In a nutshell, bakers are interested in sustainability because we want to continue providing high-quality, nourishing products — without depleting the resources needed to feed future generations. However, we also want to feel good about being good stewards of the earth. By doing what is right without too much fanfare, bakers are simply following the culture of humble service, which is the core of our heritage.

When we talk about customer service, the wholesale baker starts with the retailer, and retailers are increasingly interested in sustainable sourcing. According to Kathleen McLaughlin, sustainability executive at Wal-Mart, the company secured commitments from PepsiCo, Cargill, Campbell Soup, General Mills and the Kellogg Company to measure and reduce the amount of water and fertilizer used in their supply chains. There were also commitments from other companies not producing bakery products. Wal-Mart now has 90% of its seafood and 27% of palm oil used in processed foods it sells certified sustainable. 

Wal-Mart is not the only retailer interested in sustainable sourcing. Whole Foods goes several steps further. According to the company’s website, products must be “as environmentally responsible as possible, with third-party certifications that back up any environmental claims.” The website also lists 78 specific food ingredients that are not allowed in any products. Ingredients on this list commonly used in the baking industry include artificial flavors and colors, bleached flour, BHA, BHT, TBHQ, calcium propionate, DATEM, high-fructose corn syrup, SSL, potassium sorbate and sorbic acid, among others.

Quick service restaurants (QSRs) are also active in the area of sustainable sourcing. McDonald’s Corp. has set a number of sustainable sourcing goals. For the year 2020, the company aims to have 100% of coffee, palm oil and fish from sustainable sources as well as 100% of fiber-based packaging from certified or recycled sources.

Subway reported that in the past three years, while growing its business by 12%, its sustainability efforts have reduced greenhouse gases in the US and Canada by nearly 300,000 tonnes, which is the equivalent of taking 57,244 cars off the road for a year. Sustainable sourcing is one of the company’s areas of strategic focus, including fair labor practices, agricultural practices, manufacturing practices and packaging. Subway uses a combination of internal and external third-party audits to ensure the standards are met.

Attaining sustainability

To ensure that sustainable goals are met, audit schemes are needed. Formed in 2004, the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) aims to halt deforestation and other practices detrimental to the ongoing production of this ingredient. Other certifications include the Rain Forest Alliance, Utz Certified, Fair Trade certified, the Food Alliance, Protected Harvest and Roundtable on Responsible Soy certified.

The scientific community is getting involved and noticing what the large food companies are doing regarding sustainable sourcing. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) scoring of 40 consumer brand companies in 2015, it discovered that there is a long way to go in solving the deforestation issue associated with palm oil production. Out of a possible 100 points, the highest score was 70, awarded to Baskin-Robbins and Dunkin Donuts. Companies driving change in the baking industry received much lower scores: Subway 38%, Whole Foods 30%, Wal-Mart 29% and McDonald’s 24%. Several large retailers and QSRs received scores of zero.

Opinion leaders are also involved. The “Behind the Brands” campaign from Oxfam America, a Boston-based social justice organization, seeks to influence the largest food and beverage companies to more responsibly manage their supply chains. It has targeted 10 companies that include Nestle, PepsiCo, Unilever, Mondelez International, Coca-Cola, Mars, Danone, Associated British Foods, General Mills and the Kellogg Company. Oxfam’s “scorecard” includes seven themes: transparency, treatment of women, treatment of workers, treatment of farmers, management of land, management of water and management of greenhouse gas emissions.

Sustainability in action

Whether due to pressures from retailers, media or the scientific community, or if it originates from corporate values, bakers and snack manufacturers are taking action to improve their ability to source raw materials in a sustainable manner.

On June 5, 2014, Grupo Bimbo reported a 14% reduction in water consumption in its production processes, a recycling of 93% of its production residues and a reduction of greenhouse gases by 320,000 tons through the use of wind farms in 2013. The company seeks to purchase sustainable palm oil, and its overall strategy is focused on reducing energy consumption, reducing water usage and reducing waste.

In its Sustainability Report, Flowers Foods listed “working with suppliers to embrace sustainability initiatives” as one of its seven core sustainability strategies. Flowers’ most recent report touted the use of low-density polyethylene bread bags and paperboard snack cake boxes that are recyclable. Reported successes include increased production-to-water usage ratio, increased production-to-electricity usage, increased operational efficiency and ever-increasing reduction of solid waste to landfills.

Campbell Soup, owner of the Pepperidge Farm brand, in its 2014 Corporate Responsibility Report, listed goals of reducing energy use by 35%, sourcing 40% of electricity from renewable or alternative energy sources, eliminating 100 million lb of packaging from its products, delivering 100% of its packaging from sustainable materials, reducing water usage per pound of ingredient by 20% and reducing greenhouse gases by 20%. Actual performance showed 2.6% less water per tonne of food in 2013, 4% less energy use per tonne, 4.4% less greenhouse gases and 13.3% less disposed waste. With suppliers, Campbell Soup uses supplier scorecards, assessments and audits, and alignment on ethical, human rights and environmental expectations.

