When it comes to issues like supply-chain traceability, companies like ADM are pioneering a holistic approach to business practices. 

Alison Elzinga’s job title might be an unexpected one: She is a human rights specialist, though she doesn’t work at the United Nations or even a non-profit. The 2021 college graduate and proud member of Gen Z works in sustainability at ADM, a multinational food and nutrition company.

At ADM, sustainability is understood to include not just the environment, but also efforts in areas such as food security, sustainable agriculture, workplace diversity, and STEM development. “It’s really interesting because the topics intersect quite a lot,” Elzinga says. “You can’t talk about climate change without talking about human rights.” She explains that many issues, like forced labor, also raise questions about nutrition and sanitation. “They are all extremely important aspects of an agricultural supply chain that happens to coincide with human rights.”

Increased public awareness of these challenges has recently generated public demand for businesses to be transparent about where their materials come from, and how sustainable their supply chains are. Reporting on sustainability is no longer a PR exercise; it is critical to maintaining trust from consumers and growing markets. 

Younger audiences are increasingly willing to pay for traceable, trustworthy products: Research shows that 64% of Gen Zs would pay more to purchase an environmentally sustainable product. 

Consumers are looking for genuine, systemic commitments by food companies and institutions to address the environmental and human costs of food production. Yet so far, businesses are falling short. Sixty percent of global Gen Z and Millennials fear business leaders are still not focused enough on protecting the environment. 

At companies like ADM, addressing these shortfalls has benefited from a conversation between generations.

Digging in to make an impact

ADM’s chief sustainability officer, Alison Taylor, oversees all the company’s efforts to promote sustainable business practices. Taylor, a veteran business leader, has overseen ADM’s sustainability efforts for five years. As a Fortune 100 company with global reach, ADM provided Taylor an opportunity to use her background in law, policy, and biology to make a real impact. Now, she oversees the development of policies around sustainability, building tools and procedures that get embedded throughout the company as a primary part of the company’s overall strategy. 

“We not only have the reach, but we also have the capital and the leverage,” Taylor says. “We’re able to really make an impact on a micro-scale and on a larger scale.”

As consumer demand for sustainability grows, younger colleagues like Elzinga have helped Taylor craft new procedures at ADM. “I think my generation has a different approach when it comes to how we think about social and environmental issues,” says Elzinga, who specializes in human rights, working to ensure ADM’s policies are applied across its supply chain. “Social accountability is very important to many young people,” she explains. “There is a sense of urgency in our vernacular that exists because our generation is now well aware of the consequences of inaction, as we are seeing them already.”

Working under Taylor’s purview in Chicago, Elzinga monitors and mitigates everything from water scarcity to Indigenous and women’s rights. She says her colleagues recognize the importance of generating real and lasting impact, and are working toward applying these principles to all areas of their supply chains. “The level of granularity and burden of proof needed to support may be new for people working in the industry for years,” Elizinga explains, “but that’s exactly why I believe it’s so important.”

Elzinga is tasked with collaborating with compliance and legal teams to ensure ADM is following local laws and regulations that impact human rights, and working with the company’s legal team to develop contractual clauses that require suppliers to make sure that they’re monitoring and mitigating human rights risks. The company also uses cutting-edge technology — what she calls “some nifty tools and gadgets” — to ensure that ADM provides transparency to even the most remote parts of its supply chains. 

The push toward transparency is part of a bigger trend that ADM is getting in front of. Large companies are reporting that supply chain visibility is a higher priority than even just a few years ago, in 2017 — but only 6% report they have reached full transparency.

As the efforts continue, Elzinga has found it wide-ranging and fulfilling work that’s led her to human rights issues around the globe. “There’s really not a part of the world that we don’t touch,” she says.

Developing accountable supply chains and more

One telling example of what this transparency looks like in action is in ADM’s innovations around vanilla. In 2018, ADM conducted a third-party supply chain analysis, and determined that its vanilla supply was at extremely high risk for multiple human rights issues. As a result, the company decided to develop a vanilla-specific sourcing code, helping track where each crop was grown, as well as increasing supplier visibility and monitoring programs.

Over the shoulder view of hands holding dozens of vanilla bean pods
Preparation of vanilla in a craft workshop in Madagascar. Pierre-Yves Babelon / Getty Images

Elzinga is proud that the company then chose to go one step further: They created a joint venture between the industry’s first farmer-owned processor and exporter of vanilla pods. In places like Madagascar now, “we get to implement programs such as reliable education and medical care and food security for our growers,” she says.

Though younger employees like Elzinga are instrumental in enacting these kinds of far-reaching programs, Taylor says that ADM’s current efforts are the result of a long history of working toward sustainability. For instance, Taylor says that for over a decade, ADM has invested in carbon-capture and storage technology at its own dedicated facility in Decatur, Illinois. She anticipates a day when consumers might eventually ask the company to produce a carbon score–and they’ll be ready. In the meantime, she’s lining up sustainability metrics for ADM’s regular financial reporting and annual sustainability report in order to be ready. “We aim to be 100% traceable,” she says.

Both ADM’s experience and enthusiasm have come together in initiatives like the company’s investment in plant-based proteins. Because the company is so well-versed in agriculture and nutrition and has innovation centers around the world, it’s well positioned to support the growing market, Taylor explains, helping it innovate nimbly. Elzinga, meanwhile, has maintained a plant-based diet for 13 years, so her interest is personal as well as professional. “Being on the precipice of a lot of these new technologies is really exciting,” she says. 

Taylor anticipates new flavors coming to shelves soon—everything from insect-based proteins to microbial, cell-based, and other plant-based ingredients. “They are not only increasingly desired by the consumers, but also just such a fascinating area of innovation,” Taylor says.  

This personal and comprehensive approach has helped ADM to respond to the new consumer attention to details: Both Taylor and Elzinga say they’ve seen a substantial increase in the past two years in the number of questions being raised by the public and investors about product traceability. 

Luckily, transparency is increasingly a given across all of ADM’s work. “We’re not just saying we know where our ingredients come from, or we know our farmers, but actually proving that in a measurable way,” Taylor says. “And I think that’s another reflection on what Gen Z and others are looking for. It’s not just platitudes, it’s not just goals. It’s not just pretty glossy reports,” she adds. Companies need to “measure it — [to] show up.”

ADM is the bridge between the producer on the farm and the consumer-facing brands in our daily lives. Consumers around the world have made it clear that they expect the products they purchase to come from sustainable sources, produced by companies that share their values like we do. Sustainability is one of the biggest challenges our world faces, and it’s one ADM is uniquely positioned to solve. We are scaling up our sustainability efforts to meet the ever-expanding needs of global populations, and to give our customers the edge they need to navigate new consumer demands, shifting attitudes, and environmental challenges.