B Lab Forces for Good Podcast — Episode 6: How can business support sustainable food production?

Food systems are critical to human wellbeing and to the health of our planet. Yet, the way we farm, process, package, and transport food is driving environmental degradation and climate change. So how do we fix our foodways?
By B Lab Global
December 21, 2022

Sustainable food and agricultural systems are critical to human wellbeing and the health of our planet. Yet, environmental degradation, climate change, hunger, poverty, economic inequality, and the impacts of war all contribute to a complex of interconnected challenges that put our foodways in crisis. How can business be driven to make decisions that mitigate food waste and loss, fight hunger, and address the growing threats of climate change?

In episode 6 of the Forces for Good podcast, we answer:

  • What aspects of business practices intersect with foodways? (I.e., supply chains, food waste, packaging, plant based vs animal products) 

  • What are the positive climate impacts of business working toward sustainable foodways?

  • How can consumers discern which products are ethically and sustainably sourced?

Guests speakers include:

Julie-Anne Finan, Manager of Multinational Standards and Certifications, B Lab Global

Stephanie de Heer,  Vice President Marketing & Communications, World Business Council for Sustainable Development, formerly Global Director, Marketing and Communications, Rainforest Alliance

Celine Barral, Chief Sustainability Officer and Corporate Communication, Bonduelle

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Stephanie: [00:02:33] climate change, livelihoods, biodiversity, human rights. These are all really big issues that we need to resolve in order for us to be able to continue living in the way that we're doing now or actually want to improve the way really restore the balance between people and nature [00:02:51][18.1]

Julie-Anne: [00:38:53] I work I work in sustainability and I'm still confused by all the different certifications that I see on food products in the supermarket. So I think achieving that, that baseline of a consumer, knowing that they enter into a specific store, our company, and that the products are sustainably produced, are produced in a way that are not having a negative impact on environmental or social, then will be something that could really change the impact that food has on a mass scale. [00:39:24][30.6]

Celine: [00:09:28] I think food is a fascinating playground because it touches people at the very heart of their life. I mean, food is a very fundamental component of culture. [00:09:40][12.5]

This is Forces for Good, a podcast from B Lab, the nonprofit network powering the global B Corp movement. Forces for Good takes a hard look at how businesses are helping to solve the biggest social and environmental challenges of our time. I’m your host Irving Chan-Gomez, joining from the Philadelphia offices of B Lab Global. 

On our podcast, you’ll hear from B Corp leaders, industry experts, and changemakers. We’ll tell you about what companies are doing to move beyond buzzwords and change destructive practices across industries. We’ll ask tough questions to uncover how we can truly drive positive impact for people and the planet.


Think of all the labels you saw last time you were in the supermarket. Grass-fed, cage-free, organic, pesticide-free. It’s a lot of words, and a lot of choices, but how can we discern which foods are actually ethically and sustainably produced?

In this episode, we’re looking at the entire supply chain for our food. How what we eat makes its way from farm, to fork, and beyond. 

Food systems are critical to human wellbeing and to the health of our planet. Yet, the way we farm, process, package, and transport food is driving environmental degradation and climate change. Global food supplies are threatened by war and conflict. And nearly 830 million people live with hunger and food insecurity worldwide, driven by poverty, economic inequality and climate change.

So how do we fix our foodways? On the show, we’ll dive into what our food supply chains look like from end to end.  We’ll hear from experts about what businesses are doing to make agriculture more sustainable. And we’ll talk about the meaning of labels and certifications, so people, as consumers, can better understand the impact of their purchases. 

Julie-Anne: [00:06:52] if we think about the food system as a whole and all of the issues that are connected to that, whether they're related to social, environmental or governance issues, and that can be very overwhelming. Right. There's a lot of topics. [00:07:05][13.6]

That’s my colleague, Julie-Anne Finnan. She’s Manager of Multinational Standards and Certifications at B lab Global. She’s the perfect person to talk to about food! Julie Anne worked as a chef all over the world before she became interested in sustainable food production. 

