Barry Parkin, chief sustainability officer at Mars Inc, spoke with Ben Cooper about the US food giant’s sustainability strategy.

Linking a company’s values with its history and heritage is a common theme in the corporate responsibility arena. While in some instances a case may be made for such lineage, for most major corporations the structure and ownership will have changed dramatically since its founding father first set up shop.

In this regard, a private, family-owned company may be at an advantage, and there is possibly no better example to illustrate the point than Mars Inc.

The company can not only draw on a core precept laid down by Forrest E. Mars, Sr in 1947, but just as crucially point to the fact the same family remains in control of the company today. In 1947, Forrest Mars said: “The company’s objective is the manufacture and distribution of food products in such manner as to promote a mutuality of services and benefits among all stakeholders.”

Mutuality is one of the company’s five core principles, along with quality, responsibility, efficiency and freedom. Rather than releasing an annual ‘sustainability report’, Mars for the past three years has published what it calls its Principles in Action Summary.

Barry Parkin, chief sustainability officer at Mars, believes the linkage with the company’s founding values and the continuity of private ownership both have an important bearing on Mars’ sustainability mission.

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“It’s a very deliberate choice to call our sustainability report Our Principles in Action Summary,” Parkin tells just-food. “Our principles have not changed for many, many decades. They come from the family, they are believed in by the family. I think arguably the most distinct of them is this belief in mutuality, and that goes back to the Forties when Forrest Mars first wrote to all of the associates of the business about his philosophy on mutuality.” 

Forrest Mars believed, Parkin continues, the business “could only be successful long term if there was true mutuality with all partners in the supply chain”.

As for the continuity of ownership, Parkin says it allows for the sort of long-term thinking and strategy that is so important in the sustainability field. “It allows us to think longer term, making commitments way out into the future,” he says. “I think it puts us in a very strong position to do the right thing over a very long period of time. You can see the struggles others have with this where they’re having to justify on a quarterly basis why they are investing in things that are not driving the bottom line. So it’s a great advantage.”

Parkin contends it is not merely family ownership but the hands-on involvement of the family and its commitment to sustainability that sets Mars apart. “The family is still very involved, and they believe passionately in sustainability.”

The company published its third Principles in Action Summary in July, providing an update on its sustainability efforts in its own operations and supply chains, along with progress against targets set in 2011, including its commitment to eliminate all greenhouse gas emissions by 2040.

It also announced a new initiative to incentivise senior executives in striving to reach sustainability goals. “If you’re trying to deliver across people, planet and performance goals, then it’s only consistent that you incentivise people across people, planet and performance,” says Parkin. “This is a first step in that direction I would say. We and others will have to go further.”

Mars’ report also detailed progress in increasing yields and improving agricultural practices in its west African cocoa supply chain. By the end of 2012, 17 Cocoa Development Centers (CDCs), aimed at providing farmers with the tools, techniques and training to cultivate high-quality yields, had been opened by Mars and its key collaborators in Côte d’Ivoire. Mars has set a bold target to source 100% of its cocoa from certified sources by 2020.

Given the huge structural challenges facing the west African cocoa supply chain, along with the continued problems around the worst forms of child labour, Mars’ supply chain in Côte d’Ivoire might on the face of it be an unlikely example to illustrate the mutuality principle. However, Parkin sees the cocoa supply chain as embodying a “beautiful example” of the mutual dependency between supplier and buyer. 

Acknowledging the “huge amount” that has to be done to make the cocoa supply chain sustainable, Parkin says the importance of the supply chain to the business makes this particular sustainability investment a very easy decision to make.

“We talk about people, planet and performance, here there’s a fantastic intersection and that makes it extremely compelling, and an extremely easy decision to invest significant amounts of resource and money behind solving it,” he says.

With the industry likely to need an additional 1m tonnes of cocoa by 2020, the importance of improving yields and boosting the economic returns for farmers to encourage the younger generation to remain in the sector could not be clearer.

“There’s a very powerful economic incentive for the industry to get their act together, and it creates this fantastic mutuality of benefit,” he says. “What you’ve got here is a very compelling alignment between the business, corporate need and the needs of people and the planet. There’s a win for the farmer, there’s a win for the origin governments, there’s a win for the chocolate/cocoa industry we’re part of, and ultimately there’s a win for the consumer because we can continue to offer reasonably-priced chocolate treats to the consumer.”

Parkin points out not all sustainability challenges offer such a clear alignment of interests. However, the mutuality principle remains key. “We believe passionately about this. We look for mutuality and we believe solutions will only survive the long term – they will only be sustainable – if mutuality is at the heart of it.”

While embodying the values of its forebears, the Mars sustainability strategy has also aimed to embrace the new. As it published its Principles in Action Summary in July, the company convened an open forum on Twitter for anyone who wished to quiz Parkin on Mars’ sustainability initiatives.

“We’re obviously using the traditional routes of publishing online but we wanted to try something a little more interactive, to give people the opportunity to get a little beneath the surface,” Parkin says. “It really was an experiment and I think we were pleased with how it went. We got some great questions and it connected us to some people we had not connected directly with before.”

While Twitter may not be a channel for the most in-depth discussion of complex issues, the fact Mars – a privately-owned company – was willing to hold an open forum to discuss what could be delicate and sensitive issues is arguably to its credit. Parkin said he hoped the exercise had been good for the credibility of its sustainability mission. “I hope it is because we want to be credible, we want to be transparent, and we shouldn’t fear any question.”