The Kellogg Company promised to, by the year 2020, responsibly source corn, wheat, rice, potatoes, sugar (beet and cane), cocoa, palm oil, fruits (berries, raisins) and vanilla using a combination of certification and continuous improvement methods. Besides sourcing, other sustainable goals include the reduction of energy usage, greenhouse emissions, waste to landfills and water usage.

General Mills has committed to sustainable sourcing on 100% of its 10 priority ingredients by the year 2020. These ingredients make up 50% of their total raw material purchases. According to its “Global Responsibility 2015” report, current achievement of sustainable sourcing is: vanilla at 45%, cocoa 10%, palm oil 83%, sugar cane 42%, oats 35%, US wheat 15%, US sugar beets 34%, US corn 6%, fluid milk 20% and fiber packaging 99%.

Nestle reported that 28% of its raw materials were ­“responsibly sourced” in 2014, which was up from 17% in 2013.

Mondelez indicated sustainable sourcing as one of the five growth strategies for the company. The program is named “Call for Well-Being,” and while it involves more than just sustainable sourcing, ingredients of focus are cocoa and wheat. In 2012, Mondelez launched the “cocoa for life” program with a 10-year commitment of $400 million to empower 200,000 farmers and more than 1 million people in six key cocoa growing nations, including Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana, Indonesia, India, Dominican Republic and Brazil, by 2022. Currently, 12% of cocoa is sustainably sourced.

Mondelez’s program for wheat is called “Harmony,” and it was launched in 2008. This is a partnership in Europe including farmers, cooperatives and millers, and it promotes biodiversity and better environmental practices. Farmer participation has grown from the original 68 to a total of more than 1,700. At the end of 2014, 60% of the company’s wheat supply was sustainably sourced, and this number is expected to rise to 75% by the end of this year. Benefits include a 22% reduction of pesticide use. The program is just getting started in the US in cooperation with Michigan State University. In 2013, Mondelez also reported that it achieved the goal of 100% sustainably sourced palm oil along RSPO guidelines, and the cookie, cracker and snack manufacturer is pushing for a more robust certification system through collaboration with the World Wildlife Fund and the United Nations Development Programme. Goals were exceeded in reducing manufacturing waste, greenhouse gases and packaging usage.

In the operation of the bakery, sustainable sourcing is most evident in the area of recycling. “When we buy materials, it is hard to know if we are sourcing sustainable resources, but it is easy to know what is recyclable,” said Dan Leader, owner of Bread Alone. “We started a recycling program earlier this year, and the amount of trash is down 90%. All trash is separated and then taken to a recovery center, where the majority of it is composted.”

Mr. Leader operates a 100% organic bakery, and his biggest concern is over genetically modified ingredients. “We are confident that everything we get from Europe is GMO-free. We are not as certain in products we buy in the US,” he said.

A truly global impact

While bakers do not necessarily see the results of most of their sustainable sourcing work, those who get directly involved are able to enrich their own lives as well as the lives of others.

For example, the Kellogg Company partnered with its supplier in Bolivia to support more than 700 farmer families and a women-operated cooperative to produce quinoa. The program ensures that the grower communities keep 10% of their crop for personal use to protect their land. Kellogg also sponsored five quinoa growers and an agronomist from the region to attend a research symposium in the US.

In 2013, General Mills launched a program in the village of Belambo, located in the northern part of Madagascar’s Sava region, to support the training of 325 farming families, benefiting more than 1,900 people. The program teaches horticultural practices and trains farmers to expand their skills and incomes by learning to cure the vanilla they grow.

Vanilla-curing expertise helps farmers significantly increase their earnings. They are paid for their crops using a mobile phone app, providing security and accessibility in a region without a formal banking infrastructure.

In 2013, this farmer co-op represented approximately 10% of General Mills’ vanilla purchases. In 2014, the program was extended to Antananambo and Ampohibe, two communities in the southern section of the 200-mile-long Sava region. Farmer associations in Belambo, Antananambo and Ampohibe represent 900 growers and their 3,600 family members.

On the horizon

Looking to the future, efforts to sustainably source raw materials will most likely become necessary to remain competitive in the global marketplace. According to Steve Ells, chairman of Chipotle Mexican Grill, “We believe that our popularity among the younger customers is tied to our vision and the growing interest in issues related to food and how it is raised. Our research shows that these issues are clearly becoming more relevant and important when customers choose where they will dine.”

Companies getting started in the area of sustainable sourcing can look to resources such as the Food and Drink Federation. The company’s website,, lists a sustainable sourcing guide that offers five steps in launching a new program. It suggests mapping the supply chain; identifying impacts, risks and opportunities; assessing and prioritizing findings; creating a plan of action; and implementing, tracking, reviewing and communicating all findings.

As the baking and snack industries move forward, it is my hope that we will continue to follow our heritage by producing and delivering high-quality bakery foods and snacks without overly touting efforts to improve the environment. On the other hand, companies need to clearly communicate to stakeholders the details of such “behind the scenes” efforts.

Editor’s Note: Kirk O’Donnell is a baker, leader, manager and educator with 35 years of experience in the baking industry.