Julie-Anne: [00:03:01] I worked in Ireland and then Brazil and then Spain. And then I suppose I got more interested into the supply chain about where this food was coming from and the production methods. And I worked for a little bit in the private food sector. I worked in the meat industry both in Spain and Ireland. So I got to visit a lot of farms first time. And then that kind of sparked my interest more into sustainable food production, which at the time was quite a big topic, quite a hot topic in Ireland, in the cattle industry. And that brought me to do a masters in sustainable food business. [00:03:39][38.2]

So what is a sustainable food business? Many of the companies that feed us source their product from farmers and producers all over the world, but not all of them pay attention to how that is being done or who is doing it. To be a force for good, companies need to be aware of  the impacts of their entire supply chain. Including when the food is grown, and once it’s out of their hands and on store shelves.

Julie-Anne: [00:07:04] So companies generally, when they're going to approach these kind of issues and they have to do what we refer to as a materiality assessment. So what that means is they're looking at internally and externally. So they're engaging internally with their stakeholders like they're their employees, maybe their investors, and also engaging externally, not only with suppliers and customers, people directly related to, you know, to their operations, but also back into their supply chain. [00:07:36][32.4]

Celine Barral is Chief Sustainability and Corporate Communication Officer at multinational, plant-based food company, Bonduelle (Bon-dwell). You might’ve seen some of their canned vegetables, or ready-made salads at your local supermarket, depending on where you live. 

Celine: [00:30:58] BONDUELLE has been in the business of long for for more than 100 years. And a few years ago, work started on the rewriting or mission because we thought we were not putting the right level of ambition for this company. And the role we could play was definitely much higher than the one we could have 50 years ago. So we we did a work together with the Bonduelle associates, so we involved a lot of employees in that process to define what we were into. And it it came to the following mission, which is to inspire the plant based transition for the house of people and the health of the planet. So it's not anymore about selling vegetables. It's about changing the plates of the people. [00:31:56][58.0]

Bonduelle is going through a materiality assessment of its own, on its path to become a Certified B Corporation. The company has zeroed in on 3 key impact areas namely: people, planet and food. As Julie-Anne suggested they’ve reached all the way back through their supply chain to make this happen. 

Celine: [00:16:33] we have our our teams going every day to work hand, hand in hand with the farmers choosing together the best amount of water you will put to irrigate, choosing the minimum amount of insurance you need for the crop to grow healthily and for the soil to regenerate. So I think this this part of the whole chain is very, very fundamental because it's also related to the locality. I mean, you will not operate agriculture the same way in the middle of the United States and in Hungary or in Spain, because the local conditions matter a lot in that in that relation. So. This is where we spend a lot of time, energy and other focus as well of our team. [00:17:26][53.7]

 We’ll hear more from Celine and Bonduelle later. For now, back to Julie-Anne who explains the concept of materiality as it relates to standards in the business sector.

 Julie-Anne: [00:08:35] it's imperative to have that voice to know what the risks then are that your company is having as an impact on the world. And so it's a different way as well in looking at materiality from below. A lot of companies look at materiality in terms of the financial impact on their performance, whereas we are really looking at the impact that you as a company on your operations have on stakeholders in relation to environmental and social issues. So having that, I think awareness and that transparency into your supply chain is, is key to be able to determine which issues that are material and which issues you need to be taking action on.  [00:09:15][40.1]

B Lab’s standards give food companies an opportunity to self-examine their practices. They’ll assess different topics, depending on whether they’re a restaurant, retailer, producer, wholesaler, or manufacturer. And they may have to provide even more information, depending on their size.  

Julie-Anne: [00:12:04] The bigger the company you are. Essentially, you may have to select numerous the impact assessments, right. Because that's recognizing that you could have operations in different parts of the world. And depending on how consolidated those operations are, the impacts could be quite distinct from one another.  [00:12:22][17.9]

Any business that wants to become a Certified B Corporation has to self examine in the areas of governance, workers, community, the environment, and customers. The biggest companies have to meet even more rigorous requirements.

