Prioritizing Health, Authenticity and Sustainability With Rich Products Nira Johri | Convoy
BlogShippersSustainability

Prioritizing Health, Authenticity and Sustainability With Rich Products Nira Johri

Most businesses have a pretty clear idea of where their sustainability focus should be. After the initial “quick wins” involving efficiency and streamlining internal processes, organizations then begin to dig deeper to evaluate what’s next for them on their sustainability journey. Quite often, however, an unforeseen event occurs which sheds light on where a business is actually most at risk and, ultimately, will cause them to adapt or shift their focus. For many companies, this event was the 2020 arrival of COVID. 

To discuss how COVID impacted a global business and adapted the way they approach sustainability, I sat down with Nira Johri, Director of Global Diversity and Sustainability at Rich Products Corporation, a family-owned food company which provides innovative products to food industry professionals around the world.

Nira gave us insights with regard to how Rich’s viewed their biggest risks and priorities as a result of COVID, as well as the ways in which they continue to evolve their sustainability and social impact practice. The key highlights of my conversation with Nira follow.  

  • The role of a Director of Global Diversity and Sustainability in a nutshell: My job in leading global diversity and sustainability is to think about our environmental and social impact for the entire enterprise and determine how we can strengthen the work in those areas both from a strategic and as well as an implementation perspective. (1:15)
  • How Rich’s Sees The Value of Sustainability: We look at it from a few different perspectives. First and foremost, we see a tremendous shift in the market with the growing demand for sustainability. Our customers are prioritizing sustainability, so we understand where our sustainability demand comes from. Over 60% of our US and Canadian customers have prioritized sustainability in their future plans, so that means it has to be a priority for us as one of their important suppliers. The other place we also really look at the value of sustainability is from a risk and compliance side. We understand the impact of our manufacturing facilities, the electricity we buy, the water, the food waste, as well as potential risks, which make our business less efficient in many ways, and which we need to evaluate, understand, and plan for over the long run. (1:40)
  • Prioritizing Goals On Your Sustainability Journey: The way we began our sustainability journey was the way many people do: you start with efficiency projects, the easy changes in your business or system, and the things that already integrate well. We built a materiality matrix and identified what the priorities should be for Rich’s as a food manufacturer. What matters for your business may not be exactly the same as for Rich’s. You need to view what is happening in your peer set or what your customers are prioritizing. The first thing is understanding where your priorities are and they have to be “right sized” for your organization. We want it to make sense and be well integrated into our business strategy. Sustainability never succeeds if it is on the sidelines or if it is not well integrated into what the business has already prioritized. The goal is to find those intersection points with how you deliver your sustainability initiatives and priorities within the existing priorities of the business. A key piece of that is also understanding your current state. You have to understand your baseline. It is impossible to define your ambitions if you don’t know where you are starting. (3:16) 
  • Be Willing To Be Audacious: Our sustainability ambition is to be audacious. Sustainability is complex. We know those easy goals are usually done in the early years and then you have to really push yourself, you have to push the system, you have to push the business into some of the more ambitious targets on climate or packaging or responsible sourcing. So, again, we look at what our customers are asking of us, we benchmark ourselves against our peers, and we map and see how far they’ve committed to go and decide if we can match and meet those goals so we can remain competitive.  (4:47)
  • Getting Buy-In From All Stakeholders: At the end of the day, sustainability is the primary function of the person in the sustainability role. But you need to socialize the work in a way that is embraced and you’ve built accountability across the different functions and teams. It means understanding who your key business partners are internally, what’s in it for them, defining how this helps them meet their objectives or their strategic functional goals for the year, for the next five years, and then providing assistance. A person who is a procurement manager may not naturally consider all of the sustainability impacts of what they buy, so you have to incorporate that into their daily lens of how they do their work. They’re still going to rely on you for deeper level expertise, but it is all about building awareness, strengthening those partnerships and, over time, having shared accountability. (5:56)
  • What’s Next On Rich’s Sustainability Journey: I’m most excited about the work we are probably going to embark on for responsible sourcing. We have been strategically sourcing a few of our key commodities, primarily palm oil and seafood sustainably. We’ve also been doing some work on our packaging, but we want to take a deeper dive on all of the commodities we buy and understand where our impact is and where we can drive business value, find those efficiencies, and mitigate our risk overall. As a food company, we know a large part of our supply chain emissions will come from the commodities we buy to make our products. At the intersection of our responsible sourcing work, we also need to address our greenhouse gas strategy and our climate carbon work to understand those scope 3 emissions and how we can mitigate some of those impacts as well. (10:02)
  • How Consumers Can Support Sustainability: It is really important to understand the actions of the brands you are supporting and what they mean. It’s not always an easy path for companies to embark on sustainability, and the work to engage and maintain sustainability is complicated. Consumers need to really understand the businesses they buy from, because your dollars are one of the most important ways you can represent your values. It is also important to vote and be civically engaged. Your voice and your vote enable policies to be made at a federal, state, or local level to support those initiatives. We can do a lot from the private sector perspective, but we absolutely need our government to partner with us and work together to implement the change we are looking for in the long term. (11:40)

