When food retailers and consumer packaged goods companies talk about sustainability, often it’s energy efficiency, reusable bags, emissions reductions and food waste that get most of the oxygen. But sustainability in 2020 is about a lot more than being green. It’s primarily about people, or your employees. And supporting employees has never been more critical than it is now, as the nation faces a pandemic, a deep recession and racial division.
The killing of George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis in May generated one of the largest protest movements that the United States has ever seen. And the intense reactions from consumers and employees to those protests suggest that the standard corporate sustainability playbook may need to be rewritten.
- Organizations can’t be sustainable without protecting the safety, health and social welfare of their associates.
- Employees and consumers alike want their preferred retail and CPG brands to take a firm stand on social and political issues.
- Developing talent by providing career advancement, educational opportunities and the chance to learn new skills is also key.
More than ever before, food retailers and CPG companies must embrace the sustainability pillars of profit, planet and people in a new way. This means that organizations can’t be sustainable without protecting the safety, health and social welfare of their most vital resource: workers. Many food retailers and CPG firms have embraced this new sustainable-workforce mindset as a way to showcase their values, measure impacts and outcomes, and increase their competitive advantage.
Today, to be impactful, any corporate sustainability framework requires a deep integration of the three “people pillars” of social justice, opportunity and education. Many employees and consumers now see social justice, which includes diversity, inclusion and racial equity, as a necessity, not just buzzwords. One company meeting this new challenge head-on is PepsiCo. The Purchase, N.Y.-based beverage giant knows that by helping its workforce not just survive, but also thrive, employees will give back to the economy, the community and the environment.
“Even before the COVID-19 pandemic ... the food system was under tremendous stress,” said PepsiCo CEO Ramon Laguarta in the company’s latest sustainability report, released in June. “The past few months have been among the most challenging in recent memory. COVID-19 has profoundly transformed how we work, parent, shop, learn and socialize. It has caused unfathomable grief and taxed our social infrastructure like nothing before, laying bare longstanding inequalities and injustices.”
Laguarta noted that the company has set three “aspirations,” or goals, to transform its business for the new age of corporate social sustainability (CSS) or corporate social justice (CSJ), two topics now used interchangeably.
“We know that systemic problems require systemic solutions, and the pandemic has brought into sharp focus the larger need to address our long-term sustainability challenges,” Laguarta said. “It is clearer than ever that organizations like PepsiCo and our partners need to take bold steps to catalyze positive change and bring about a stronger, more sustainable future for us all.”
Specifically, PepsiCo has pledged a five-year, $437.5 million commitment in support of efforts to address inequality and create opportunity for Black communities and increase Black representation within the multinational company.
The CSJ era
In the post-George Floyd era, social justice, diversity and inclusion will become bigger strategic imperatives in the food retail industry. Companies won’t be able to just publish a diversity report or casual press release anymore: Employees and consumers both want their favorite retail and CPG brands to take a firm stand on social and political issues.
In June, Jeff Bezos, chief executive of Seattle-based Amazon, wrote a note to employees saying that his leadership team had been reflecting on the “systemic racism” facing Black communities, and urged employees to take time to learn about and reflect on Juneteenth, the June 19 holiday marking the end of slavery in the United States. (Amazon also announced that it would donate $10 million to organizations that are working to bring about social justice and improve the lives of Blacks and African-Americans.) Several other food retailers, including Minneapolis-based Target, made Juneteenth a paid holiday.
These strategic actions are part of a wave of moves by some companies to reframe their corporate sustainability efforts to include a social justice component. With nearly half the members of Gen Z identifying as a racial or ethnic minority, companies that prioritize social justice initiatives will have a huge leg up in recruiting and retaining the next-generation workforce.
Retailers and CPG companies looking to revamp their diversity and inclusion programs to focus on social justice should:
- Develop a Vision: Pledges and statements won’t resonate with employees or consumers unless they’re backed up by a solid vision for social good.
- Create Internal Working Groups: Stakeholders should collaborate on social justice issues and use this knowledge to proactively inform how the company acts on, and reacts to, societal problems.
- Take a Stand: Companies should talk about social justice issues and establish a clear track record of standing behind the programs that they develop to deal with them.
An Opportunity to Succeed
Amazon’s Career Choice program, for example, pays up to 95% of tuition and fees toward a professional certificate or diploma in qualified fields of study, up-leveling skill sets and allowing recipients to apply for in-demand jobs. More than 10,000 employees have participated in this initiative so far.
Other companies, such as Bentonville, Ark.-based Walmart, are investing in upskilling programs for existing employees across the organization, whether they work in physical stores, at corporate headquarters or in a warehouse. In June, Walmart announced the expansion of Live Better U (LBU) education benefits to include in-demand skilled-trade and digital-skills programs, beyond the initiative’s traditional college programs. LBU is designed to support working adult learners and meets associates where they are on their educational journeys by focusing on degree completion through a number of supportive elements, free student coaching, college credit for Walmart training and career pathways for LBU graduates. Regardless of which path an employee chooses, those who take advantage of LBU have one thing in common — they’re earning a degree or certificate along with a paycheck, without lifelong student debt.