Julie-Anne: [00:12:42] we look at multinational companies over $5 billion in revenue, there's even additional standards that they will need to meet beyond just meeting that 80 point bar on the impact assessment. So any parent company currently over $5 billion in revenue has to meet what we call these baseline requirements. And these baseline requirements are five additional requirements that we have created for these larger companies, because that's recognizing that, you know, due to the size and scale, they could be having a really positive impact in one part of their operations. But they could also be potentially having a negative impact right in other parts of the world, just due to the size and the difficulties and complexities, [00:13:24][41.7]

I asked Julie-Anne what these materiality assessments look like when they’re put into action.

Julie-Anne: [00:15:57] for example, let's take a coffee supplier or a cocoa supplier. You know, generally they will have a lot of environmental practices in place, but they will also be very aware of the human rights risks and more of the social impacts related to that. Whereas if you look at a dairy producer maybe operating in the EU, they're focused more on the environmental impact. They're looking at their carbon emissions and their CO2 output. So I think as well, it depends on the type of of industry. When you get to companies like a supermarket that obviously has a variety of supply chains and usually they are doing some kind of materiality assessment that is looking at which supply chains are high risk and which supply chains really need to be focused on in terms of their environmental and social impact. [00:16:50][53.0]

All of the guests we spoke with for this episode stressed how much this industry has and continues to change and improve, as well as how far it has yet to go. 

Julie-Anne: [00:20:03]  I think like a key shift that you have seen over the last couple of years is this transformation from. Work on sustainability being a voluntary value adds to being. Requirements, a license to operate? I'd say. I think if we think about food systems, ah, let's say the food industry and we think about a topic like food safety, there's really there's no room for error there. That's a license to operate. You need to have food safety systems in place by legislation. And today's especially in markets like Europe. There's a lot of legislation coming out around sustainability. So it's no longer becoming something that's optional for companies. And companies are realizing that this is something they really need to be aware of and to have the transparency on.  [00:21:02][58.6]

Another shift in the industry that Julie-Anne and her colleagues have spotted is the rise of plant based, meat alternatives. And she says one of the interesting things is that many of these products are coming from companies that traditionally sell animal based products.

Julie-Anne:[00:24:12] I think that raises a lot of interesting questions and there's a lot of research out there around the role of animals in the agricultural system and a lot of research related to the benefits of having animals grazing and the questions around intensity and scale of animal production. But really what is their kind of wider role in as it relates to biodiversity an integrated livestock management. Growing animals together with crops, I think is an interesting concept. [00:24:49][37.2]

Julie-Anne sees meat producers shifting their product lines as a sign consumers are shifting their diets. She also thinks having fields with both crops and animals is a positive change. That’s one part of a farming system called regenerative agriculture. Other practices include crop rotation, planting cover crops and composting.  The idea is to take a more holistic approach to farming that not only does less damage, but instead creates net beneficial impacts on ecosystems. The benefits include soil health restoration, the use of fewer resources and increased biodiversity. 

Julie-Anne: [00:22:29] I see a lot of activity now around regenerative agriculture, and especially in terms of farming standards, viewpoint, defining what is regenerative agriculture, how do you measure it? How do you create metrics around this? How do you apply it to different types of farming? And also expanding that, obviously, to incorporate the environmental risks around water and emissions of biodiversity, but also to incorporate the social aspect of having a regenerative income and an economy for the farmers, respecting the social impacts and the human rights risks related to agricultural practices. [00:23:10][40.5]

 A final shift Julie-Anne sees is on the opposite end of the supply chain, in packaging.

Julie-Anne: [00:25:07] I think there has been a shift in awareness of the companies. Impact. Once their product needs their store, you know, what is the accountability and the responsibility that a company has when it comes to how their packaging is handled? It's recycled, whereas the responsibility lies there. There's been a shift away from plastic packaging. You know, and not only replacing that with more recyclable and more sustainable alternatives that say, but also looking at different methods of re-use and the circular economy, [00:25:48][40.9]

Circular economy is a model that aims to transform our current, wasteful way of living. The idea is to eliminate waste and pollution by rethinking and recirculating products and materials. Julie-Anne says that while all of this progress is great and businesses need to keep it going, people, as consumers, can also push for them to go much further.