Jennifer Wong: Today we have Nira Johri joining us, the director of global diversity and sustainability at Rich Products Corporation. Welcome, Nira. 

Nira Johri: Thank you. Its nice to be here with you today. 

Jennifer: The average person may not know of Rich Products Corporation, but I am sure they’ve seen a lot of your consumer brands, maybe just not even knowing it. Can you tell me more about Rich’s as well as your role as the director of global diversity and sustainability? 

Nira: Yeah, absolutely. Rich’s is a four-billion-dollar private family-owned company. We’ve been in business for 75 years. We work primarily in the frozen foods and bakery space. We do a lot of B-to-B business, but we also have some iconic consumer brands that you might know about such as Carvel or Sea Pack Seafood. My job in leading global diversity and sustainability is really to think about our environmental and social impact for the entire enterprise and to think about how we can strengthen the work both in those areas both from a strategic and then also an implementation perspective. 

Jennifer: I see. And how does Rich’s see the value of sustainability incorporated into the business? 

Nira: Yeah, so we look at it from a couple of perspectives. I think primary for us is the tremendous shift that we are seeing in the market demand for sustainability but also our customers prioritizing sustainability, so we’ve mapped and understood a bit of where our sustainability demand comes from. Over 60% of our US and Canada [2:00] customers have prioritized sustainability for their work and their plans for the coming couple of years so that means it has to be a priority for us as one of their important suppliers. I think the other place that we also really look at the value of sustainability is from a risk and compliance side. So, we understand that the impact of our manufacturing facilities, the electricity that we buy, the water, the food waste, all of that not only in many ways makes our business less efficient, right. There is waste in the system, our return on investment is not as strong as we’d like it to be but then we also know that there are bigger factors such as climate risk that we need to evaluate, and understand, and plan for over the long run. So, we also view it with that risk lens along with the customer demand and market demand for it. 

Jennifer: I see. That’s very comprehensive and very sophisticated in terms of how you already have kind of these strong frameworks in place. And as you think about approaching the sustainability strategy, how are you setting goals? Especially because your role and sustainability at Rich’s really encompassing both the environmental and social side. 

Nira: Yeah, so I think for us, the way we began our sustainability journey was the way that many people do, right. You start with efficiency projects, you start with the easy changes in your business or system, the things that already integrate well and when I came on board about 2 years ago, one of the things that we did was to map the material issues for our business. So, we built a materiality matrix, identified what the priority for Rich’s is as a food manufacturer should be and I think that is really important as what matters for your business may not be exactly the same as a different type of business. It can also be different for what is happening in your peer set or what your customers are prioritizing. So, I think A, understanding [4:00] where your priorities are, and I always say our sustainability work has to really be right sized for Rich’s. We want it to make sense and be well integrated into our business strategy. Sustainability never succeeds if its on the sidelines, if its not well integrated into what the business has already prioritized, and the goal is to find those intersection points with how you deliver your sustainability initiatives and priorities within the existing priorities of the business. So, when we think about our specific sustainability goals and how to develop those, a key piece of that for us is also understanding your current state. You have to understand your baseline. Its impossible to define your ambitions if you don’t know where you’re starting. But I think the other piece of ambitions is we want to be audacious; sustainability is complex. We know that those easy goals are usually done in those early years and then you have to really push yourself, you have to push the system, you have to push the business into some of the more ambitious target on climate or packing or responsible sourcing. So, we again, look at what our customers are asking of us, we benchmark ourselves against our peers and we map and see how far they’ve committed to go and can we match and meet that so we can remain competitive. But a large part of that is also then grounded in what is realistically possible based on our baseline understanding of where we start. 

Jennifer: You mentioned that sustainability is engrained throughout the Rich’s, could you share what’s been the most effective method in getting kind of employees and distributors also involved in sustainability because it does have to involve everyone’s work, its not just the siloed department. 

