ConAgra Foods Offers Practical View of Sustainability

ConAgra Foods' view on green or sustainable food manufacturing is an outgrowth of the company's philosophy on good corporate citizenship.

By Dave Fusaro, Editor in Chief

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Sustainable is certainly the preferred word for "green" at ConAgra Foods, recipient of the 2011 Food Processing Green Plant of the Year award. The company's view on the subject – officially expressed as "good for the planet" -- is a part of its corporate responsibility report and is on equal footing with two other bullet points: "good for you" and "good for the community."

Green or sustainable is an outgrowth of the company's philosophy on good corporate citizenship, according to James Lime, head of the company's sustainability efforts. His official title -- vice president of environment, health and safety – implies how Earth-friendly efforts are rooted in the practical needs of manufacturing, with at least one eye on the bottom line.

"Air. Water. Natural resources. These are things we all share. And, we want to do our part to make sure we can keep doing so for a long, long time," reads the introduction to the subject on the web site. "The areas of focus included in our Good for the Planet strategy represent environmental issues most critical to our business. Our work in these areas targets programs that make the biggest impact in reducing risks and improving operating efficiency, with an emphasis on collaborating with our suppliers to improve sustainability throughout the value chain."

In many of ConAgra's statements on the subject, the word "sustainability" often is followed by the phrase "that produces tangible business results."

Under "Sustainability Goals & Objectives," ConAgra says it is "dedicated to making the food people love and doing so in an environmentally responsible way … We recognize that sustainability is intricately linked to the company's long-term success and that our overall performance is measured not only by financial metrics, but also by our impact on the environment."

In particular, the company has sustainability initiatives in the following areas:

  • Climate change and energy
  • Water resources
  • Sustainable packaging
  • Sourcing and supplier engagement

And ConAgra has committed to some aggressive goals by the end of calendar year 2015:

  • Reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 20 percent per pound of product produced.
  • Reduce water use by 15 percent per pound of product produced. 
  • Divert at least 75 percent — or 10 percent above the base line, if greater — of all solid waste from landfills.
  • Reduce packaging by 10 percent per pound of product produced; increase the amount of packaging made of renewable resources from 45 percent to more than 50 percent; increase the use of recycled content in our packaging by 25 percent. 
  • Actively work with our supply chain to encourage continuous improvement in the areas of energy, water, materials and waste.
  • Collaborate with growers of key specialty crops to implement sustainable farming practices that optimize yield while improving land stewardship.

Most of those goals are to be measured against 2008 baselines.

Lime points out the company created internal annual Sustainable Development Awards to recognize sustainable business practices, waste reduction and resource conservation. "This year, combined results from the 78 entries reduced carbon emissions by more than 30,000 metric tonnes, eliminated 37,000 tons of landfill waste and 91 tons of packaging material and conserved 137 million gallons of water," he says.

This year's winners were announced on April 13. One award was given in each of five categories. In the Climate Change & Energy Efficiency category, Lamb Weston's frozen foods plant in Park Rapids, Minn., won for a trio of projects -- upgrading its compressed air system, reducing refrigeration head pressure and increasing use of biogas. Those efforts reduced natural gas use by 23,400 dekatherms, cut electricity use by 3.6 million kilowatt hours and reduced greenhouse gas emissions by nearly 4,300 metric tonnes.

The award for Water Resources - Conservation & Wastewater Management was given to the Quincy, Wash., facility. By changing the way the plant monitored water usage to an hourly readout, employees were able to more quickly correct behaviors during periods of overuse. These efforts reduced water use by 6.3 million gallons in just three months.

The Russellville, Ark., facility took home the award for Solid Waste Reduction & Recycling thanks to a recycling program implemented by the plant's employee-driven green team. The facility more than doubled its landfill diversion rate, recovering more than 14,000 lbs. of material through the new program and increasing recycling revenue and landfill cost avoidance.

The Sustainable Packaging, Product & Process Innovation award was given to the Slim Jim packaging team, based in Omaha, for a program that replaced the meat stick brand's canister package with a more environmentally and pantry-friendly paperboard carton. The redesign reduced packaging materials by 325,600 lbs. per year, replacing plastic and metal with Sustainable Forestry Initiative-certified paperboard.

The snacks facility in Waterloo, Iowa, received the Sustainable Business Practices award for an initiative that allowed the facility to liquefy sugar internally. By doing so, granular sugar can be transported by rail, saving 230,000 truck miles each year and more than 40,000 gallons of diesel fuel. The project also improved product quality by allowing better control of the percent of solids in finished liquid sugar.

And special recognition was given to the new Delhi, La., plant.

"The projects also delivered more than $18 million in savings, demonstrating the economic value of the company's commitment to sustainable development," Lime emphasizes. "In the three years since we started this program, we've identified $67 million in cost savings."

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