COP26: Mars' Scottish CEO says Glasgow will be the tipping point

Among the flurry of green commitments this week, one might have caught your eye – the promise the Mars bar, a familiar sight the world over, will be a carbon neutral product by 2023.

And, around that announcement, Mars Inc – the enormous company behind the chocolate bar – was in Glasgow setting out a far broader vision: to achieve net zero greenhouse gas emissions, across its entire value chain, by 2050.

That means the company, with interests far beyond your box of Celebrations chocolates, stretching into Ben's Original rice, chewing gum, M&Ms, pet food and even pet hospitals, intends to balance the greenhouse gas it produces and the amount it removes from its atmosphere.

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It is a huge commitment for an organisation that, today, produces greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to those of Panama. And the way it is going about that change may form a template for many other large multinationals as they grapple with the same challenge.

Mars chief executive Grant Reid. Picture: John DevlinMars chief executive Grant Reid. Picture: John Devlin
Mars chief executive Grant Reid. Picture: John Devlin
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The Scotsman sat down for a rare interview with the company's Scots-born chief executive, Grant F. Reid, who flew to Glasgow from the company's US base to attend COP26.

Mars, still owned by the Mars family, offers only the broadest indications of its financial performance to the outside world – more than $40 billion [£29.7bn] revenue, operating in more than 80 countries and with 135,000 staff. It can be choosy about speaking publicly.

But, sat in the industrial chic of The Engine Works, a renovated industrial building opposite Maryhill Juniors' ground in north-west Glasgow, Mr Reid set out the mazy complexity of the company to which he has devoted most of his professional life since joining in 1988, only a few years after graduating from the University of Stirling.

He talked of "walking the fields" of farms across the world, of aligning the details of the company's executive pay to drive Mars' environmental ambitions, and of the need for continued economic growth even as the world adapts to deal with the climate crisis.

"It's nice to be back in Scotland," said Mr Reid, who grew up in Kincardine.

"This is the first COP I've been to. The reason I'm here – we're at a very critical point. The climate is already changing. We are seeing that all over the world.

"I really feel that we're at a tipping point now. We've got to change the trajectory."

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One job is to come up with definitions for the cuts in emissions that are required. Some industry players, Mr Reid points out, will claim impressive-sounding reductions in greenhouse gases, leaving it to the small print to reveal those cuts do not cover the full chain of production.

In Mars' case, the full chain can stretch from remote fields across the world, take in manufacturing and transport, and continue right through to the consumption of the finished product.

"We've cut our internal emissions, scope one and two, our business and logistics, by over 30 per cent,” Mr Reid says. “But that's only about 20-25 per cent of our total greenhouse gas emissions.

"Some companies you talk to will be talking scope one and two – it's relatively easy – but 80 per cent [of emissions] is in agriculture. And that is a massive challenge.

"We are talking to governments, yes, because it's going to require legislative changes to make sure metrics and incentives for farming are based on the future and not in the past."

The difficulty of driving change into often remote farming practices is a familiar challenge for Mars and many of its multinational peers.

In recent years they have faced scrutiny, and often fierce criticism, for the impact of their sourcing of raw materials – from deforestation in Asia caused by the need for palm oil, to the use of child labour in West African cocoa production.

"In palm oil we've gone from 1,500 suppliers, down to 100 suppliers, because when you're buying from 1,500 suppliers it's really impossible to state with conviction that you are not causing deforestation,” says Mr Reid.

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"In that 100, we map – either through boots in the field or satellite technology – where [the crop is] coming from.

"We monitor that, to see if there's any change over time, and manage against that. So we feel unequivocally that we can say there's no deforestation from our palm oil."

But there is more of that detailed work to come, he says.

"Now we're going to work with soya, beef and we've been working on our cocoa for the last 20 years, so it's a long-term commitment that takes a lot of work,” he says.

"This is really about transforming our supply chain and really in many ways about transforming how Mars does business"

Some of the protestors filling the streets of Glasgow, I point out, will not be placated. They'll believe continued economic growth is the enemy of the planet, that one of the key ways to pull the climate back from the brink is to stop growing, maybe even shrink, the global economy.

Mr Reid disagrees. "You have to achieve both growth and net zero," he says.

"There are more people coming into the world. We're talking about another couple of billion.

"If you don't grow, you're not creating a vibrant economy for people to come into, to create jobs, to create income, taxes. Companies have to grow, countries have to grow."

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Mars' announcements this week are, he hopes, part of a flurry of decisions agreed and announced in Glasgow which could make a big step in the fight to contain climate change.

"I feel good that it's in Scotland, because I do think that we're at a tipping point," he says. "We may look back and say Scotland was the time when we really changed the trajectory – from commitments, and words, to actions and deliverables.

"And that would be pretty cool for Scotland."

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