the food industry faced big challenges such as associate safety and supply chain disruption over the past 2+ years, it also was a time where consumer sentiment shifted in a way that supports a more sustainable business model. During this time, we saw a rise in understanding and recognition of the impact that we personally and our organizations have on our teams, our neighbors and our planet. Out of crisis comes change and I believe we can use these challenges and changes in consumer behavior to make real progress across the industry.

Hagen: For many companies, has accelerated pressures on recruiting and retaining great people. That has influenced how we hire and manage talent — especially when it comes to sustainability. Sustainability really feels like a disruptive technology. It’s changing jobs everywhere; and there are new skills and competencies required across all functions. For example, if you want to be in procurement, you really need to know what a life cycle assessment is, and what supply chain resilience looks like and why that’s important. Facilities and operations people need to know about BREEAM, LEED and other green building specs and so much more. If you’re in marketing, you better understand greenwashing and how to avoid it. The challenge is that even seasoned professionals need to upskill to stay relevant. The great news is that people across the organization are finding opportunities to use their day job to make a huge difference for their company, for the environment and society and for themselves.

King: Honestly, the most unexpected thing for me is that sustainability did not take a back seat during the pandemic. I really thought that this would be one of the things that may slow down as the pandemic continued. It has been the opposite: Companies are putting more efforts and resources behind it than ever before.

Additionally, what is so great is that as companies are rethinking their workplaces, culture really comes into play. With many employees shifting to remote and hybrid working, companies had to find new ways to protect and support them. It really led to profound changes to the operating models, with remote working and flexible structures becoming more prevalent. The pandemic really has shown us that we often can’t tackle a big issue alone and that we must collaborate. We saw that governments and companies can respond quickly to a crisis, and that industry collaboration is possible. So, it has taught us that when it comes to the big issues within sustainability, we can tackle those too if we come together and collaborate.

It highlighted the importance of health, safety and wellbeing, which have all become central to the resiliency and sustainability discussion in a way that it has never occurred before. Companies that integrated sustainability and transparency strategically into their business operations prior to the pandemic didn’t change course. More importantly, they were much more agile in responding to unexpected events.

What, if anything, would you have done differently?

King: I would have leaned into my HR partners more. They can help create that necessary culture.

At the start of the journey, how did you determine which one of the 4 Ps (People, Planet, Prosperity, Plastics) as the best place to start — and how did you determine this?

Burnett: I believe that the best place to start a sustainability journey is with your organization’s mission and purpose, combined with your brand’s points of distinction and differentiation. The most successful programs are linked tightly to your core beliefs and how you serve your customers. If you do so, commitments and related actions will become a natural extension of how you do business, instead of added complexity.

Final thoughts

Every industry is unique, and all companies are at different stages on their sustainability journey.


Niki, Sara and Kevin provided us with great ideas and touchpoints to guide us on our own sustainability journeys. I look forward to what they continue to do in their organizations and know that their stories have inspired others in the sustainability field to keep on fighting the good fight. It’s never easy to make systemic changes in any industry; but hopefully, taking what we learned from these three distinct leaders back to our own organizations will help make that change a little bit easier.

John Hanselman, founder and chief strategy officer at Vanguard Renewables