Ep. 19: Roadmap to Net Zero with Autumn Fox of Mars

Join Keith Anderson as he meets and learns from our guest this week, Autumn Fox, Climate Sustainability Senior Manager for Mars. Together they discuss the company’s roadmap to net zero emissions, looking at how far they’ve come and how they, and the rest of the industry, might continue to move forward. Together they touch on plans that affect agriculture, retail, packaging, and logistics.

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Keith Anderson: Welcome to Decarbonizing Commerce, where we explore what’s new, interesting, and actionable at the intersection of climate innovation and commerce. I’m your host, Keith Anderson, and together we’ll meet entrepreneurs and innovators reinventing retail, e-commerce, and consumer products through the lenses of low carbon and commercial viability. 

This is the Decarbonizing Commerce podcast. I’m Keith Anderson. Thank you for listening. Last fall, the Mars Company published details of its Net Zero Roadmap, which is among the most ambitious decarbonization plans I’ve seen in the industry. Mars has a climate footprint, roughly equivalent to the country of Finland.

And they’ve already reduced emissions by 8 percent from a 2015 baseline, despite increasing sales within 60% over the same period. But their new net zero target is to reduce their full value chain emissions by half by 2030 versus the same 2015 baseline, and by 80% by 2050. They’ve committed a billion dollars over the next three years, and they estimate that it’ll take roughly 1 percent of annual sales to get to that 50% reduction by 2030. And Mars is a food company, so as you might suspect, a huge percentage of the emissions reductions that are planned are in agriculture and land use, but some of their plans also affect retail, packaging, and logistics.

So, I was really excited when I had the opportunity to interview somebody from Mars that worked directly on the Net Zero Roadmap. And our guest this week is Autumn Fox, the Climate Sustainability Senior Manager for Mars, who, in her role, leads the climate and land impact areas for the Mars Sustainable in a Generation Plan.

Autumn has been with Mars for more than a decade in a variety of roles, sales, R&D, and commercial. She was previously a sustainable sourcing manager in the Mars Wrigley business, where she chaired the SAI platform, Sustainable Dairy Partnership, and Autumn has a background in biology and is a published author in ecology and cancer biology.

Like I say, I think this is a really great example of where the industry is ultimately headed and I was delighted to meet Autumn and learn from her. So let’s meet Autumn Fox of Mars Incorporated. 

Autumn, we’re recording on a Friday morning, so happy Friday, and thanks for joining the Decarbonizing Commerce podcast.

Autumn Fox: Thanks, Keith. Thank you for having me here today.

Keith Anderson: I’ve been very excited for this conversation and, I’m really excited to learn more about you and, and what Mars is doing in this area. You know, last fall, when the company published the Net Zero Roadmap, I was, I, I dug into the detail for longer than I expected to when I opened the PDF.

And so, I think it’s going to be a really fascinating discussion for listeners. Maybe we can just start by, learning a bit about you and your journey to working on climate at Mars.

Autumn Fox: Yeah, I’m happy to share. So my journey to this started in college. Part of my biology degree was that I worked on a research study, and that study was looking at the effect of natural gas drilling out west in the US on elk and mule deer. And while I was out there, I was spending time in this relatively remote part of the US.

It looked very forested and natural, but what I learned was that it was dissected with all of the development and the roads to access the natural gas wells. And it was apparent that this was really a deeply impacted and fragmented landscape, and it created this interest that I have now in the overlap between business and ecology.

And I ended up at Mars. I’ve been here my whole career, essentially, but I’ve been in a variety of parts of the business. I’ve gotten to be in sales and work on the performance metrics of our sales team. I’ve gotten to be involved with our innovation project process. I’ve gotten to be involved with our innovation process in R&D and looking at how we procure sustainably for ingredients like our dairy, our tree nuts, our vanilla. And so all that then has brought me to this place now. I’m part of our corporate team on sustainability, and I lead our work on climate change, land use, and deforestation and conversion of natural systems.

