If you are not familiar with General Mills, that is probably because its family of brands the company manages are its marquee names. The Minneapolis-based food giant owns the following popular food products: Cheerios, Yoplait, Haagen-Dazs, Green Giant, Gold Medal, and Betty Crocker. These are just a few name of the brands that dominate store shelves and end up in countless pantries and cupboards. The daily consumption statistics are stunning: General Mills daily provides 60 million cereal servings, 5 million cups of Yoplait yogurt, 5 million Pillsbury cookies, 2 million pounds of vegetables, and more than a million servings of ice cream.
Last week General Mills released its 2010 Corporate Social Responsibility Report. Highly dependent on agriculture, the company acknowledges the challenges it faces in minimizing its operations’ impact on people and the planet. The report covers multiple projects it undertakes on the environmental, social, and governance fronts, and is full of anecdotes that detail the firm’s sustainability-related work.
When it comes to displaying hard data, General Mills is frank and offers an explanation of why the company did not meet its goals. For example, its energy consumption has incrementally decreased over the past few years, but General Mills did not meet its kilowatt hours per ton of manufactured product goal. While the food giant has incorporated various energy efficiency measures throughout its manufacturing facilities, General Mills experienced a surge in demand for breakfast cereals and granola bars–both of which require toasting and therefore, energy. Your bowl of Cheerios, by the way, is most likely the result of oat flour production and steam heating. That steam comes courtesy discarded oat hulls power part of its Fridley, Minnesota processing plant.
Greenhouse gas emissions have also trended down the past four to five years, a testament to its experimentation with renewable energy technologies like solar, wind, and biomass and the aforementioned hull power.
Moving beyond energy, General Mills also discloses impressive initiatives like wellness programs, a sum of US$100 million given to philanthropic causes in fiscal year 2010, and a commitment to ethics that is instilled throughout all layers of the organization. Topics of considerable interest to ethically minded consumers including cage-free egg procurement in Europe, responsible palm oil sourcing, concerns over BPA lining in cans, and food security all gain highlighted attention.
General Mills does not follow a particular sustainability reporting standard such as the one provided by the Global Reporting Initiative. Reading the company’s CSR report, however, makes the case for why following a standard should be considered by General Mills’ managers, and in fairness, the company is considering a move in that direction. The main problem with General Mills’ report is that it is heavy on PR messaging and full of anecdotes that often distract from the message the firm attempts to convey. While stories about solar panels on a warehouse or water efficient scoop showers at Haagen Dazs’ ice cream shops are impressive, the document often reads more like an employee newsletter than a CSR report offering serious analysis.
Once you get past the interest stories, however, General Mills’ report is an impressive step for the company, and it shows the difficulties a large food processing company faces when trying to both source and staff ethically.
On the social front, General Mills’ awards speak for itself–the company repeatedly ranks highly on the “best place to work” indices, a testimony to the strength of its work culture. As far as social, environmental, and governance issues go, the cereal, energy bar, and prepared vegetable giant overall hits the CSR mark, and is very well worth a read.