Supply Chains and Sustainability: One Millennial Mom’s Challenge to Food and Agriculture Companies

Fortune’s annual “Change the World” list spotlights the top companies using profit motives to help the planet and tackle social problems. But last year, as I watched my toddler push his food around his plate, I noticed that very few of the corporate leaders listed were thinking critically about the challenge to feed our world in a sustainable way without destroying our planet.

According to a recent survey by Bain & Company, only four percent of companies feel that they’ve succeeded in achieving their sustainability goals, and 47 percent feel that they’ve failed altogether. Speaking as both a mother and a sustainable supply chain specialist, that’s simply not good enough. We are already facing the massive challenge of producing even more food with fewer inputs. We are already facing increasingly variable weather. And in just a few decades, our planet will be home to 2 billion more people to feed.

I wanted to see more food and agriculture companies on Fortune’s list. To recruit them to this quest, I’m issuing them this two-part challenge.

#1: Engage every part of your supply chain.

I’m confident that I am not the only mother who cares about the path food takes from the farm to my baby’s plate. Companies interested in our business would do well to focus on their Scope 3 emissions, which encompass every component—from product design to end use—of their supply chains.

For agricultural supply chains, there are three main stakeholders: farmers, companies and consumers. It’s important to ensure that farmers are rewarded for their stewardship, that companies feel knowledgeable about reducing their supply chain risk and consumers have access to transparent information about their environmental footprint from the foods they eat.

Translating across these groups requires patience and creativity—and it takes compromises and trade-offs. Grocers and food retailers are stepping up to show they can make a difference, but from their unique position in the middle of the supply chain, they have the opportunity and an obligation to engage both with their agricultural suppliers, as well as with everyday consumers like me.

Managing Scope 3 emissions both upstream and downstream isn’t easy, but it pays off.

#2: Collaborate to get alignment—across your supply chain and across your industry

Part of my role on the Environmental Defense Fund business team has been to understand the motivations of each of the nodes in the supply chain—from input producers like fertilizer and equipment companies; to agriculture retailers, farmers, grain aggregators, transportation and food service companies, grocery stores; and, finally, to consumers.

Getting alignment across this diverse array of nodes can be slow, complicated and even tedious. (Iiagine how different the needs and pressure points are between, say, growers and consumer packaged good companies or retailers, who are on opposite ends of the chain.) The key to getting started is collaboration—and there are many ways that companies can “partner up” to make more synergy happen in this space.

They can form relationships with environmental organizations like EDF, the World Wildlife Fund or The Sierra Club—all groups with different specialties and skills that want to help them succeed in the fight for sustainability. (Call us!)

They can communicate frankly with their suppliers. In the past year, nearly 20 major suppliers representing about 30 percent of food and beverage sales in North America have looked across their supply chains and developed collaborative plans to reduce fertilizer runoff and improve soil health.

They can even hitch themselves to an existing initiative: EDF+Business is collaborating with companies like Smithfield, Campbell Soup Company, and Land O’Lakes in response to Walmart’s fertilizer optimization goal, and the Land O’Lakes SUSTAIN platform aims to enroll 20 million acres in sustainable farming practices by 2025. And EDF is also part of the corporate initiative Midwest Row Crop Collaborative, a group of companies and NGOs that shares best practices in row crop agriculture in order to scale supply chain solutions.

Food and agriculture companies specifically have an opportunity to invest in farmers, rural communities and water quality while simultaneously reducing emissions from the sector that contributes to nine percent of the U.S. carbon footprint. Alignment up and down the chain offers up a wealth of ways to make it happen.

Accepting this challenge won’t just help companies get noticed by Fortune. It will also win them accolades from customers and shareholders—and help change the world.


Sara Kroopf is a manager on EDF+Business, which invented the model for business and environmental partnerships over 25 years ago, when it began working with McDonald’s on packaging. Sara helps EDF+Business’ food and agricultural company partners find solutions for increasing incentives for environmentally sustainable practices that mitigate greenhouse gases and enhance water quality. Before beginning her concurrent MBA and MS in Agricultural Economics degrees at UC Davis, Sara worked in international agricultural development and small-business consulting in Mali with the Peace Corps. Follow Sara on Twitter for more stories like this.