Keith Anderson: I think that rotational experience in different parts of the company is, it’s somewhat common in CPG companies from what I’ve seen, but I don’t know how common it is in climate and sustainability. Is it something that you pursued, or is that something that the company does with intent?

Autumn Fox: You know, one of the things I love about Mars is that it’s really focused on development and really gives some freedom for associates to chart their own path and really work through the career path that they’re interested in. So I’ve had a lot of support over the years from my managers to keep developing.

I, I do think in Mars, at least we see a lot of this. We have a lot of people in sustainability who are coming, especially from procurement or R&D and bringing a lot of the skills that are needed to excel in those areas to work on sustainability issues.

Keith Anderson: It makes a ton of sense. I mean, that, that is, as we discussed briefly before we were recording, so much of our focus is at the intersection of all of these commercial decisions that impact both climate and commercial outcomes. And so I think it’s really interesting and important to see that kind of cross pollination happening inside the business.

Well, I think the main topic for discussion today is the Net Zero Roadmap that I know you played a key role in helping develop. I imagine some folks listening aren’t totally clear on what “net zero” means. So can you define it?

Autumn Fox: Absolutely. I know there’s a lot of confusion out there on terms like “net zero” and “carbon neutral” or “climate positive.” It’s a real jungle right now. Net zero is a concept that, you know, really was defined by the United Nations and a group called the Science Based Targets Initiative. At its most basic, net zero means a balance between greenhouse gases that are emitted to the atmosphere and greenhouse gases that are removed from the atmosphere and stored somewhere.

That’s at a global level, and we’re pretty far from that, to be frank. At a company level, net zero means the same thing, but with a certain order of operations. So first, a company needs to dramatically reduce the emissions associated with their value chain on the order of 80% to 90% depending on the industry. Then once the company has really dramatically reduced their emissions, there’s going to be some residual emissions that last 10 or 20%.

Those might be very difficult or impossible to, to stop. And so those can then be neutralized or offset using carbon removal credits.

Keith Anderson: Makes sense. And can you tell us about the Net Zero Roadmap and what some of the pillars of it are?

Autumn Fox: Absolutely. 

So, the Net Zero Roadmap is a publication that we put out last fall, after we had announced our commitment to cutting in half our emissions by 2030 and achieving net zero by 2050. And in the roadmap, we’re really laying out our plan to 2030 in a fair amount of detail, and we’ve done a lot of analysis to support this, to assure our business leaders that this is the right choice to make.

And the great news is that we found that cutting our emissions in half by 2030 is achievable. We can do it. The solutions are available, they’re ready to be deployed, and we really just need to deploy them at scale in our supply chain. The other thing that we found is actually that it’s also affordable.

It’ll cost us, we think, about 1 percent of sales annually. And I know that perhaps could be debatable whether that is affordable or not, but when we think about an investment to address the really most existential threat to our business and to our families, you know, that’s pretty affordable. 

And what we’re seeing is that actually there was a study recently, just this week I saw, a study in over 100 countries that found that 70% of people would be willing to percent, willing to spend 1 percent of their household income to stop climate change.

So, we really need to recognize that this is something we all. No is a, is a big threat and we need to just invest it to get it done and to change course. Now, when we think about our Net Zero Roadmap, we have a few fundamental concepts that are really important. The first one is that companies need to include all of the emissions associated with their value chains.

And that’s because in the end, you know, it might be nice to exclude one bucket of emissions that’s difficult to to address, but it doesn’t work like that for the atmosphere. What matters to the atmosphere is what is actually emitted. And so we need to be including everything so that we can make strategies that truly do what’s necessary to slow this down.

The second thing is that we need to have interim targets. Company committing to net zero by 2040 or 2050, that’s so far away. Businesses act for the most part on much shorter, you know, year to multi year time frames. And so we have to have those five year targets to make sure that we’re on track. And as we look at our targets, we need to think about performance.

