Building the story: How Mars got boardroom buy-in for its $1bn sustainability strategy

As Mars unveils a new corporate strategy to reduce emissions by 67% by 2050, edie's senior reporter Matt Mace speaks to the company's global director of sustainability Kevin Rabinovitch, to discuss how his team secured a $1bn backing from the company's chief executive.

Earlier this year, Mars’ global director of sustainability and chief climate officer Kevin Rabinovitch stood in a room of 30 people to explain his role at the global confectionary giant.

Rabinovitch told the CSR story attached to Mars’ products Dove Promises with almonds. He told how the home of most of the world’s almonds, California, was suffering from water stress. He then went on to cover the story of how Mars saves energy by recycling aluminium wrappers before finishing his presentation off with the fact that Mars uses renewable energy in the factories that make the chocolate.

That room of 30 people consisted of Rabinovitch’s son, and his son’s friends, all aged between 8 and 13, after the school invited him to present on his job role. Reflecting on that day, Rabinovitch noted something; the story he told “would have been appropriate for almost anyone who wasn’t already a full-time sustainability professional”.

Rabinovitch is aware that as supply chains become more complex, less and less people are fully able to grasp how climate change can impact them. As he explains in a recent blog post: “A few hundred years ago when most of us grew our own food, we were very aware of the start of a drought or the consequence of a badly timed hail storm. Today we rarely even know where the food we eat comes from, let alone how changes in weather and climate will affect it.”

The conversations that Rabinovitch has with his chief executive Grant Reid are likely more intricate than the school presentation, but the message has clearly resonated. Earlier this week, Mars pledged approximately $1bn into its Sustainable in a Generation plan, a new corporate strategy that sets a 67% reduction in emissions across its value chain by 2050.

Not only is this a huge sum of money to prop-up a sustainability agenda, but the company’s chief executive is acting as an unofficial ambassador for the programme. As part of the launch, Reid called on businesses to deliver a “huge step change” to combat climate change and fix a “broken” supply chain.

In order to get boardroom backing – to the tune of $1bn – and get the chief executive on-board, Rabinovitch explains that he had to shake the notion that sustainability was a set of extra targets and performance indicators. Instead, he had to show how these commitments were a “means to deliver” on some crucial corporate aims.

“One of the things that we are most proud of is that we have developed our sustainability programme and built it in in a way that it’s not the icing on the cake or the extra credit assignment, it is throughout our business strategy,” Rabinovitch tells edie.

“One corporate objective we have is recruiting and retaining talent. We recognise that smart talent is a scarce resource and recruitment is a business priority. We’ve helped build the story internally that this issue of sustainability is increasingly important to new graduates. Therefore, the work we do on sustainability and the story we tell becomes part of the way we’ll win that war for talent. It’s not just as another set of goals, but as a means to deliver some of the targets that are already important to the business leaders.”

Science-based targets

While the art of storytelling is crucial to getting boardroom buy-in, Rabinovitch is quick to note that data can sometimes paint the business case in a way that empathy and narratives can’t.

Mars originally set science-based targets for its in-house emissions in 2009. The company has since reduced emissions by more than 29% against 2007 levels, originally targeting a 40% absolute reduction by 2020.

The 40% target was established with the help of World Resources Institute (WRI). At the time, WRI recommended that Mars covered its entire value chain with a carbon target, including emissions from land use-change. According to Rabinovitch, Mars had neither the tools or the data to set a value chain target back then.

But eight years on, that target has finally been agreed and set. Mars’ new sustainability strategy includes a target to reduce emissions across the value chain by 67% by 2050. Other targets, such as a commitment to “hold flat the total land use associated with [it’s] value chain”, eliminate water use in excess of “sustainable levels” in its value chain and improve the working lives of one million people that it sources from have also been publicised.

For Rabinovitch, science-based targets helped to strengthen the business case for the new sustainability strategy, mainly because they are still ambitious and stretching despite no longer being arbitrary. As Rabinovitch explains, science-based targets serve a purpose.

“One thing that is so powerful about science-based targets is that it drives an alignment and consistency which moves the discussion to delivery rather than what the target should be,” Rabinovitch says. “If everyone who commits to them delivers on them, then we’ll avoid the worst impacts of climate change.

“These targets are stretched by design, but they target more than you know how to accomplish for a reason. Having a meaningful anchor really gets people focused and motivated and gets people talking about new strategies. If we had not gone down the path of science-based targets, I don’t think we would’ve got this to this strategy.”

Rabinovitch notes that the new targets were built from a thought process that has been eight years in the making. It’s not just an arbitrary number to make it look like the company is improving, it’s actively attempting to comply with the targets of the Paris Agreement.

The role of the messenger

Mars will also unveil a new plan to engage consumers on the climate agenda in the coming weeks. Leveraging the promoting power of one of the world’s biggest brands, M&M’s, Mars will call on consumers to champion renewable energy and combat climate change.

The company already purchases 100% renewable electricity to power all 12 of its UK factories and its US facilities. From next year, a total of 11 markets will use renewable energy to cover 100% of operations.

Looking ahead, Mars will look to account for emissions associated with deforestation, a notion that is common for national governments, but a “new idea in the corporate sector”, according to Rabinovitch. In fact, Rabinovitch claims that Mars will explore ways to sequester carbon in its supply chains to boost soil productivity and reduce emissions.

But as the agenda moves forward, it is important to note that even Reid’s role in promoting the strategy will continue. The chief executive will continue to voice his stance on climate change at the UN General Assembly and Climate Week in New York later this month. In fact, Rabinovitch believes that Reid’s role in the new strategy could have a long-lasting, although less-noticeable, impact in the private sector’s battle against climate change.

“Frankly the chief executives of other companies aren’t going to listen to what I say,” Rabinovitch adds. “But the fact that our chief executive is telling the story means that others will hear it from one of their peers. They’re much more likely to take the message to heart and pass it to their sustainability teams.

“Even who the messenger is, is part of the story and an important aspect of scaling the message to do more; in the same way, we realise the need to do more.”

Matt Mace

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