Good for business and for the planet
In Gail Tavill’s line of work, the phrase “less is more” is a way of life. As vice president of sustainable development at ConAgra Foods, she’s tasked with ensuring the company does more for the planet by burdening it less.
At ConAgra, Tavill directs the integration of sustainable technologies to create environmentally friendly packaging and products—from using postconsumer materials in frozen food trays and manufacturing ketchup bottles that are easier to recycle to promoting the sustainable production of beef and fish.
“If we’re doing our job right as a manufacturing company, we’re designing things that don’t require you to throw something in a hole in the ground,” says Tavill, who earned a bachelor’s degree in 1990 from MSU’s School of Packaging in the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources and has been a member of the school’s alumni board for 10 years.
“Success for me in my job is that I’m not doing this in five years because there’s no need for a VP of sustainable development,” says Tavill.
I have a hard time explaining sustainable to people because it almost has become a cliché. Too many people use it incorrectly, and there’s too many definitions of what it is. The way I like to describe it is it’s making sure that we don’t take more away from the planet than we can replace, because we want it to be enduring.
This is the only planet we have right now. And right now we’re living beyond the carrying capacity of the natural resources we have. So if we continue on this rate, our children, our grandchildren are not going to have the same quality of life that we do.
Getting rid of waste is the most important thing that we can do today. As far as I am concerned, there’s no such thing as waste. There’s material resources that have been underutilized and undervalued.
In social context, in financial context, we have become a disposable society. And, in such, we have been able to justify our wastes as being normal. They’re not normal. I would love to see us never use the word waste or waste management again.
For me, it is around deriving value from materials—so material recovery value of everything we use. It all has a value; we just haven’t assigned the right value to it for either political or social reasons.
If we are doing our jobs right as a manufacturing company, we’re designing things that don’t require you to throw something in a hole in the ground. We should be designing products and packaging that can be recoverable for value. And a lot of companies are putting a lot of effort into doing just that—so that when you’re finished with the products that you use, you have been able to derive all of the value from the food products, which means you get to consume it all, and also when you are done that you can do something useful with that package.
Success for me in my job is that I’m not doing this in five years because there is no need for a VP of sustainable development. I think it should be so integrated in how we do business—just like financial metrics are in how we do business—that there’s no need for me because it is just how people think. And then I can go work on something new, something different, something I haven’t even thought of yet.
So success for me is for the culture revolution—that there are no trash containers on the side of the road, there are recycle bins and compost bins—just like people wear their seatbelts when they get in their car. So that’s what success looks like to me—that knowing that the planet will be on the way to recovery for many, many generations to come.
It’s overwhelming sometimes the magnitude of the work that has to be done, but it’s also very motivating and fun to be in a position where you could actually influence policy and culture shift. It’s incredibly powerful and motivating to do that kind of work.
Maybe one thing that was a real catapult in my own desire to make a difference was when my kids were born. Um, you are going to make me cry. Um, I have twins that were born five years ago, and they’re the light of my life. And I want the planet to be here for them. It’s definitely something that’s worth working for.