Sustainability is a team sport: Jennifer Kaplan of Miyoko’s Creamery

August 16, 2021
Interview

For companies that create physical products, there’s so much to consider.

When it comes to operationalizing sustainability for companies that create physical products, there’s so much to consider—sourcing, supply chain, and packaging are just the tip of the iceberg. Then if you produce a food product, the additional energy, water, and land add another set of complex variables to the mix. But making plant-based products takes the animal quotient away, making them inherently more sustainable.  

“Making food from animal milk is like making energy from fossil fuel.”  
— Founder and CEO, Miyoko Schinner

We caught up with Jennifer Kaplan, the food systems sustainability manager at Miyoko’s Creamery, the California-based vegan butter and cheese producer to hear more about their sustainability practices.  

Jennifer is the first-ever sustainability manager for Miyoko’s, where she’s responsible for developing a sustainability roadmap to benchmark and improve ESG goals.  

As a sustainability subject matter resource, she works across Miyoko’s operations to implement both practical and strategic sustainability initiatives. She also collaborates on business growth by contributing to sustainability-driven new business opportunities—like upcycling partnerships and new product introductions. On top of all that, she heads up Miyoko’s B-Corp reporting and initiatives to improve impact area metrics.  

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity and expresses the opinions of the interviewee, not necessarily views or opinions of her employer.      

Sustain.Life: What should people know about Miyoko’s and its mission?  

Jennifer Kaplan: First, Miyoko’s is an exceptional company. Miyoko Schinner, our founder and CEO, has built a company with a compassion-centric mission and she strives to walk her talk every day. We’re not only committed to promoting animal-free dairy food system in which all forms of exploitation of and cruelty to animals no longer exist, but our business is built on the belief that plant-based dairy innovation recognizes the transformative potential to achieve a food system that’s free of the all the ills of animal agriculture. We believe we are fighting the good fight and we are positioning ourselves to lead this transition.

SL: So plant-based cheeses and vegan dairy products are already inherently better for the planet. What other sustainable practices are you focused on? Are you also interested in improving your packaging?  

JK: We are a certified B-Corporation and, to use their catchphrase, we envision a global economy that uses business as a force for good. Simply put, this means that we constantly strive to embody the highest level of social and environmental performance possible. We know that eating animal products is an inefficient use of land, water, and energy and undesirable from a biodiversity, climate change, and animal welfare perspective. We also know that the inefficiency extends beyond the environment to nutrition with animal products requiring more energy, water, and land to obtain equivalent nutritional values compared to crop products. For example, it’s estimated that it takes an average of 10 times more fossil energy to produce equivalent kcals of animal protein compared to plant protein.  

As consumer enthusiasm around plant-based options continues to coincide with a global focus on reducing our carbon footprint, we want to use our leadership to promote a food system transformation. First, we take our commitments as a Benefit Corporation very seriously and strive to maintain the highest social and environmental standards in all aspects of our operations. In terms of impact beyond our compassion-focused mission, we are launching an ambitious food waste reduction and recovery plan based on ReFED’s goal to cut food waste in half by 2030. And, yes, we are always looking for ways to make perishable food packaging more sustainable.  

SL: For those of us not from the consumer packaged goods (CPG) world, can you give us a rundown of what sustainability in the packaging world is like or an idea of where Miyoko’s is at?  

JK: In terms of our paper-based packaging, like most CPG companies, we have lots of opportunities to make improvements, and we have been working hard to make our cartons lighter, smaller and less resource-intensive to produce.  

Plastic packaging, however, is more challenging. For many CPG products and indeed most producers of perishable foods, plastic packaging is a necessary evil. There is simply no better material to keep food fresh, shelf-stable, transportable, and available to consumers where and when they want it. But plastic packaging is also a valuable resource. For this reason, I am hopeful about a multivariate approach to packaging sustainability. It is essential to continue to support technological advancements to improve existing packaging, including efforts to reduce weight, increase recyclability, and increase the availability of recycled content materials. At the same time, we want to be realistic about the limits of those efforts. While it would be fabulous if all food producers could incorporate recycled plastics into their packaging, the reality is that the supply of recycled materials is limited. There is just not enough recycled content to meet reduction goals. With plastics accounting for less than 5% of total recycled materials in the U.S., we have a long way to go to capture and produce the feedstock needed to hit even a fraction of our recycled content needs.  

We also need to make it easier for people to recycle. Although 94% of the U.S. population has some recycling program, what is recyclable and where is all over the board. Not all facilities can process all types of recycled material, which is why some communities don’t offer certain types of recycling, and what’s accepted in one place is not necessarily taken in the next town over. For example, here in Petaluma, we cannot put compostable serviceware into our municipal compost stream, but our neighbors a few towns over can. This variability in recycling infrastructure makes it challenging to implement recycling at scale.  

There are solutions, but they involve long-term investments in end-of-life solutions that support circular economy sustainability. Emerging waste conversion technologies, such as advanced recycling like syngas gasification, offer tremendous possibilities for mitigating the intractable recycling challenges posed by modern packaging. Ultimately, I envision a world in which landfilling and incineration are replaced with waste conversion processes.  

SL: For other CPG companies starting to think about sustainability, where would you suggest they begin their focus?  

JK: Launching sustainability programs may seem daunting, but it doesn’t have to be. If you start slowly and take it one step at a time, you can keep the process manageable and build valuable sustainability initiatives that yield tremendous benefits. I wrote a book on small business sustainability twelve years ago in which I outlined steps for developing and implementing a successful sustainability program. Although those steps seem basic today, they still serve as a framework for understanding the process. The first step involves getting a commitment from senior management. Because continuous improvement requires operational cooperation among many functional groups, the mandate needs to come from the top. The reality is that sustainability is a team sport.  

Next, understanding how you’re consuming resources is essential. The old saying “you can’t manage what you can’t measure” is true, and it is crucial to focus on areas with the most potential for meaningful conservation and reduction. Third, the easiest way to embark on sustainability efforts is to build them in up front. For example, it is much easier to design product packaging with sustainable materials or purchase equipment designed for sustainable production than redesign your packaging or production processes once your business is up and running. Finally, I am encouraged by the trend of companies incorporating ESG performance measures in executive incentive plans to incentivize management to enact meaningful progress against the company’s sustainability goals. It is essential to create the right incentives for stakeholders.  

SL: Outside of packaging, could you talk more about any of Miyoko’s’ other sustainability practices?  

JK: Our most extensive sustainability efforts are tied to our innovation efforts. As mentioned, we believe in the transformative power of vegan food production, but that’s not enough. Our food also needs to be delicious and good for people, animals, and the planet. That is why we are constantly innovating regarding ingredients, nutrition, utilization, packaging, and really every aspect of what we do.  

SL: How do you see Sustain.Life strategically supporting businesses starting on their sustainability journey or with their aspirations?  

JK: Sustain.Life has many outstanding features for all stages of the sustainability journey. I found the Policy Builder extremely useful at our stage because having a template of a well-conceived policy helps in the standardization of new practices and ensure that written guidelines are best-in-class. I also found that the templates made the writing of policies practically effortless.  


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Author:
Sustain.Life Team
Tags:
Product footprint
Values
Culture
Business strategy
Sustainability
Key takeaways

• Jennifer Kaplan is the first-ever sustainability manager at Miyoko’s Creamery, the California-based vegan butter and cheese producer.