Julie-Anne: [00:38:53] I work I work in sustainability and I'm still confused by all the different certifications that I see on food products in the supermarket. So I think achieving that, that baseline of a consumer, knowing that they enter into a specific store, our company, and that the products are sustainably produced, are produced in a way that are not having a negative impact on environmental or social, then will be something that could really change the impact that food has on a mass scale. [00:39:24][30.6]

B Corp Certification is one label a company can get to show that they’re having a positive impact on people and the planet. Another certification is from the Rainforest Alliance. You’ve probably seen it at the grocery store. It’s a little green frog on your coffee, tea, and chocolate among other products.

Stephanie: [00:01:59] Rainforest Alliance is a nonprofit organization trying to change the way the world produces, consumes and sources, ultimately to help people and nature thrive together. [00:02:14][14.2]

Stephanie: [00:27:35] it's everywhere, actually. So I dare everyone to just open their cupboards and go look for the little green frog. And it's it's more accessible than you'd think. [00:27:45][9.9]

That’s Stephanie De Heer (de-here). During the time we spoke to Stephanie, she was the Global Senior Director of Marketing and Communications at Rainforest Alliance. She’s since switched roles to the World Business Council on Sustainable Development. Stephanie says people are increasingly aware of the impact of their purchases — and that they’re willing to make changes. 

Stephanie: [00:30:34] We need to motivate companies to do even more work. By no means are we there yet. You know, we're on a good path, but we need to move quicker. We need to do more, and we really need to change. And if consumers demand responsibly, produce products and demand to know where their products come from, that will bring a change. It's the public pressure that will bring companies to even raise the bar further. [00:31:05][31.4]

Us people have more impact than we realize. By buying less, and choosing products that are good for people and the planet, we’re showing that environmental responsibility is good business.  

Stephanie: [00:43:52] What we need to do is, you know, reward companies that take responsibility, buy from those companies that are taking responsibility, know where their products come from, that are mindful of their environment and the impact they're having on the ground. If we collectively favor those companies, then we can redefine the value of sustainability and actually not reward mass production, but reward those that choose wisely and grow through there. So I would love for that to happen. And as citizens have the power to do that, we buy those products so we can change it by choosing very wisely who we buy from to work together with and who we support. [00:44:40][48.4]

Throughout this episode, we’ve talked about how our food goes through an often complex and long supply chain before ending on our plates. And Rainforest Alliance does the same with the products that receive their certification.

Stephanie: [00:25:07] Now once the coffee lets go with coffee has the label, it will go into the supply chain as a certified product, sustainably produced product. It's really critical that throughout the supply chain we know where that bag of coffee goes and that it stays sustainable. So we follow it through a traceability system so that we know exactly who it comes from and who it goes to towards the end of the chain. So all of the supply chain actors that transport or handle that bag of coffee need to administer that in the traceability system that way the retailer for the. Coffee bar. Knows where the coffee comes from and knows that the farmers that have produced that coffee have received a better price for a better product. Um, and then the, the coffee bar can sell the coffee with the label, which stands for better production, better livelihoods, taking better care of Nature. [00:26:16][68.7]

People can have a major impact with their purchase habits and choices, but they need a trustworthy way to discern which products are more responsible.

Stephanie: [00:16:58] we need the independent verification. We need to make sure that indeed it's having an impact. And if we're not making enough impact, that we put something else there and that we try even harder. [00:17:12][13.5]

Stephanie says a certification system provides control points and assessments to measure impact of specific companies and products. But they can also make a difference to entire industries, by driving improvements across the board and across different issues. 

Stephanie: [00:11:38] They think it's important to invest in a certain challenge climate change, gender prevention of child labor, for example. So you see there is a genuine motivation from the industry to do things differently. [00:11:53][14.9]

In addition to helping farmers and producers improve practices, retailers and wholesalers should work to improve their own practices when it comes to things like shipping and packaging. 

Stephanie: [00:07:49] so what we do is really look at the supply chains from beginning to end, because all of those factors are important to include in the journey towards more sustainability. [00:08:02][12.9]

Looking at the full supply chain means going all the way back to the farmers and the fields where our food is produced. Stephanie says in those places, the effects of climate change are already obvious. 

