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I’ve been working in sustainability my whole career. Ten years ago, we were just trying to get the attention of the C-suite. Now we’re key to our company’s success. In 2016, as we started to work on a social purpose strategy, it became very clear that the food industry, and in particular the food system, had some big challenges. Agriculture accounts for well over 20% of global greenhouse gas emissions. We saw a disconnect in society, as well. Why are 800 million people on the planet undernourished, yet two billion are overweight? And why do we waste one-third of our food? We realized our company could influence the Canadian food system for good.

Maple Leaf Foods VP of SustainabilityThe Globe and Mail

Maple Leaf’s vision is to be the most sustainable protein company on Earth. When we started to roll out our “Raise the Good in Food” strategy, we held workshops across the company, from our CFO to the front line, and asked for ideas. We had already set the boldest goal for our industry—a 50% reduction in our environmental footprint by 2025. And employees said, “If we want to be the most sustainable protein company on Earth, why are our environmental goals set at only 50%?” That’s what catalyzed our carbon management strategy. And here we are—in November 2019, we became the world’s first major carbon-neutral food company.

It takes a significant effort to document your direct and indirect greenhouse gas emissions, the latter of which are all your supply chain emissions. It was an 18-month process, but it gave us a baseline carbon inventory, which allowed us to focus on where we could have the most impact. What’s interesting is that the vast majority of emissions for food companies are indirect—from growing crops to feed our animals or to use as ingredients in our products, all the way through to the consumer and how they use and dispose of them.

When we set our science-based targets in 2019—part of the Science Based Targets Initiative, a global partnership that gives companies a path to reducing emissions in line with the Paris Agreement—we were one of only three Canadian companies to get approved. That was a shock. We thought Canadian companies were much bolder. Two years later, there are close to 40 Canadian companies involved, and I think that’s partly due to an open letter our CEO, Michael McCain, sent to Canadian CEOs saying, “We’re in the midst of a climate crisis. Come on, Canada—let’s pick things up.”

Data is the great enabler for sustainability. We have sophisticated data-gathering tools for our direct greenhouse gas emissions, and we report those every year. We hit a goal of a 20% footprint reduction by 2020. We couldn’t have done that without being able to measure it. Those automated systems are super-important. But when it comes to supply chain, that’s where we need to rely on our industry partners. More and more suppliers are asking us about the processes we’ve used, so they can start on the climate journey themselves. There’s been an explosion of companies committing to net-zero pathways and science-based targets.

There’s been a tipping point in broader society, too. We’re seeing devastation from natural disasters worldwide, and there’s no denying it’s caused by human activity. The world is woke to the issue, and that keeps me motivated. /Interview by Alex Mlynek

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