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Q&A: Stefani Millie Grant, Unilever

Unilever has a big stake in working with farmers.

Did you know that all of the soy oil that goes into making Hellmann’s mayonnaise comes out of Iowa soybean fields? In fact, Unilever, which also makes consumer products goods from makeup products to food, is heavily into sustainability, has launched a program for about 300 farmers in Iowa, and is looking at programs for farmers in other states, as well.

Successful Farming magazine caught up with Stefani Millie Grant, who is leading Unilever North America’s sustainability efforts.

SF: You grew up in Iowa. What is your background?

SMG: My parents both grew up on farms in northeast Nebraska. I think my dad wishes he probably stayed on the farm. I spent time on my aunt and uncle’s dairy farm in the summers growing up. It’s one of those things I enjoyed as a kid – you think it’s fun to go milk the cows! It’s not work, it’s fun. I definitely grew up with appreciation of it. I still have cousins that farm. It’s near and dear to my heart, being from Iowa and having my family come from farming.

SF: It must have helped you at Unilever?

SMG: Yeah, I joked that they took me because I was from the Midwest and I know how to talk to farmers, so I wouldn’t scare them away when we came in with our program. [Laughs]

SF: What does it really mean to be the senior manager of external affairs for sustainability?

SMG: I wear a couple of different hats within Unilever. One is working on the external affairs side, so that’s actually working on government affairs and policies that affect Unilever’s ability to do business, or looking at things such as bigger issues that we’re looking at as a company: plastics, packaging, climate change – those issues where we think policy solutions can help solve problems. The second hat I wear is working on our sustainable sourcing programs in the U.S. and Canada. I get to work with our brands, procurement – who does our ingredient buying – our suppliers, and then the farmers who work with our suppliers to design and implement and develop all of our sustainable sourcing programs.

SF: That sounds like two jobs, not one.

SMG: It can be, yes. But there’s actually overlap, especially as I’ve really gotten into the sustainable sourcing and the sustainable agriculture and working with farmers and learning from them … learning what policies are needed to maybe help farmers out to be able to do more practices that they want to do, such as cover crops, for example. Where are policy changes needed – such as those passed in the farm bill two years ago – to help ease the restrictions on cover crops, so farmers didn’t have to plant and terminate on the USDA schedule; they could actually have a little bit more flexibility and not risk their crop insurance by doing these practices.

SF: What does sustainability mean to Unilever?

SMG: Sustainability for Unilever has been a big part of decoupling our environmental impact from our growth. Being able to really look at our environmental footprint and cutting that in half. We’ve been working on this since 2010 with our Sustainable Living Plan that was developed by our now-retired CEO, Paul Polman. It was a 10-year plan saying, OK, we’re going to look at our overall footprint, not just in our four walls, but really look at our full footprint and see how can we decouple that environmental impact from the growth. Within that, we have smaller goals. For sustainable agriculture, we really define sustainability as continuous improvement: working with our suppliers and their farmers, understanding the practices they’re doing and then working to help them improve. It’s going to vary based on the country, the region, the farm. No field, no farm is ever the same.

SF: The 2017 revision of the code included an update to add “land use.” Why?

It’s really more looking at developing countries than developed countries, but really looking at making sure we’re not converting land that shouldn’t be put into production, into production. So that’s been a big focus in other countries, not too much in the U.S. It is a global code, not just a U.S. code.

SF: How does it apply to American farmers?

SMG: As I said, it’s more for developing countries than developed. As you read it, you saw that it was fairly easy for U.S. farmers to achieve that code. We benchmark against programs that are using it. So in the U.S. we use Field to Market, for example, to work with our farmers. We try to make sure we understand what’s going on in the countries, and then look where we can benchmark against it and make sure it’s meeting the code without having to create a brand-new process for farmers to go through.

SF: How is with Unilever working with Iowa soybean farmers?

SMG: Our Hellmann’s brand sources its soy oil that goes into Hellmann’s mayonnaise out of Iowa. We’ve been working with farmers since 2013 on our sustainable sourcing program. When we started, it was just really understanding what the farmers were doing. We were doing annual meetings and learning from the farmers, going out to their farms, understanding the practices. We developed a pilot on cover crops because I had heard from farmers that, “Hey, this is something we’re interested in” after we had done a session at a grower meeting. So we worked into the small pilot with some state funding from the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship (IDALS). We had a great uptake in interest in it.

Once we saw that we had initial interest from farmers in the small pilot, we redesigned the program and relaunched it in 2018 to focus on cover crops. Now we pay a cost-share with our farmers on cover crops and we help them plant cover crops and also give them the technical assistance through Practical Farmers of Iowa. We want to make sure they have a good experience while they’re doing this; that they’re not just trying to figure it out on their own. They can have an agronomist come out to their farm or talk to them on the phone and help walk them through what they need to do. Then there’s also a social aspect. We want to make sure that they have the social support from other farmers. One of the first things when a farmer joins our program, they get a call from another Practical Farmers of Iowa member, saying, “Hey, I’m here as a resource. I can help you figure these things out.” We’re trying to give them that network and that social support, too, so they don’t feel like they’re out there doing this alone on an island.

SF: Why do this? What’s the motivation for Unilever?

SMG: It really is the Unilever ethos, I would say, of we’re going to do this. We’re not just going to say, “OK, farmers, you need to do this – do it or not.” We feel like we need to partner and we have to have skin in the game. We need to be there hand-in-hand and say, “OK, we want you to do this and we’re going to help you do it along the way.” We think it’s a much better way than just demanding it to be done.

SF: Do consumers care about sustainability?

SMG: Our younger consumers, millennials especially, are starting to ask more and more, “Where’s my food coming from?” We’re definitely seeing that and wanting to better understand where it is. Consumers still have a lot of confusion if you use the sustainability claim. Consumers have their own definition in their head. Everybody has their own perception within it. So yes, we see an absolute interest from consumers, but it’s not the reason we’re doing it. We think it’s the right thing to do.

We’re hoping to better tell the stories and disseminate it. It’s tough: How do you explain cover crops in a 30-second commercial, for example? All the benefits and what they do? We’re learning as we go, trying to better understand how we can better communicate with consumers on what we’re doing.

SF: Where else are you working with producers?

SMG: In Arkansas we’ve been working with our rice growers for our Knorr brand. We’ve been working with them for the last two years in partnership with the University of Arkansas on helping them use less water to grow rice. Rice is a very water-intensive crop and there are predictions that Arkansas is going to have some water supply issues by about 2040. We’re working with them to be creative on different practices and technologies that they could use to use less water.

We’ve been talking with farmers in North Dakota on wheat, trying to get a program going there on soil salinization, because that’s a really big local issue for them. Parts of their fields are just too salty to grow anything. We’re trying to figure out what’s the best fit for them. In Canada, with canola, they have the same issue on the salinization issue. I spent time there last year visiting fields. We’re trying to figure out what kind of program to put together there. Hellmann’s is definitely our leading brand on this.


Name: Stefani Millie Grant

Title: Senior manager, external affairs & sustainability

Hometown: Sioux City, Iowa

Current residence: Alexandria, Virginia

Education: Master of business administration, University of Iowa; bachelor of arts in accounting and public administration, Buena Vista University

Family: Husband John and daughter Alexandra

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