Stephanie: [00:04:30] the farmers that we work with are really feeling the effects of climate change. They're the ones that are already having to mitigate and adapt to the current effects. So we are trying to, on the one hand, help them produce differently, mitigate climate change. But at the same time, we also have to make sure that they're more resilient towards the the shocks than the nature shocks that we see more and more. [00:04:56][25.9]

This is an issue that, sooner or later, will impact us all. 

Stephanie: [00:05:16] it is an issue that affects us all and we won't be able to resolve it just by producing our food differently. But it is really something that we that we have to address and we all have to play our part.  [00:05:27][11.3]

But food production goes beyond even looking at a whole supply chain. As we make progress in some areas like cocoa and coffee, we have to look to the neighboring farms and assess their impacts as well.

Stephanie: [00:08:41] But if you only look at the supply chain, it's a very limited view because you could work with a cocoa farmer that is located in a specific area in Ghana. But next to that cocoa farmer, there will be a rubber farm, for example, if you only focus on the cocoa supply chain, but not on the landscapes of fact on a broader scale, then the impact is still limited. [00:09:04][23.0]

And as sustainability becomes the norm we have to push standards further and further.

Stephanie: [00:10:21] I think ten years ago, certification was the most important tool to achieve impact and to bring change. [00:10:29] [13.4]

The process of working towards a certification can help companies make big changes. We introduced Celine Barral from Bonduelle earlier in the episode. Bonduelle is pursuing B Corp Certification status. They’re going through our assessments and picking out the hot spots where they need to improve practices.

Celine: [00:10:10] the food industry as a whole, is facing tons of challenges from a challenge in quantity, because to feed, of course, almost 10 billion people now on earth respecting the the resources of our planet. I mean, we can't really think about the plate like we we thought ten years before. [00:10:35][24.9]

Celine says Bonduelle’s decision to pursue B Corp Certification came about because the business saw these challenges and wanted a way to become more mission driven.

Celine: [00:31:56] I think thinking about this mission, putting it in our article of association, which is the case for almost two years now, led into a deeper reflection on how do we articulate this positive impact agenda inside the company, how we what are the key programs we want to, to, to accomplish on the planet, the food and the people that I mentioned. And very quickly, the company looked at B Corp as a way to drive and accelerate those programs and have an external recognition of all these this journey. [00:32:43][46.4]

And she says their journey to achieving B corp status hasn’t been easy so far. 

Celine: [00:38:33] for a company of big size like Bonduelle, it's not easy to transform a company of a few billion euro revenue because it's thousands and thousands of people, a lot of business unit everywhere, a lot of teams to embark.  [00:38:51][18.0]

The journey started by getting buy-in from all of their stakeholders.

Celine: [00:07:48] spreading this inside the company and of course, outside to our stakeholders is is very important in our ability to reach the transformation we want to reach. And it's a question of speed. The faster you go in explaining and spreading this message, the faster you will transform yourself. And it's it's quite exponential. And the same apply to Big Corp that we will address a little bit later explaining why you embark in the journey like B Corp is as important as the process itself. [00:08:26][37.3]

And then breaking up changes into specific steps and interest areas.

Celine: [00:39:04] So of course the whole company is engaged in that bigger journey. But we, we split the work into different waves to give space, to give a little bit of a sense of achievement as well, because you need victories to raise and to raise all the company up.o I think it's a it's a it's a long journey, a challenging one. But if we pace it correctly, if we put the right energy in explaining what it is and why we do that. I think people will perceive. Very quickly the benefit for the whole system. [00:39:51][46.9]

And of course, measuring progress is important. In previous episodes, we’ve talked about how critical it is for businesses to find ways to measure their impact. It’s not always straightforward, Bonduelle for example, has found areas that they’re struggling to quantify.

