Can Kraft Learn to Sell Sustainability?

Wed May 18, 2011 1:00am EDT

As vice president of global sustainability at Kraft Foods, Steve Yucknut has no problem selling the idea of eco-efficiency to executives at the $49 billion-a-year food giant. "If you use less energy, you save money," he says. "If you make less waste, you save money."

This is fine, as far as it goes. As Kraft reported just last week, between 2005 and 2010, the company has reduced its environmental footprint across its global operations.Specifically:

  • Energy use is down 16 percent
  • CO2 emissions are down 18 percent
  • Incoming water is down 30 percent
  • Net waste is down 42 percent

The trouble is, those reductions are measured against Kraft's "total production." So if the company sells lots and lots more stuff -- which, of course, every company wants to do -- it could end up generating more pollution, even as it becomes more efficient. That doesn't do the planet much good.

The biggest, and harder, task for Kraft is to find ways to simultaneously grow sales and pollute less.

This will require, first, digging deep into its supply chain, to make sure that the ingredients that go into its products are grown sustainably. Kraft is working on such commodities as coffee, cocoa and cashews, with partners including the Rainforest Alliance and the Gates Foundation.

It will also require changing consumer behavior, so that people think differently and then buy differently when they shop for food.

Fortunately, consumer goods companies like Kraft are very good at changing behavior; that's called marketing. The question is, can Kraft learn to sell sustainability?

Take a look:

 

 

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That commercial was one of a series touting the sustainability of Kenco coffee, a Kraft brand in the UK. All used the tagline, "Kenco. Growing great coffee and more." According to Kraft, Kenco's market share grew during the campaign.

The Planter's Nutmobile is another example. It runs on biodiesel, has solar panels on the roof and is partly made from reclaimed wood.

Mr. Peanut has become a sustainability advocate (who knew?) with more than 350,000 fans on Facebook.

I met Steve Yucknut for the first time last week in Washington. Yucknut, who is 44, was trained as a packaging engineer -- he designed the packages for ice cream and powdered drinks like Country Time lemonade -- and he's been with Kraft for 24 years. As the company's first sustainability chief, he had to define the job when he took over in 2006. "It was a clear canvas," he told me.

Kraft is a huge company, so there was plenty to do. Its brands include Oreo, Triscuit, Ritz, Maxwell House, Kool-Aid, Chips Ahoy, Jell-O, all products made by Cadbury and, of course, Kraft itself, including its array of macaroni and cheese products as well as Kraft Singles. (I neglected to ask Yucknut why it is that each slice of "cheese" requires its own plastic wrap.)

Eco-efficiency was where he began. "We started within our four walls," Yucknut said. "All things we have direct control over, that we can measure precisely." Eliminating waste of all kinds proved a win-win, saving money and reducing Kraft's footprint, so it has expanded its goals for the next five years.

Kraft is also in the process of measuring its entire environmental footprint for the first time. "We've gone from the planting of seeds to all the way through the discarding of packaging," he said. It expects to release results by fall.

The company has learned that most of Kraft's impact -- very roughly, two-thirds -- comes from its supply chain, from the growing of agricultural products. So Kraft is now looking closely at those commodities that both have a significant impact and where there is lots of room for improvement. "Cocoa, coffee, cashews -- they rise to the top of the list," he said. In each case, the goal is to drive "maximal agricultural impact out of minimal resource use," he said.

Meanwhile, Yucknut and his colleagues are also looking for ways that sustainability can drive growth. The Kenco coffee commercials are one example, as is Mr. Peanut's advocacy of renewable energy. Triscuit, meanwhile, has begun a campaign around home farming. "When you plant a seed, you grow a movement," says Triscuit, which gives away seeds in some boxes of crackers. Walmart and Kraft also worked together to promote Philadelphia Cream Cheese because it is powered, in part, by renewable energy.

"To get the mainstream brands to listen, you need to make a compelling case," Yucknut said. "We sell to average Americans."

Here, Kraft may be able to make a difference that goes beyond its own walls. If the marketing folk at Kraft can sell Kool-Aid, Tang, Cool-Whip and single slices of "cheese food," maybe they can sell more Americans on the idea that finding ways to consume sustainably is good for us and for the earth.

Image Credits -- Logo from Kraft, photo of grocery shelves iCC licensed by Flickr user Clean Wal-Mart.

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