Last week saw a trip down to London to join a dialogue with
- Myriam Cohen-Welgryn, Danone Vice-President Nature,
- Laura Palmeiro, Vice-President Nature Finance,
- Bernard Giraud, Vice-President Sustainability and Shared Value Creation and
- Laurence Foucher Danone New Media Manager.
The Danone team were joined by
- Caroline Holtum, Head of Content at Guardian Sustainable Business,
- Jessica Shankleman http://www.businessgreen.com/@businessgreen,
- Michael Hoevel http://www.farmingfirst.org/,
- Leeds own Social Business Guru Rob Greenland http://www.thesocialbusiness.co.uk,
- Duncan Fisher www.dothegreenthing.com
- David Floyd http://www.socialspider.com
- and myself.
There was no clearly mapped out process or agenda relying instead on getting some interested people into a convivial setting and seeing where the conversation went. In both cases I suspect that some real learning accrued on both sides.
Once again Danone showed an incredible openness in sharing with us some of their projects and challenges relating to food security, poverty alleviation, health and sustainability and showed how several projects had moved on from our last round of discussions with them. Highlights for me included investments from their 100m Euro ‘Nature Fund’ to support the development of Cooperatives of Ukrainian Farmers to supply the high quality milk required to keep the Danone Production lines in full swing. Danone invested in milking equipment to be shared by small farmers through the cooperative structure and animal welfare standards and husbandry. These investments were made with no requirement to tie framers into contracts with Danone. Also Danone say that paying these farmers cooperatives a fair price for milk ensures the long term stability of supply which is more important to them than any short term profits that might be gained through price squeezing.
I was also intrigued by their research into the fatty acid content of milk and how this can be correlated with the production of methane allowing accurate offsetting of methane production based on the actual methane production of each herd. Now I am not an expert on off-setting and have a lay persons suspicion of how much can be achieved through this methodology. Can we possibly plant enough mangrove, mangoes and other carbon fixing crops to ever truly offset production? The whole conversation about carbon trading was one that left me a little cold. I am far from convinced that putting a price on carbon is really the way forward. Especially now that it can be speculated upon. I am of the school that thinks the next great bubble to burst will be the carbon market….I hope I am wrong and am certainly no expert in this field.
But perhaps most impressive part of the conversation for me was around needing to re-connect consumers to the production process, the reality of farming and food production. A simple realisation that for Danone, and the rest of us, ‘Nature IS our business’ and simple tools for ensuring that this realisation is that the heart of innovation in the company. So for example they are using a wonderfully simple compass to provide a test for new developments:
N = Nature – will the development respect nature?
S = Social – will the development lead to improvements in society? Fair wages, good governance etc
E= Economic – will the project work economically? (I was impressed by Danone’s willingness to flex their normal investment rules to allow projects that would only work with a more generous interpretation of ‘payback periods’)
W= wellbeing or health – the Danone mission is to improve health for the greatest number of people through food. If the project does not fit the mission then it will not move forward.
My guess is that this compass will be well understood throughout the business and used to assess new business developments and ensure that balances and tensions are effectively managed.
It is a strange phenomena for me to rub against a corporate whom I like, respect and trust. Generally I am always lifting up the carpets looking for where the dirt has been hidden. And still questions remain for me at least about the bottling and distribution of mineral water in rich countries (Danone are behind both Evian and Volvic I believe). But whenever I meet Danoners – be they ‘top brass’ or ‘frontline’ I am always impressed by their passion, openness (‘we have many challenges and we don’t have the answers but we will experiment…’) and commitment to co-invention of ideas and thinking through conversation.
I am already looking forward to the next conversation…when we hope to get some more skeptics involved