Celine: [00:44:55] What is tricky as well. I mean, when we measure progress is for some dimension, the meta ideology to measure the progress is not set or not to line across industry. I will give you a very simple example. When we when we want to change the plate and to put more plans for more people more often, because we know that there is a benefit in doing this for from the carbon perspective and from the health perspective, well, measuring how eating the corn and peas instead of beef, what is the impact? How do you measure that? [00:45:33][37.2]

In addition to its work with farmers, there are changes that Bonduelle is trying to support on the consumer end of its supply chain. One is promoting a flexi-tarian diet. That means incorporating more plant based meals into your regular diet. Another is eating local foods that are in season. 

Celine: [00:10:41] There is as well the quality challenge on food, the nutritional quality of what we put in our plate, the fact that this food is made close to where it's consumed with very freeing ingredients, the less processed possible, potentially local what we put in your plate as well in terms of quality meat versus plant, all of those challenges. [00:11:06][25.2]

Eating locally and seasonally saves on areas like shipping and overproduction. 

Celine: [00:11:11] there is a quality challenge of food and probably there is something that is more related to the process this food goes through to be made. How this food is produced by who how those people, all those animal treated, you know, the the provenance and the way this food comes to your plate to them matters a lot, because it's one of the key levers to improve the way we approach the food system. [00:11:41][30.2]

Other change Celine highlights was waste prevention. Picking foods with less packaging and disposing of that packaging properly. 

As a way of advise for companies trying to embark on this journey, Celine mentioned the importance of comprehensive, yet understandable information. 

Celine: [00:04:42] I think upskilling people on the topic of sustainability is quite critical because it's a big obstacle for business to jump into that agenda. So when you belong to the sustainability stream, when you are a sustainability expert. Your whole life is dedicated to dig those topics. When you are not in that specific department in the company, you are further. You are far away from more technical aspects of sustainability and it can be scary. So what I've learned through my experience is that, I mean, being very simple and open up the topics of sustainability in a very simple language with simple word, simple concept is accelerating a lot the way people are embracing the sustainability journey, understanding carbon and defending agriculture in very non-technical, non-expert language is very, very instrumental to transform the way people in the company are infused with those with those sustainability agenda, how they approach it, and how they become an agent of change. [00:05:59][76.1]

To improve what’s on our plates and its impact on the world we have to take a wide lens view. Producers have to change farming practices, manufacturers have to change packaging, retailers have to change shipping, and people can drive all of that change through their purchasing habits.

Celine: [00:51:29] he more pressure the society puts, the better, because it makes us progress a lot. It makes us rethink the way we operate. So I see that with a very positive I. [00:51:40][10.5]

Irving’s closing thoughts: In this episode, we’ve discussed the importance of critically examining how our food is produced and how it makes its way onto our plate. There is also another side to our foodways that deserves attention - the places they don’t go. Around the world, poverty and income inequality are driving a hunger epidemic that will only worsen with conflict, war, and climate change. As we discussed in the climate episode, working and living conditions need to improve. Smallholder farmers are most impacted by the crisis. 

Food is not just a system or a survival need. It is part of our culture. It is how we nurture and how we connect — not just with each other, but with nature. The way we produce and grow our food and, as a result, humanity itself, all depend on natural systems that are under threat. So, as we look at the future of our food system, how can we ensure that food needs around the world are met, while still supporting and improving the people that make our food and the ecosystems that sustain it? 


If you'd like to learn more about B Corps and purpose driven companies visit BCorporation.net. And listen to the rest of our season! We have more episodes on how business can drive positive impact and be a Force for Good. 

Please subscribe, rate, and review the podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen. Your ratings and reviews help Forces for Good reach new audiences, so we thank you for your support.

For more opportunities to engage with us, follow us on social media.

MUSIC The views and opinions expressed are those of the interviewees and do not reflect the positions or opinions of the producers or any affiliated organizations.

The podcast was brought to you by B lab. Our team includes Sherri Jordan, Jude Wetherell, and Hannah Munger.  Forces for Good is produced by Hueman Group Media. 

For this episode, I’d like to thank Celine Barral, Julie-Anne Finnan, and Stephanie De Heer. 

 I’m your host, Irving Chan-Gomez. Thanks for listening. And I look forward to catching you in the next episode! 

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