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An Interview With Paul Helgeson: Sustainability Manager, GNP Company

April 19th, 2016

Environmental Initiative has a network of environmental leaders across all sectors of the economy – from businesses, all levels of government, nonprofits, academia, and more. In a new series, we’ll be interviewing environmental and sustainability leaders from our diverse community to share their passions and how they lead.

I’m kicking off the series with sustainability leader and Environmental Initiative board member, Paul Helgeson. Paul is currently the Sustainability Manager with GNP Company and is the founder and visionary behind the Field Stewards program.Greg interviewing Paul

To start us off, can you tell us a little bit about how you became sustainability manager at GNP Company?

I grew up in central Minnesota surrounded by the agricultural industry. My great-grandfather started what became Gold n’ Plump as one of hundreds of small hatcheries in Minnesota in the 1920’s.  For most of my life my dad was CEO and he, along with our team members, worked very hard to grow the company into the largest chicken company in the Upper Midwest.

This inspired me to pursue a business education and during my undergrad days I studied abroad in Copenhagen, Denmark. There I visited Carlsberg, the big beer company. This was my first exposure to a large company advocating for sustainability. Beverage companies had worked with the Danish government to put a high deposit on bottles. So those bottles were getting turned back in and Carlsberg was reusing them to bottle beer. This reduced litter, saving the government money, and saved Carlsberg from having to buy expensive new bottles. Seeing this win-win for business, government, and the people of Denmark sparked my interest in harnessing the profit motive of business to achieve social and environmental goals.

I remained interested in sustainability while earning my MBA from the Carlson School of Business at the University of Minnesota and working outside the company. When I joined GNP Company in 2010 I helped my family’s business to consider sustainability and together we developed the 4 P Framework: people, poultry, progress, and planet. We set aggressive planet goals for improving the resource efficiency of our operations and made a commitment to working with our supply chain.  During this time, I also helped develop the Field Stewards idea and I’m the liaison from GNP Company on the project.

For folks who haven’t heard about it before, how would you describe the Field Stewards project?

At the core, it’s a way to connect consumers and farmers who care about water quality.fieldstewards

Functionally, it is a certification and market system that recognizes and rewards farmers for their environmental protection efforts.  Food companies can buy certificates to offset some of the environmental impacts of their commodity crop inputs. The market system allows us to support farmers in our local area who have gone above and beyond the norm to protect water quality on their farms.

Consumers increasingly care about their food and how it was produced. The underlying sentiment is “Do the people creating my food share my values?” However, the commodity crop system isn’t set up for food companies to track sustainability at the farm level. Like a lot of food companies, we buy the grain used in our feed off of what is essentially an international commodity market.  The grain markets and the commodity crop systems are not designed for food companies or consumers to track on-farm sustainability practices.  So, we have no way to know what practices were used in the fields that our grain came from.

This is the opportunity for Field Stewards. It is a program that gives food-marketing companies like GNP Company the ability to create a more sustainable supply chain for their most critical inputs. (more…)

Greg Bohrer


Senior Manager, Agriculture and Environment Program

In it for the Money or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Self-Interest

December 10th, 2015

I’ve been working at Environmental Initiative for about a year and a half now, and I’m still as much a believer in the values and philosophy of this organization as I was on my first day.

I continue to believe, reinforced by experience, that lasting solutions are collaborative, not divisive. At the same time, I also believe people and organizations are fundamentally driven by self-interest. Self-interest is often conflated with selfishness, and is frequently cited as a barrier to progress. That’s a dark view of things, and it ignores the strong Minnesota tradition of collaboration, respect for the opinions and needs of others, and a willingness to forgo short-term selfishness for long term common gain.

The savviest politicians and the most effective leaders understand that leadership is largely about gathering people around a shared vision and motivating them to support it. However, you don’t get very far by asking folks to act directly against their own self-interest, instead, you have to find a way to harness that self-interest in the pursuit of the greater good.GregThankYouBlog

Environmental Initiative, its members, board, sponsors, and staff embody this kind of leadership. In our Clean Air program, a wide variety of organizations from both the public and private sectors collaborate to create and fund projects that reduce criteria air pollutants in order to keep us in compliance with federal standards. The self- interest that drives this work is that many of these organizations would face complicated, expensive regulatory efforts if we exceed those standards. In exchange, Minnesotans enjoy cleaner, healthier air.

In the Field Stewards project, we’ve partnered with GNP Company, the largest poultry producer in the Upper Midwest, to create a market system that will connect farmers engaged in a high level of water quality protection with food companies that will financially reward their efforts.

Here again we are capturing the self-interest of actors and using it to benefit the common good. Farmers benefit by receiving a financial support that is not dependent on the vagaries of the commodities market, land rental rates, or weather. GNP and other companies benefit by aligning themselves with the changing tastes of the food consumer, who are demanding more sustainable products. The public benefits through the protection of our natural resources, better water quality in our lakes and rivers, and a more sustainable food system for the future.