That’s what really matters, right? The atmosphere doesn’t fundamentally care. If Mars has a GHG policy, it matters whether our emissions have actually gone down. And so we have to have a really laser focus on performance and actually reducing our emissions over time. At the same time, we have to think long term, right?

And in particular, that means thinking about decisions we’re making now that lock us in to a certain emissions pathway. For example, if you’re installing a new asset, a new piece of machinery at your factory, you know, typically those are going to have multi decade lifespans. And so you might be making a decision now that will affect your emissions profile in 2040 or 2050, and identifying those decisions and taking particular care with those decisions is, is really important.

And the final, you know, fundamental, that we have of net zero is this idea that once we get down to that small level of residual emissions, the last 10 or 20% that we can’t really do anything about, in order to neutralize those with carbon credits, we really need to be focused on the quality of the carbon credits.

Of course, there have been a lot of challenges in carbon markets recently that have been quite public. And so looking at how to ensure that you’re really procuring and supporting high quality carbon credits projects is, is absolutely vital.

Keith Anderson: There’s a couple things that I want to drill down on there, but I think that’s a super interesting overview. The first is, you know, I like the way you frame the sort of primacy of the atmosphere because you really can’t work the ref or move the goalposts in a, in a topic like this, you know, I’ve, I’ve sort of been saying in some cases, the consumer is king, but, you know, sometimes laws of thermodynamics take precedence and, and I think that’s something that many of us in business are still coming to accept because you know, for decades, we’ve been so singularly focused on, “well, if a consumer accepts it, then it works, and if they don’t, then it doesn’t.”

And I think we’re broadening our thinking.

Autumn Fox: So perhaps “physics is king” is your, your new catchphrase.

Keith Anderson: Yeah, I’m not known having pithy or memorable phrases, but I’m searching for something that I can

Autumn Fox: Well, let me know if you find it. But we, we really do try to bring that approach with the business. It’s what “does the science say is necessary?” And we use that to set our environmental targets, not only on climate, but also on water and on land.

Keith Anderson (2): Yeah, it makes sense. And, you know, the second thing that I think is really important and I’m glad to see is, certainly you’re focusing on the quality of offsets and credits, but the majority of what you’re planning to achieve is actually reducing emissions in the value chain. And, you know, I know there are some major buckets of emissions that represent big percentages of full value chain emissions. Maybe we can start with agriculture, which you know, my read of the report suggests is probably the biggest. 

Autumn Fox: Agriculture is absolutely one of our biggest areas, and that’s because for Mars, as, largely a food business, the footprint of the raw materials that we purchase, is, is over 60% of our footprint. And so it is the must win area. And in the short term, you know, the absolute top priority there has to be stopping deforestation and conversion of natural ecosystems.

This is crucial that any food company be taking action on this now. It has to happen this decade. And so to work on that, you know, we start with really tracing our supply chains. A step we call map. We’ve got to map back to the land where our product was sourced from. And then we need to look at “how do we manage and make sure that we are setting the expectations for our supply chains in terms of ensuring that they are on land that is, it’s free of deforestation and conversion after a cutoff date?”

And finally, then we need to monitor to make sure that they remain compliant. But as we do this, you know, what we really see is that often we have to actually redesign our supply chains. Sometimes you can, you can apply it to your existing supply chain, but often you might find that the supply chain hasn’t been designed with this kind of transparency and compliance in mind, and you need to take a different approach.

And one example where we’ve done that is in Palm, where a significant part of our volumes are traced from an innovative model where we, we really have, you know, a single plantation, a single mill, supplying us. Then beyond stopping deforestation, there’s all the emissions that are associated with the agricultural value chain that includes, you know, producing fertilizer, it includes the emissions from the land, the emissions from the animals, the emissions from the farm operations, as well as then any emissions from logistics and processing.

