Nominations for the 2019 National Co+op Grocers Climate Collaborative Awards are open now through November 30. In anticipation of next year's awards, we're talking with the leaders of our 2018 award-winning companies to learn a little bit more about what drives their climate leadership.
Our third interview is with CROPP Cooperative Organic Valley CEO George Siemon, winner of the 2018 Outstanding Company Award (view previous interviews with Lotus Foods here and Community Food Co-op here).
Organic Valley won an Outstanding Company award for its innovative community solar program that will help Wisconsin increase residents’ solar energy use by more than 33 percent.
Congratulations on the project! We’re amazed at the impact it’s having. Has there been an experience leading this work that stands out to you, or an aspect that makes you particularly proud?
The way our Community Solar Partnership aligns with and stands as an example of our mission is amazing. It is interconnected on so many levels, just as working with nature should be. There’s nothing more natural to a bunch of organic farmers than harnessing the power of the sun and wind.
Local communities are eager to become energy independent. Since Organic Valley is a farmer-owned cooperative with deep roots in the rural Midwest, it makes sense that we would work together to create new sources of energy right here at home that can be shared by all. We are committed to achieving 100 percent renewable electricity for our cooperative, but also to sharing the bounty of solar electricity with rural communities where we live and work.
There are lots of ways to reduce your carbon footprint. How did you decide to prioritize this major shift to renewables?
We’ve been tracking energy use in our business facilities for the last decade, so we started right here at home. But the growth of our business has outpaced our ability to build enough on-site renewables to offset 100% of our power needs, that is until the Community Solar Partnership model developed. As this project became a reality, we were able to see that becoming carbon neutral by 2022 throughout our business operations was also achievable.
But there’s a lot more to do. Most of our impact as a business is in the rest of our supply chain, specifically on farms. Cow digestion and manure are the two biggest contributors to the carbon footprint of a gallon of milk. So, we’ve been working to help farmers reduce their impact for a decade through energy efficiency and renewables on-farm, and we’re now working with farmers to reduce emissions from their manure management systems, as well as researching feed supplements to reduce cows’ enteric/digestive emissions.
What are some of the challenges you’ve encountered in your efforts to support broader engagement on climate across your value chain?
Managing relationships in a project this size is challenging.
We’re a cooperative of 2,000 farmers and 900 employees, so there are 2,900 unique perspectives when it comes to decision-making. There’s also relationship-building involved between dominant electricity providers and the communities where the solar farms will be built. But the bottom line is that stabilizing our electricity costs for the next 25 years is a good financial decision for the business which also creates many other co-benefits.
What inspires you to pursue climate leadership? Was there a defining moment, experience or realization you can share that really crystalized this direction for you/your company?
The foundation of organic farming is good stewardship, so rather than debate climate change we prefer to take action. Preventative care and building organic matter is key. Leadership in this area fits our inspiration. It’s a basic part of what we’ve always done.
When you work with your hands out on the land, you see it and feel it every day. Farmers experience the impacts of climate change intimately. Droughts, floods, fire—all of this impact a farmer’s ability to thrive.
What advice would you give companies who hope to have a similar positive impact?
Start small, you don’t have to do everything at once. The benefits will add up. Our Community Solar Partnership is really representative of our broader cooperative approach to business. This approach has resulted in something that will benefit 24,000 residents and businesses in the upper Midwest. That’s an amazingly positive impact.
What is your vision for the future of climate action in the natural foods industry?
Climate action needs to be mainstream. Our industry is as good a place as any to lead on climate action, but there are other industries that contribute to climate change on a much more intensive basis. We want to be catalysts for those other industries to accelerate their own climate mitigation efforts. This is what consumers expect of us, and what we expect of ourselves. If we don’t fulfill that expectation, someone else will. New entrants are coming into the marketplace every day with business models built around having a net positive impact on the world, and that’s what consumers and investors are looking for. So older, established companies need to move quickly to meet the expectations of their stakeholders, or else they won’t last long in the marketplace.
This article is the third in an eight-part series of interviews conducted by The Climate Collaborative.