Tyson Foods Commits to Food Sustainability

by Marty Cook  on Monday, Sep. 11, 2017 12:00 am   5 min read

At a conference in New York earlier this year, Tyson Foods CEO Tom Hayes promoted the Springdale company’s commitment to creating a sustainable food program. The company, Hayes said, wanted to help create a healthier environment, a healthier workforce and healthier animals.

“For us, sustainability isn’t a single issue; it’s about focusing on multiple dimensions in order to advance the whole,” Hayes said at the Consumer Analyst Group of New York Conference in February. “We will use our reach, capabilities and resources to drive positive change at a scale we believe no other company can match.”

Tyson followed up the announcement with another: the hiring of Justin Whitmore as the company’s chief sustainability officer, a position created specifically to direct the company’s new sustainability efforts. Whitmore joined Tyson on May 1 after working as an associate partner at McKinsey & Co. of Chicago, a management consulting firm.

While the company’s sustainability strategy has been put in place, Whitmore told Arkansas Business the specific details and goals haven’t been finalized. At the CAGNY Conference, Hayes said the company wanted to reduce workplace injuries by 15 percent annually and, in a 2016 sustainability report, Tyson Foods said it would like to see water use at its facilities reduced by 12 percent by 2020.

“The strategic intent is the important part here; it starts with sustainably feeding the world,” Whitmore said in a recent interview. “If we’re going to state that as part of who we are and what we are trying to pursue, we have to define what sustainability is. Tyson Foods, throughout its history, has been stewards of its environment, stewards of the animals that are under our care.

“It basically is focused on what is our approach for maintaining the ecology, the society we serve, the workforce that works for us, while accounting for the economic prosperity of Tyson over time.”

Whitmore expects Tyson to release soon the specific objectives in each sustainability segment, and the company is being thorough in researching what it is doing and where it wants to be.

“We have not announced public commitments yet,” Whitmore said. “One of the charges of my role is [to] establish what Tyson’s bold public commitments are going to be in animal well-being, in food, in environment, in workforce and in our community.”

New Ways of Thinking
As Hayes said at the CAGNY Conference, Tyson’s focus on sustainability will cross multiple points: energy use, water use, animal and worker welfare and greenhouse gas emissions among them. While reducing the company’s impact on the environment and improving safety would seem to be good goals in and of themselves, Tyson is a public, for-profit company and sustainability practices have to make financial sense, too.

“By investing in sustainability, we’ll create a beneficial cycle that pays for itself over time,” Hayes said during Tyson’s third-quarter earnings conference call in May. “To be successful, we must step up our focus on continuous improvement to reduce waste and costs.”

The sustainability program will not necessarily mean new investments will be used, Whitmore said.

“Our company is going to spend on capital very close to the same rates that we have in recent years,” Whitmore said. “This work is built into how we are going to execute as a company and how we are going to drive returns for investors and better outcomes for our employees, consumers, customers, etc. The investment is coming from the same budgets we were using before.

“This is not to say Tyson isn’t investing in sustainability, because actually sustainability drives economic performance. It drives better environmental outcomes; it drives better social outcomes. The willingness of the leadership team to invest differently is the exciting part.”

Whitmore said Tyson would avoid projects or initiatives that don’t serve the dual purposes of advancing sustainability goals and improving Tyson’s bottom line.

“I would say sustainability is good for Tyson,” Whitmore said. “It is economic, social and environmental, all moving at the same time. It’s our job to identify the projects that do all of those things, rather than focusing on projects where there is a significant tradeoff.

“No. 1, we’re not going to launch projects that don’t allow Tyson to thrive. If Tyson Foods isn’t thriving, then the sustainability work can’t thrive. We’re investing in the now and the profitability of today, but we also to take the time to think through what Tyson is going to look like 20 years from now and be willing to make some of those calls. We have a great balance here.”

Whitmore said one of the things Tyson has already set in motion is a willingness to collaborate with third parties or non-governmental organizations with expertise in sustainability issues. Whitmore said Tyson, in an effort to improve the treatment of its animals, has video surveillance in processing plants that are audited by independent third parties to ensure humane treatment.

Tyson announced earlier this year a workforce safety program that was championed by Oxfam America of Boston, a nonprofit organization that fights poverty. Oxfam praised Tyson for its program, which will be monitored by third parties, to improve the safety and working condition of its poultry workers.

“Oxfam applauds Tyson Foods for these substantial steps,” said Minor Sinclair, Oxfam’s director of U.S. regional office. “Tyson’s commitment to accountability and transparency will be key to significantly improving conditions for poultry workers.”

Tyson is also partnering with the World Resources Institute to help develop its goals for subjects such as greenhouse gas emissions, Whitmore said. The WRI, a global research NGO, said Tyson’s commitment could have a profound leadership effect on other companies, especially in the food and agriculture industries.

“Tyson is newer than some other companies to the whole sustainability game,” said Cynthia Cummis, WRI’s director of private sector climate mitigation.

“They’re not on the list of the typical companies you see as considered sustainability experts, which is great. That’s why we want to work with them, to help them get there and be one of the leaders. They haven’t been focused on this as much as some other companies have been over the last decade.

“I think it is a great message when you see a company like Tyson taking sustainability seriously because they are not a usual suspect. It sends a strong message to other companies who are also not usual suspects that they need to also be taking this issue seriously if they want to future-proof their company and continue to grow in a sustainable way.”

Cummis said it is important, on issues like greenhouse gas, that Tyson base its goals and procedures on verified science. It’s the best way to ensure meaningful results.

Any company, Cummis said, needs to “first understand what their impact is and have a real quantitative understanding of what their impact is and where are those impacts coming from. We are really heartened by their commitment to this issue. We’re looking forward to seeing what direction they go in. They’re in the early stages.”



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