So there’s a broad swath of emissions, very diverse set of emissions that are in this category. And the way we’re tackling that is largely through climate-smart agriculture. And the way we understand climate-smart agriculture is really that it has three pillars. One is reducing emissions across all of the sources of emissions and ensuring that you are protecting nature and regenerating soils and natural ecosystems.

And that’s where sort of regenerative agriculture fits in. And finally, that you’re working on resilience, recognizing that climate risks to supply chains and to farms are significant and working to increase the resilience of those supply chains. And so we, we tackle this in very different ways in different supply chains because they have really an incredible diversity of contexts, but it ranges everything from classic regen ag programs that are looking at things like no-till and cover crops to working with dairy farmers on how they manage their manure and to do that in a more sustainable way, to looking at how we improve the, the processing of the actual ingredients that we buy.

Keith Anderson: It’s really interesting and, and there are, I think, a handful of other categories that are more directly chopper and, and retailer facing in some ways. Do you think that there could be implications for ways of working with retailers and consumers in some of the agricultural initiatives that are part of smart climate or climate-smart agriculture?

Autumn Fox: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, the first place to start is with your, your comment on the consumer being king, right? Absolutely. The consumer often has some interest in how the product that they’re purchasing was produced, right? And so there’s an opportunity from a sales and reputation perspective to engage with the consumer and to share with them the story of what we’re doing in those supply chains and to really bring that to life for them.

Then the retailer can also have an interest in that because that creates a shared marketing opportunity and a way to grow the category. Right? But in addition to that, the retailer may also have some interest in partnering with us to, to work with the farmers because of their own goals and commitments and targets.

So, there’s several ways that this could come to life with retailers and consumers.

Keith Anderson: Makes sense. What are some of those other major buckets? Obviously none quite as significant as agriculture, but still areas that the plan requires you to focus on.

Autumn Fox: So, related to agriculture is product formulation. And this is one of those things, very few things, that is in our direct control, right, so it’s an enormous opportunity where our choices affect both the upstream footprint of the ingredients that we purchase, because we’re choosing whether to buy beef or poultry or soy protein, and also the downstream footprint of how the consumer uses and disposes of our products.

And so to work on product formulation, I think first is important to note that it does require a fairly high level of data availability, right? We need to be able to give the product scientists the information they need to make effective decisions. It also requires a really excellent collaboration with the procurement team.

Because, you know, what ingredients are going to be in the product obviously affects how the procurement team prioritizes their work. And the ways that other raw materials will be improving in sustainability over time also affects how R&D thinks about what materials to put in and which not to. And so there needs to be a really strong collaboration between R&D and procurement teams to make this really come to life.

Keith Anderson: Speaking of R&D, and this may be out of your wheelhouse, but I think Mars just announced the opening of a new R&D facility in Chicago. Is that linked to this topic?

Autumn Fox: So, I’m based in Chicago. So, yes, happy to be very close to that. Yeah, so that’s really about making sure that we have the right innovation support to be able to really do effective pilots of, of new products, and so that is you know, really making sure that we have the infrastructure to be able to effectively test as R&D is working on “how do we reformulate and how do we develop new products to make sure that we can pilot those effectively before we bring them to market?”

Keith Anderson: Yeah, I, I see a growing focus across the industry in product effectiveness and, you know, while we’re all trying to improve the sustainability and reduce the footprint of products, making sure that we’re giving the shopper and the consumer choices that they feel good about making, seems increasingly important. What about some of the other areas like packaging, retail, logistics?

Autumn Fox: So maybe we start with packaging because that’s also very closely related to product formulation. 

Packaging is a great example of an area where we can’t have climate tunnel vision. And I’m our climate lead and I’m saying this, right? The mentality we need to have is that we are part of nature and our lives are fully dependent on nature being healthy and vibrant.

And in the case of packaging, the impact on nature has to be the top priority, which means that our priority is to design packaging for recycling and reuse, which is also known as designing for circularity. And so that’s what our packaging teams are really fully activated on right now. As you design for circularity, there are a variety of actions that you work on.

