Arial image overlooking a river and a house.
Garden Creek Preserve Hells Canyon is the deepest river gorge in the United States © The Nature Conservancy (ComDesigns)

Transforming Business Practices

General Mills

Working towards Freshwater Sustainability

The Challenge – Protecting Fresh Water

Water, the most precious resource on our planet, is a local phenomenon defined by the supply, demand and quality of water within a watershed. At General Mills, water is a critical resource for the company’s manufacturing operations, and for its supply chains. Approximately 99% of the water consumed to create, distribute and use General Mills products occurs outside their direct operations, primarily in the growing of crops. It is essential to the company, and more importantly to the well-being of the communities and ecosystems where it operates. General Mills understands that good water stewardship is good for business and accepts the responsibility to be a leader in understanding and protecting the watersheds upon which it depends.

The Commitment

The Nature Conservancy and General Mills began working together in January 2012 to develop a four-part freshwater strategy:

  • Assessment: First, an assessment of all watersheds the company depends on (more than 60 world-wide) was conducted to determine the health of each. Following this assessment, the Conservancy and General Mills chose eight key at-risk watersheds. 
  • Analysis and Action Planning: Second, a deeper analysis and conservation plan will be developed for the key at-risk watersheds. As of January 2015, Conservancy freshwater scientists were working with General Mills in Irapuato, Mexico; Yangtze River, China; Snake River, Idaho; Central California and Albuquerque, New Mexico.
  • Collaboration: Third, the Conservancy and General Mills share findings with the local communities in the watersheds and develop collaborative action plans with large water users, governments and interested community members.
  • Transformation: Finally, the Conservancy and General Mills will work together to assure implementation of the action plans and strategies developed in collaboration with watershed stakeholders in the context of a global water stewardship strategy that includes public commitments, education and advocacy, and funding.

 Solutions in Action

Irapuato is a city in the middle of the El Bajío growing region, one of Mexico’s most important agricultural areas, and a center for General Mills’ Green Giant vegetable production.

Agriculture in the region is dependent on underground aquifers that are threatened by over-use. The Conservancy conducted a detailed analysis of the watershed and, with General Mills, identified several opportunities to slow the use of this water resource and protect it for the future. Opportunities include water conservation in General Mills’ facilities and contract grower’s fields, as well as larger efforts such as reforestation and developing a cooperative water stewardship plan for the region.

Together, the Conservancy and General Mills met with over 70 Irapuato business, government and community leaders to share this learning and to begin the process of working together to save this freshwater resource.

As a direct outcome of this meeting, The Nature Conservancy, General Mills and the FEMSA Foundation are working on a feasibility study to understand the potential of conservation activities to stabilize the aquifer. A possible outcome of this work is a Guanajuato Water Fund, a governance and financial tool to provide long-term investments in clean water.

A Sustainable Future

Moving forward, General Mills and the Conservancy will complete additional watershed assessments, develop stewardship plans for at-risk watersheds, and meet with communities to provide leadership and on-the-ground action. In November 2014, General Mills announced a new water policy that includes water stewardship for its direct operations and suppliers, uses the Alliance for Water Stewardship standards for self-assessment and commits to the CEO Water Mandate.

The water stewardship approach created with General Mills represents a model the Conservancy is expanding to other companies with large water footprints. It’s a good example of how the Conservancy is working with companies to address water risks across the world and find local solutions that work for both people and nature.