Jonah Smith: “My best advice is to approach everything with a flexible and adaptive mindset”

My best advice is to approach everything with a flexible and adaptive mindset. Ask questions. How can you or we, as an organization, improve in each aspect? What has changed or could change? What is the bottom line? What are the factors that need consideration? I’m incredibly fortunate to be able to work cross-collaboratively and […]

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My best advice is to approach everything with a flexible and adaptive mindset. Ask questions. How can you or we, as an organization, improve in each aspect? What has changed or could change? What is the bottom line? What are the factors that need consideration? I’m incredibly fortunate to be able to work cross-collaboratively and efficiently with various internal stakeholders at Kraft Heinz that bring so much value to the table, and with external organizations, to create and evolve solutions.

As part of my series about companies who are helping to battle climate change, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jonah Smith.

Jonah Smith joined Kraft Heinz in 2020 as the Global Lead of Environmental Social Governance (ESG) & President of the Kraft Heinz Foundation. At Kraft Heinz, Jonah leads the company’s global ESG strategy and agenda across all respective areas most material to the business (such as operational footprint, sustainable packaging, responsible sourcing and product health). He collaborates across business units and functions setting, monitoring and delivering commitments as set forth by the strategy, as well as internal and external engagement on the ESG pillars. Likewise, Jonah leads the Kraft Heinz Foundation towards its singular goal to alleviate hunger globally, as the Foundation has set out to accomplish this objective through strategic partnerships revolving around food security worldwide.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I’m truly an environmentalist at heart. My grandparents were farmers, and there is this implicit connection to healthy land and nature that was passed down through the generations. Growing up in Detroit, my family greatly valued the outdoors and exposed me to so many indelible nature-related travel experiences. I love being on the water and would spend time on the Great Lakes whenever possible. I spent my college years exploring various interests and discovered I could turn my passion for the environment into a career, between my undergraduate and graduate school studies.

With my appreciation for and love of nature, I knew that I wanted to make a positive impact on our environment as a central purpose in my career. When I expressed this interest to one of my professors at the University of Michigan (UM), he suggested that I pursue a dual-degree program in environment and business to drive positive change from the inside. It was like lightning struck me, and I then focused my courses on sustainability in both University of Michigan’s School of Natural Resources & the Environment (as formerly known), as well as specialized sustainability courses offered through UM’s Business School. After I received my MS in Conservation Biology and Ecosystem Management from UM, I attended the Bainbridge Graduate Institute (BGI as formerly known) in the state of Washington, to earn my specialized MBA in Sustainable Business — it was one of the first schools, if not the first school offering this. I went on to work at or with various companies including MillerCoors, Grainger and others, to help lead sustainability throughout the value chain, to optimize people, planet and profit.

What is the mission of your company? What problems are you aiming to solve?

Our purpose at Kraft Heinz is Let’s Make Life Delicious. As part of this purpose we have a core set of embedded values that represent our beliefs and define our shared culture. Two of those values that particularly resonate with me as part of what we do in Environmental Social Governance, are ‘We do the right thing’ and ‘We dare to do better every day.’ We are committed to responsible, sustainable practices extending to every facet of our business through our ESG strategy. And the Kraft Heinz ESG strategy prioritizes the issues that matter most to the company’s business and stakeholders, focusing on areas that have the greatest impact — including environmental stewardship, responsible sourcing, and healthy living & community support.

Moreover, Kraft Heinz works to leverage our resources and global reach to positively impact the world while making delicious products for our consumers. I am a firm believer that we shouldn’t have to choose between improving people, profit or the planet, but rather integrate positive outcomes while limiting negative impacts across all three areas as much as possible. I recognize that no company nor individual is perfect, but we are committed to this journey towards a more sustainable world all together. Our latest ESG report released in September 2020 lays out a comprehensive look at the ways we are helping to make positive impacts.

Can you tell us about the initiatives your company is taking to tackle climate change? Can you give an example for each?

At Kraft Heinz, we look at sustainability initiatives through a lens of continuous improvement. We have set aggressive climate and energy goals for ourselves working to make all aspects of the company’s operations more sustainable, and many ESG issues are interconnected.