Nira: Yeah. Well, and I think that the journey never ends. I think the reality is…I just talked to a friend yesterday who also works in sustainability in another food company and they said, “You know, at the end of the day sustainability is the primary function of a person [6:00] in the sustainability role. But what you want to do, like any other part of the business, is to socialize the work in a way that is embraced and that you’ve built accountability across the different functions and teams.” I would say that we’re probably not all the way to bright at Rich’s, we’re still absolutely working on that every day, but it means understanding who your key business partners are internally, what’s in it for them, defining how this helps them meet their objectives or their strategic functional goals for the year, for the next 5 years, and then helping…there’s a lot of I think education and expertise that you also have to build, right. A person who is a procurement manager may not naturally consider all of the sustainability impacts of what they buy and so you have to bring that into their daily lens of how they do their work. They’re still going to rely on you for the deeper level expertise, but I think its all about building awareness, strengthening those partnerships and over time, having those shared accountabilities. 

Jennifer: What has been your biggest challenge this year with sustainability? 

Nira: Yeah, so I think we like every other business in the world this past year were heavily, heavily impacted by Covid and we’re a manufacturing company, so we’ve got, you know, a large part of our workforce, about 12,000 employees globally, a huge portion of those employees are working on the frontline of a factory. So I think for this, what really came to the front for us this year was many people often think about sustainability just from the environmental side and the environmental planetary impacts and I think what this year really reprioritized and emphasized, I would say, its not that it wasn’t ever a priority [8:00] for us, is associate safety and ensuring that we were doing everything possible to maintain the health and wellbeing of all of our associates that are crucial to making our products and helping get them out to our customers. The other piece that we really struggled with, and all sustainability practitioners struggled with this year was is sustainability still a priority? Do people still care? Do consumers still care? And we saw, we tracked in very closely from when it hit the US in March all the way through the summer and again in the latest results all of the trend reports I have seen for the 2021, all of the consumer data I’ve seen says consumers absolutely still care and its at the top list of the things that they want companies to deliver for them. 

And not always a thing that they’re willing to pay for, its often a table stake requirement that they want integrated into the products and services that we deliver. So, I think it reemphasizes to us that integration into business strategy and how to make it a part of what we deliver to our customers every single day. 

Jennifer: TIf you look at the next 6 months, what initiative are you most excited about at Rich? [10:00] 

Nira: I’m most excited I think about the work that we’re probably going to embark on for responsible sourcing. So, we have been strategically sourcing a few of our key commodities, primarily palm order and seafood sustainably. We’ve also been doing some work on our packaging, but we want to take a deeper dive on all of the commodities that we buy and understand where our impact is and where we can again, drive business value, find those efficiencies, but also mitigate our risk overall. And also, as a food company we know that a large part of our supply chain emissions will come from the commodities that we buy to make our products. And so, at the intersection of our responsible sourcing work also with our greenhouse gas strategy and our climate carbon work to understand those scope 3 emissions and to understand how we can mitigate some of those impacts as well. So, it will be a big body of work that we will probably not be done quickly but will help give us a lot more science-based data and insight into where we should be prioritizing different efforts and different commodities. 

Jennifer: If you’re a consumer buying one of your baked goods or maybe a sea pack, a frozen meal, what do you think that most consumers wouldn’t know about sustainability at Rich? 

Nira: Boy, I have to think about that one. I don’t know. I think, you know, I think the thing I would tell consumers to look out for is two things. One is the brands that you…its really important to understand the actions that the brands you’re supporting are taking and what they mean. Its not always an easy path for companies to embark on sustainability and the work to engage [12:00] and maintain that is complicated so understand what your businesses that you buy from, your dollars are one of the most important ways you can represent your values, so understand what the companies you support are doing. And the other most important thing you can do is to vote and be civically engaged. The other place where you engage at, your voice and your vote allow policies that are being made a federal or state or local level to support those initiatives. So, we can do a lot from the private sector perspective, but we absolutely need our government brothers and sisters with us to partner and to be able to work together to implement the change that we’re looking for, for the long term. So, think about, yeah, understand the companies that you buy for and think about how your vote is going to influence those policies to support that work. 

Jennifer: That’s great advice. And a perfect ending. Thank you so much, Nira, for joining us today. 

Nira: Thanks, Jennifer. It was great to talk to you. 

Alternative Text
Jennifer is the Head of Sustainability at Convoy, helping transportation leaders make progress against their environmental and social impact goals.