That can include redesigning the packaging to have fewer layers to make it more easy to recycle. And it includes innovating with new materials that are easier to recycle or compost. And it also includes working externally to scale up the recycling infrastructure that’s needed to then actually recycle or compost or reuse those materials.

The great news is, in our analysis we have found that those actions to design for circularity, in aggregate, they do lead to reduce to… in aggregate, they do lead to reductions in our greenhouse gas footprint, which is excellent news. There is a synergy and we’re driving for both together. 

But that won’t be the end of the story on sustainable packaging.

Once we’ve moved to that circular packaging, then we need to get on with fully decarbonizing those packaging systems and doing all the work to make sure that those supply chains are, you know, are dramatically reducing their footprint as well. So it’s really going to be a multi stage process in packaging, starting with designing for circularity.

Keith Anderson: It’s interesting how many of these transitions come back to the design phase of the entire value chain.

Autumn Fox: They do, and we’re really thinking about that entire value chain. And particularly when it comes to retail and logistics. In retail, what do we need to think about? The emissions that are coming from that retailer, perhaps transporting and warehousing the product, that are coming from the footprint of the retail store itself, such as the electricity to power the lights and the refrigerators, maybe gas that’s producing heat, etc.

And then even transporting the product all the way to the consumer’s house, whether that’s happening in a consumer vehicle or, in a, you know, some form of direct to consumer delivery platform. And that was the key insight for us on retail, that we really need to be thinking all the way to the consumer’s house.

And that helps us to really look at which systems are most efficient and how to drive decarbonization, even in how we sell the product to the consumer. What’s clear is that our first two priorities in this area are working on the, the retailer logistics, and looking at how we move to renewable electricity in retail as quickly as possible.

Keith Anderson: Yeah, it was a brief mention in the roadmap, but one thing that really leapt off the page to me was a comment that digital commerce, on average, and of course, you know, it depends on so many details, but on average, it tends to have a lower footprint than conventional brick and mortar retail. And, so much of my focus is at the intersection of digital commerce and climate work.

I thought it was an interesting point that, you know, a company like Mars is even looking at those kinds of channel strategies in a sense, as influential to outcomes like a Net Zero Roadmap. I think there’s more and more opportunity to consider the way these topics can support each other, you know, as you’re trying to grow while decoupling that growth from emissions.

Autumn Fox: Yeah, and, and, I mean, interestingly, that comes because when, if you think about driving to the store and picking up a load of groceries, when you come home, your car is not full. There’s a lot of air in your car, right? Whereas with DCOM, you can really optimize the capacity of those vehicles, but it goes back to the point on including all emissions, because when we include all emissions, we get the full picture of what’s happening, the full picture of how our business strategy affects our footprint, and that leads us to ask these kinds of questions and get these kinds of answers.

So, the process of including everything actually helps us get smarter and be a more competitive business.

Keith Anderson: Hey folks, this is the part of the show where we say thank you and see you soon to the general audience, plus and higher tier members of Decarbonize.co, stay tuned for the rest of the episode.

Keith Anderson: Well, Autumn, I really appreciate your time and, and insight. You know, I think the work that Mars is doing in this space is really important and is, is going to serve as a benchmark for some of your peers in the industry, we’ll include links in the show notes to both the roadmap and some more detail on S-LoCT if people want to learn more.

Autumn Fox: Thanks very much, Keith.

Keith Anderson: Yeah. Thanks again for joining 

Thanks for listening. I’m Keith Anderson, the executive producer and host of Decarbonizing Commerce. Sonic Futures handles audio, music, and video production. If you enjoyed the show, we’d really appreciate it if you took a moment to subscribe and leave a review or share it with a colleague. For the full episode and more member exclusive insight and analysis, join the Decarbonizing Commerce community at Decarbonize.co. Thanks for listening and we’ll see you on the next episode of Decarbonizing Commerce. 

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