For example, by 2022, we are committed to creating a fully circular Heinz Tomato Ketchup bottle in Europe, which can be made back into food-grade packaging after use. How does that impact climate change? Well, virgin extraction and later manufacturing and transportation for packaging can be quite energy intensive, and depending upon the source of energy, also have significant associated GHG emissions. If the packaging is ultimately discarded into a landfill, it takes up land that could have been forested absorbing carbon, but instead off-gases more emissions sitting in this landfill. By designing for recyclability, and through other efforts we employ, we can increase the chances that packaging is recycled and therefore also contributes to not just a cleaner, safer environment for all life, but also contributes less to climate change from a life-cycle perspective. At the same time, the majority of our procured electricity for all facilities globally will be from renewable sources by 2025. We are also committed to decreasing energy use by 15% across all Kraft Heinz manufacturing facilities and are assessing our total value chain emissions and related initiatives to reduce that in accordance with the best climate science available today.

We know we have work to do in order to meet and exceed our sustainability goals. It’s not just innovating what we do, but also bringing that same spirit of innovation to how we do it.

We’ve put protocols in place to help achieve improvements — everything from clear assessment of our current benchmarks, establishment of an ESG steering group, monthly touchpoints to drive towards targets, embedding KPIs appropriately, and better collaboration and transparency everywhere we operate. And it’s working. For example, we’ve witnessed high single to double-digit improvements in our ESG manufacturing targets in the past 14 months and we’re pacing ahead of schedule in several areas.

Another example is the work we are doing with sustainable agriculture. We’ve set the goal to sustainably source 100% of our famous Heinz Ketchup tomatoes by 2025. Working with our farmers, we will be focusing on things like soil health and efficient water use through irrigation — which can in turn reduce energy use and greenhouse gas emissions significantly, through less water pumping needs. As an iconic brand and the sure scale of our Heinz Ketchup tomatoes in the world, Kraft Heinz is investing in ways that create significant positive impacts. Moreover, these tomatoes are high quality and have traits like drought resistance, need less pesticides and herbicides, and have higher yield, which means less land use — all this can save trees and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

What was the most difficult thing you faced when you first started your company/organization? Can you share how you overcame that? This might give insight to founders who face a similar situation.

My best advice is to approach everything with a flexible and adaptive mindset. Ask questions. How can you or we, as an organization, improve in each aspect? What has changed or could change? What is the bottom line? What are the factors that need consideration? I’m incredibly fortunate to be able to work cross-collaboratively and efficiently with various internal stakeholders at Kraft Heinz that bring so much value to the table, and with external organizations, to create and evolve solutions.

I also started this position at a unique time — both in terms of organizational change at Kraft Heinz, and just a few months before the global pandemic. The COVID-19 pandemic presented many challenges and opportunities for all companies, including ours. But instead of pressing pause, we took this as an opportunity to move faster, to look at ourselves and optimize processes and practices, particularly doing as much as we could to support the communities in which we operate. For example, during the pandemic we were able to quickly update our processes to increase both the volume and speed in which we can convert finished quality product into local food donations in the communities of many of our factories, in order to support the greatest need. Partners like Feeding America have been instrumental in this initiative from the outset, and quickly adapted with us as a result of COVID-19. We are taking these learnings and applying them across our facilities going forward, in hopes that we can continue the lift so to speak.

Also, the Kraft Heinz Company Foundation actively works to help alleviate global hunger, committing 1.5 billion meals globally to those in need by 2025. One of our key partners is Rise Against Hunger (RAH). Many employees also volunteer at meal packaging events organized by RAH. During these events, we donate RAH meal packages. The kits include soy, vegetables and rice, and are fortified with essential vitamins and minerals designed and developed by Kraft Heinz staff. The kits are then distributed globally in regions of extreme hunger or undernourishment, helping to feed families, fight off infections and reverse symptoms of acute malnutrition.

Another key new partner is Heifer International, who has such a great legacy of building programs around food security, providing sustaining means to families not just for the day, but indefinitely through a mating pair of cattle, or a flock of chickens that provide eggs for example. Together with partners like these, we are making great strides towards our global goals around hunger alleviation.

Many people want to start a company to tackle environmental issues, but they face challenges when it comes to raising enough money to actually make it happen. Can you share how you were able to raise the funding necessary to start your organization? Do you have any advice?

