Mars Attempts Sustainability on the Big Scale

(Hear what Mars has to say for themselves at the Certification, Consumption, and Change Conference, on April 5th at the National Press Club in Washington, DC. To find out more about the conference, go to: http://www.justmeans.com/pages/Washington-DC. )

I tend to focus on sustainable food on the grassroots level: community supported agriculture, farmer's markets, and the like, are small and manageable, and often more apt to be truly sustainable. When businesses get bigger, they sometimes lose the closed loop sustainable focus, and as they grow (and surely, growth is a good thing) companies can also grow less sustainable. However, the reality is that the world isn't and can't be made up of lots of little micro businesses. Our economy is structured around major companies and we should encourage even these companies to be as sustainable as they can possibly be, recognizing that we can all play a part in creating a more sustainable food system. There's work to be done, and big companies often have much more sway and influence (i.e. money) to make cool things happen. Take Mars for example:

The Mars Corporation is big. Really big. Their brands can be found all over the globe, and include a cast of ubiquitous and familiar faces: M&Ms, Twix, Snickers, Dove Chocolate, Uncle Ben's Rice,  Juicy Fruit, Extra, and Orbit. They also happen to be a leading pet care company and boast three billion-dollar pet food brands: Whiskas, Pedigree, and Royal Canin. At first glance these are not what I would think of as strikingly sustainable foods or brands (especially when considering the use of highly processed ingredients and negative nutritional value of most of these products.) But one can't be too critical, because Mars has taken many strides towards making their very conventional and classically unsustainable products better, and that's noteworthy. In other words, it would be easy for Mars to pay no attention whatsoever to "sustainability" and continue their business as usual, but they haven't.

According to their compnay website, Mars defines sustainability as contributing positively to the environment and local communities that Mars is connected to, recognizing that future economic success of the company is directly connected to the sustainability of resources and people. The company's Five Principles are Quality, Responsibility, Mutuality, Efficiency, and Freedom--all of which they connect to the broad definition of Sustainability put for by the U.N. World Commission's 1987 statement that sustainability means "development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs."

This all sounds rather vague and lofty, but Mars does provide some examples of how they attempt to become more sustainable. Most of the sustainability initiatives are focused on cocoa production. Obviously, Mars has a vested interest in helping to keep cocoa production strong and viable. Mars is dedicated to cocoa research to breed disease resistant plants and integrated pest management methods, encourages "good farming practices." On the socially responsible end of sustainability, Mars has worked to bring together global and local stakeholders in cocoa-producing West Africa to work towards better labor standards and healthier cocoa communities.

These actions, though they remain somewhat behind many other companies (for example, we would be more assured of Mars' commitment to social responsibility if their cocoa was certified by Fair Trade USA), but it is still worth noting that a major food company like Mars is at least incorporating some sustainability principles and goals into their global business, and its consumers should encourage them to keep on the path to a more wholly sustainable business.

photo credit: boston transplant