Climate change will soon be arriving at your breakfast table, and General Mills might start fading as a company around 2035

Quick, semi-humorous story before we get into this: last October, General Mills came to my graduate school to recruit. They had set up interviews on a Thursday, and conducted probably 10-12 that day. It just so happened that the same night, there was a happy hour event at a bar right near campus. During the interviews, the General Mills interviewers — 4 in total — had told everyone “We’ll give you a call tonight and if you advance to the next round, that will happen tomorrow morning.” So, at this happy hour, there’s basically 12 kids with their cell phones on the table, glancing nervously at them every 10-15 seconds — and then, to make things more awkward, the four interviewers come into the bar! They’re socializing! Then one of them leaves, and suddenly, one of the 12 phones rings. So now everyone knows what’s up: the junior member is outside the bar making calls about tomorrow! This was one of the most awkward things I’ve observed as a graduate student, honestly. 4-6 kids get a call, and then … the fourth interviewer comes back inside and gets a drink. The other 6-8 who interviewed are like “Damn!” Four of them basically left immediately. A good summary for that 90 minutes in the bar was “low-grade hell.”

So here’s a new report from Oxfam basically fleecing General Mills as a company that doesn’t do enough about climate change while it makes its $$$ (read: many companies are like that). The report is summarized in great detail at Mother Jones, and a lot of the context of the summary is around breakfast cereal prices, which will rise greatly in the next 15 years — Corn Flakes will probably be 30 percent higher price-wise — mostly because of this:

Staples like corn and rice will double in cost by 2030, with half of that increase due to climate change, according to the report. To estimate the impact this will have on the retail prices of specific products, Oxfam constructed a model using “historical grain and consumer product prices, product ingredient lists and nutrition labels, and historical examples of how rising commodity prices affect retail prices.”

Cool. We’ve talked about this before. Climate change/drought issues are significantly real. The problem is this: no one knows conclusively what happens when you die (whether you get to watch the Earth, etc.) and people have families and commitments now, not in 2050 when most of these studies/reports are timed to. The base issue is really psychology more than anything else: to be successful on climate change is to change people’s mindsets about their day-to-day lives, which is obviously a challenge. The Oxfam report is troubling in a different context, though: this is talking about major players (i.e. corporations, not individuals), who could change their habits and have a more significant positive effect than one family doing so.

For example, from Mother Jones:

There is one example Oxfam wants these major brands to follow. When PepsiCo’s UK operation discovered that half its emissions came from its upstream supply chain, the company committed to a 50 percent reduction in its water use and carbon emissions over five yearsswapping out inefficient crops and helping farmers monitor their yields more accurately.

“If the Big 10 took on that commitment, they could reduce emissions by a further…80 million tons of carbon dioxide equivalent per year, below business-as-usual emissions, by 2020,” Gore says. “That’s a pretty substantial additional savings; it would be a significant contribution to the global effort to close the emissions gap.”

Cool. Companies should be doing more, absolutely. The issue at that level — whereas the issue at the individual level is psychology — is about monetization of good. If you need to use x-amount of water/energy/land to make your core products and your core products are making people rich, well… the goal of a company is to make people rich (in many ways), so how are you going to stop that and instead find a way to make money off saving and preserving? That isn’t a strategy that’s had a lot of success in the global business world yet. It might just get to a point where “doing the most with the least” is the new business strategy of the world, but to prod organizations into doing something like Pepsi UK did … you need to find a way to extract revenue from the idea of “doing the right thing.” That’s the central challenge there.

This video is a bit much, but somewhat on point too:

As for the headline of this post, General Mills will obviously be a company north of 2035 — but if prices start shooting up on the things that power its core products, it’s going to be a less-successful company (in all likelihood). The great irony, then, is that ignoring what was happening for so long ultimately bit them in the posterior. It’s almost as awkward as what happened in the pub one Thursday night last October.

Ted Bauer