First and foremost, it’s important to do your homework. You may not need to recreate the wheel, as there may already be an organization or section within your company that shares your vision. Instead of expending more time, resources and energy creating something out of nothing, you might be able to add major improvements to an existing framework, which takes less resources. I did this with one of my early entrepreneurial pursuits after grad. school in socially responsible investing, and I learned so much and was able to leverage both knowledge and resources of a larger institution that was interested in my offerings. And in the end, I turned my pursuits elsewhere, but I conserved resources in the process and attracted investment from in-part leveraging already established related structures. We need more people constantly renovating too, not just innovating, and as the multiplier effect goes, with more people working towards the same goal, we can achieve the same outcome in less time.

I’d also advise you to be tenacious and never give up, unless you truly should. Failure only occurs when you stop. You might knock on the same door 100 times, but it could be the 101st time that you break through to just the right investor or partner. Once you do get that access, utilize all resources wisely and carefully, especially spend.

Do you think entrepreneurs/businesses can do a better job than governments to solve the climate change and global warming issues? Please explain why or why not.

I believe that any effort to solve climate change and global warming issues must be a collaborative one. Everyone has the ability to do their part with what they are given. Governments need to do their part by being good watchdogs and enforcers on baseline compliance for instance, as well as providing smart vs. perverse incentives, like subsidies for renewable energy when done in the right way.

Companies can continue to decrease their greenhouse gas emissions in their overall operations while reducing their energy spend, and still increasing their profits by aligning with customers that incorporate social values into their purchases — which is a segment that continues to exponentially increase.

Investors can choose to work with companies that are more sustainable, and thereby typically are better optimized in terms of costs of goods sold, have mitigated inherent risks better across a variety of areas, and are more transparent. This offers investors a more stable, longer-term return that typically outpaces a conversely less sustainable investment.

Is there a particular person who you are grateful to who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I’m incredibly grateful to both of my parents for helping me to get to where I am today, and for making education and appreciation a centerpiece of it all. They encouraged and facilitated my love of so many things, the outdoors included, and supported me and my adventurous nature. From attending farm camp as a toddler, or a Children’s International Summer Village peace camp in Norway at age 11, both without them, to river rafting excursions or hikes in state parks, to my soccer pursuits, they’ve always encouraged me to follow my passions.

What are some practical things that both people and governments can do to help address the climate change and global warming problem?

Governments must be good monitors, ensure compliance and provide proper incentives. People need to each do their part and respect that there will be differences in how an individual may contribute. No one is perfect all of the time. But if we can work together collectively to raise each other up, one action will encourage another. In developed regions, consider implementing smaller changes to make a big impact, such as replacing incandescent lightbulbs with LEDs, turning off lights or adding sensors for automatic shutoffs, buying energy efficient appliances, or much bigger changes like adding solar.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why?

It’s a great question and, for me, it comes down to some simple pieces of advice: follow your true interests even when they don’t necessarily seem like they are a clear path to something meaningful. Life has a way of integrating and ultimately rewarding authentic passions. And even if you do not achieve the level of success you would have liked to in the end (and do any of us really?), you would have enjoyed the journey so much more. And while doing this, stay present and strive to make positive impacts for you, around you and in the world. I would also encourage young professionals to travel and play more and enjoy every moment! The further along you go in your career, the harder you may find it is to balance work and everything else you want to accomplish. If I could do it all again, I would make even more time to enjoy and explore and better understand nature, to travel, different cultures, different food, more perspectives, to play more soccer, more guitar, more poetry, more reading, more windsurfing, and so forth. All in all, I encourage everyone to strive to be positive, be present with family and friends, stay curious and do whatever you can to make a positive impact on the planet no matter how big or small.

If you could inspire a movement that would bring a great amount of good to the world, what would that be?

It would be incredible to inspire a good-natured sustainability movement. Looking back at pivotal moments throughout history, far too many times there has been so much divisiveness and finger-pointing before great and better changes occur, the latter happening sometimes at great costs and many lost opportunities we will never know. There is far too little focus on true collaboration, the kind that happens like symbiotic relationships in nature. We should all encourage so much more and celebrate around smart and mutually beneficial diverse solutions. We’re all members of one human race living on one planet. It’s our resource, our sink, our life, and it needs balance to survive. It’s in our best interests to find a shared purpose in how we interact with the planet. If we learn how to harness collaboration to its fullest potential, I think we’d have a much greater sustainable impact.

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