Shareholders told General Mills this week that the company needs to do more to reduce plastic use.
A resolution brought by investor activist group Green Century Capital Management — and approved by 55% of shareholders — demands a report "assessing if and how the company can increase the scale, pace and rigor of its sustainable packaging efforts by reducing its absolute plastic packaging use."
"The bottom line is that companies know they need to cut plastic, and many are starting to act," Annie Sanders, Green Century's director of shareholder advocacy, said in a statement. "This majority vote from shareholders gives General Mills marching orders to establish a baseline plastic footprint so the company can assess what's possible. Investors, consumers and the planet demand it."
General Mills has previously committed to making all packaging material recyclable or reusable by 2030; currently 89% of its packaging meets that goal.
The shareholder proposal noted that "despite the business risks and broad societal impact, General Mills has no quantitative goal or timeline for reducing its plastic packaging use."
The Golden Valley-based food maker's board of directors had opposed the shareholder proposal, saying it uses less plastic than its peers and already reports on progress toward its sustainability goals.
"The majority of our plastic packaging is direct food-contact packaging, which must adhere to strict government regulations to ensure food safety," Chief Executive Jeff Harmening said at Tuesday's annual meeting. "Currently there aren't widely available non-plastic alternatives that meet these requirements. For these reasons, our sustainable packaging/recycling commitment makes most sense for our company at this time."
General Mills is "continuing to explore technology that could advance the availability of non-plastic packaging alternatives that meet food safety requirements," according to a company statement.
Green Century has filed similar proposals at large corporations across the country, reaching deals with several of them regarding plastic use, including Coca-Cola, CVS and Target, before the scheduled vote.
But shareholder support is harder to come by: just 2% of environmental-focused shareholder proposals passed in the first half of 2022, according to Glass Lewis, an advisory firm.
About 23% of the General Mills' packaging material by weight is plastic, much of which cannot be recycled curbside.
General Mills is part of a business coalition investing in a plastic film recycling facility in Rogers, Minn., which could annually keep 90 million pounds of plastic out of landfills at full capacity. The company also introduced a recyclable wrapper — via in-store drop-off — for its Nature Valley granola bars.
Environmentalists contend reducing total plastic use, recycled or not, needs to be the priority to prevent pollution and the shedding of microplastics.
"Plastic waste is inundating America's rivers and streams, and clogging the world's oceans," said Steve Blackledge, senior director of conservation campaigns for Environment America Research & Policy Center. "Thankfully, the shareholders of General Mills agree that the company can and should do more."