So, “in it for the money” may not be such a bad thing, especially when there are leaders who can recognize and harness such self-interest for efforts that everyone can benefit from. I’m proud to work in an organization that recognizes this and works to bring self-interested actors together in the pursuit of a better Minnesota.

If you share my enthusiasm, join me in supporting the work of Environmental Initiative. Our current and past board of directors have contributed $15,000 to help us raise another $15,000 from individuals like you between now and December 31st. Annual or recurring monthly membership contributions will be matched dollar for dollar. We still have about $8,000 to raise to meet our goals. If you’ve already donated, thank you so much for investing in our approach to solving environmental problems.

Greg Bohrer


Senior Manager, Agriculture and Environment Program

Is It Time to Reinvent Corporate Sustainability Management?

June 11th, 2014

A note from Environmental Initiative: We are excited to welcome Mark McElroy to The Initiative as today’s guest blogger. Mark will discuss his context-based approach to sustainability metrics at our June 25th Business & Environment Session “Measuring Sustainability.” We’ll also hear from local companies Pictura Graphics, Mosaic Company, and GNP Company on their approach to sustainability measurement, and leave plenty of time for discussion and networking with an audience of over 100 cross-sector sustainability professionals. Don’t miss the conversation – register today!


Whether overtly expressed in these terms or not, every approach to sustainability management in business constitutes or adheres to a doctrine of some kind that can be identified as such. Doctrines such as Corporate Social Responsibility, Eco-efficiency and Shared Value provide distinct and often competing perspectives on (1) what sustainability is, and (2) how it should be measured, managed and reported.  As distinct doctrines, the principles they rely on differentiate them from one another.

Most of what passes for mainstream practice in business today, however, falls into a common cluster of doctrines (including the ones mentioned above) that can be thought of as incrementalist. A feature they have in common, that is, is the view that marginal (if not merely ostensible) changes in performance over time are sufficient for purposes of determining whether an organization’s social or environmental impacts are sustainable. Using less water this year than last, less energy, producing less waste, doing more community involvement, etc. all constitute positive performance per se and are interpreted as sustainable or more sustainable performance accordingly under the incrementalist doctrines.

Within the past fifteen years, however, a new doctrine has come along that is more literalist and anti-incrementalist in its orientation and which challenges the status quo. Known as Context-Based Sustainability, or CBS, this upstart of a doctrine takes the position that sustainability performance is more of a binary affair: impacts are either sustainable or unsustainable in the first instance, depending on how the impacts compare to norms, standards or thresholds for what they would have to be in order to be sustainable. A particular level of water consumption, for example, that falls above a sustainability threshold would be regarded as unsustainable no matter how much less it was than the year before.


Mark McElroy


Founder and Executive Director, Center for Sustainable Organizations

Event recap: How Do You Tell Your Sustainability Story?

December 20th, 2013

On December 12th, representatives from businesses, nonprofits, government, and other interested groups gathered at Aveda Corporate Headquarters in Blaine for the final Business & Environment Session of 2013. This event was my first with Environmental Initiative; my initial impression was one of connections, both old and new – people catching up with professional connections built over time and others making new ones.

The topic was what can be a delicate balance: how do you manage expectations of both transparency and privacy when communicating about your organization’s sustainability efforts? The session included engaging speakers from business and industry, as well as facilitated tabletop conversations and informal networking.

First up was Stephanie Glazer from SASB (Sustainability Accounting Standards Board), a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization focused on developing industry-specific sustainability disclosure standards for publicly-traded companies in the US. SASB is meeting quarterly with the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and hoping to gain the organization’s endorsement of the standards, similar to those set by the Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB) for financial reporting on the Form 10-K. Ultimately, SASB aims to benefit both investors and the public by providing an avenue for companies to share the environmental, social, and governance issues that are most relevant – or material – to their industries. (You can read more about SASB here.) SASB is using a three-step process to develop their standards:



Master of Public Policy Candidate, University of Minnesota Humphrey School of Public Affairs

Practicing Product Stewardship: Business & Environment Session Recap

November 3rd, 2011

Last Tuesday, about 70 business leaders, sustainability practitioners, representatives from nonprofits and local and state government, and others joined Environmental Initiative for the third and final session of our 2011 Business & Environment Series. We were lucky to be hosted at Best Buy Co, Inc. headquarters – which we learned is the largest Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Gold Certified corporate office, the biggest composter in Minnesota, AND houses the busiest Caribou Coffee!

Besides the sustainability features of their corporate campus, Best Buy has worked hard to become a leader in electronics recycling, pledging to collect one billion pounds of used electronics (or e-waste) over the next five years – and making their location ideal to discuss the topic of last week’s Business & Environment Session, product stewardship.


Georgia Rubenstein


Senior Manager, Sustainability Program

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