Farmers are a major part of every country’s economy. Yet pesticides and fertilizers can become a major source of pollution, and in the US, agriculture accounts for about 10 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions.
Nutrien, based in Saskatoon, Canada, intends to play a role in helping to change that. The $28 billion company is the world’s largest agriculture provider of crop inputs, services, and solutions.
The company created a three-pronged mission that serves as the basis for their Feeding the Future Sustainability Strategy: feed the planet, protect the environment and climate, and improve social outcomes.
Mark Thompson, Nutrien’s Executive Vice President and Chief Strategy and Sustainability Officer, leads the company’s global sustainability and corporate strategy functions. This work includes engaging and supporting a global network of 500,000 farmers across the world, as well as working with the company’s network of potash, nitrogen, and phosphate production facilities. With a background in finance and sociology, he has a unique perspective on how to incorporate sustainability into the ethos of a company. (See the box below for Nutrien’s specific objectives for 2030.)
Sustainability Must Be Foundational
“Sustainability can’t be an island within a company,” said Thompson. “It’s got to be integrated into every business and function. This is the only way you’ll ever truly get meaningful KPIs and actions focused on sustainability within the core work of a company.”
Thompson illustrates his point with an array of examples of how Nutrien centers around sustainability. In May 2022, the company announced its intention to invest $2 billion in a clean ammonia plant. This will help Nutrien take an enormous step forward in its goal to decarbonize the company’s operations. But Thompson’s sustainability team didn’t lead that decision.
“This is the largest investment decision the nitrogen business has undertaken in several years, and it was driven by the business, not solely by my team,” said Thompson. “It’s a win-win financially and environmentally, and that combination of benefits is what’s driving the project.”
How to Bake Sustainability into a Business
Getting everyone at a company to see sustainability as a component of their job isn’t an easy task. But from Thompson’s perspective, it’s vital to get there, if a company wants its sustainability goals to be meaningful and achievable.
“My team’s work is to help everyone at Nutrien see the materiality of sustainability, and help understand how acting responsibly and sustainably de-risks the business and creates new platforms for growth,” said Thompson. “By making decisions that lower emissions, we can reduce costs and drive future revenue growth. Stakeholders get excited about these win-win decisions and we improve our employee engagement and talent recruitment abilities, especially with younger generation team members.”
Nutrien’s Six Sustainability Commitments for 2030:
Enable growers to adopt sustainable and productive agricultural products and practices on 75 million acres globally.
Achieve at least a 30 percent reduction in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions (Scope 1 + 2) per ton of products produced, from a baseline year of 2018.
Leverage farm-focused technology partnerships and investments to drive positive impact in industry and grower innovation and inclusion.
Launch and scale a comprehensive Carbon Program, empowering growers and industry to accelerate climate-smart agriculture and soil carbon sequestration while rewarding growers for their efforts.
Invest in new technologies and pursue the transition to low-carbon fertilizers, including blue and green ammonia.
Create new grower financial solutions to strengthen social, economic, and environmental outcomes in agriculture.
Moving from CSR Initiative to Core Business Metric
A few years ago, Nutrien’s sustainability objectives were part of the company’s corporate social responsibility (CSR) work. They were always important from an ethics perspective, but they weren’t necessarily core business metrics used to make financial and strategic decisions. Today, it is.
If we don’t operate with sustainability as top-of-mind, our business can’t survive or thrive.
Thompson is quick to point out that there isn’t a one-size-fits-all, or even a one-size-fits-most, model for sustainability at a company. Large multi-national companies that are just beginning to bring sustainability into their work may need a sustainability department or team to catalyze action. From there, they can move over time to putting sustainability into the core business and functional teams, as Nutrien has.
“I started at Nutrien in an investor relations role,” said Thompson. “Then I moved into roles in corporate development, strategy, and the crop nutrients and retail businesses before becoming the Chief Strategy Officer (CSO). It was as CSO where I really saw the full comprehensive picture and opportunity for myself — that environmental sustainability underpins the long-term viability of the entire company. If we don’t operate with sustainability as top-of-mind, our business can’t survive or thrive. Because I personally went through that discovery process myself, I strive to help other people at the company come to that realization, too.”