Beyond Net Zero Hero: Mark Cuddigan, CEO of Ella’s Kitchen

Dark blue text on left side says 'Mark Cuddigan, CEO, Ella's Kitchen' above white text reading 'Beyond Zero', and right side shows headshot of Mark in cropped circle

“There are a lot of companies making great claims about being net zero by 2050, 2060. That’s too late.” 

Mark Cuddigan, Ella’s Kitchen CEO

Mark Cuddigan pulls no punches on the subject of net zero business. His frank attitude extends to assessing the net zero journey of baby and toddler food company Ella’s Kitchen, where he took the reins as CEO in 2013. 

“It’s going to be really, really difficult, and it will definitely lead to difficult discussions and decisions.” he says of the company’s goal to hit net zero by 2030, before reeling off a list of the areas of the business where compromise will be key – everything from packaging and ingredients to personal travel.

That said, there’s no question in Mark’s mind about the benefits of reaching net zero and beyond, and he’s passionate about setting an example to other businesses. “I think that’s the way we can really lead a massive change – showing that this other way is not only a better way for the environment and people, but commercially it’s a better way too.”

With that in mind, he’s made it his mission to influence other companies to do better – starting with Ella’s Kitchen’s suppliers. He argues that as a trailblazing B Corp, Ella’s Kitchen has “a responsibility” to encourage other companies to follow in its footsteps. “In two years’ time, I hope half of our suppliers will have certified as B Corps,” he adds.

Ella’s kitchen was founded with the aim of improving children’s lives through helping them develop healthy relationships with food. With its focus on the next generation, it’s no surprise that the business is invested in working towards a better future through adopting regenerative business practices.

“There’s this feeling with a lot of people that if we turn away it will go away,” he says of the climate crisis. “It won’t go away. So the only question is what are you going to do about it?”

Listen to our full interview with Mark Cuddigan, CEO of Ella’s Kitchen, to hear more about how the company is setting goals to go beyond net zero:

Jenny Briggs, Greenhouse PR (0:00)
Welcome to the Beyond Net Zero audio series. We are at a critical moment. According to the IPCC, if we are to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, it’s essential that we cut net global carbon emissions by 45% in the next decade, reaching net zero by 2050.

But what if businesses could go one step further, reaching net zero and beyond by 2030? We’ll be interviewing game-changing organisations throughout B Corp month to find out how we can create and communicate a net zero future. The B Corp accreditation has huge potential to inspire more businesses to drive positive and meaningful action on climate change. So please tune in and listen to a series of business pioneers leading the way.

Hello, my Net Zero hero guest today is Mark Cuddigan on Ella’s Kitchen. Their mission is to improve children’s lives through developing healthy relationships with food. They are also deeply committed to spearheading a different kind of business model that is both ethical and sustainable. And I have to say, they have of some of the most beautiful creative sustainability reports I’ve ever seen. Welcome Mark.

Mark Cuddigan, Ella’s Kitchen (1:21)
Hi, thanks for having me. And it’s the first time I’ve ever been called a Net Zero Hero, or a hero of any sort. So thank you.

JB (1:29)
No problem at all. This audio series is all about talking to pioneering B Corps who are pushing to go beyond net zero, as we need to keep global warming below 1.5 degrees to avoid irreversible damage to societies and our natural world. We think business has a big part to play. So I wanted to dig a little bit deeper and ask what you think is the role of the B Corp movement in helping the UK to achieve and exceed our net zero targets?

MC (1:57)
Well, there are nearly 500 certified B Corps in the UK. And the worldwide community is approaching 4000, which is brilliant. And the movement in the UK is growing at roughly one company certifying every day at the moment, which is amazing. And that’s been pretty consistent throughout the whole pandemic, which just goes to show what people are prioritising, which is absolutely brilliant. But that’s still a very very small number when compared obviously, against all UK companies.

So for now, I would say the movement can play a part by leading, leading by committing to net zero, and then becoming net zero businesses, which is obviously crucial. And leading in showing there’s another way to run a business. And that if companies changed the way they measure success in business, than being just about profit, measuring its impact on people and the planet too, then actually we’ll be more successful. I think that’s actually the way that we can really lead a massive change is showing that this other way, is not only better way for the environment and people, but actually commercially it’s a better way.

JB (3:12)
I completely agree. It’s so good to see that momentum growing and growing. And I’m hoping that nothing’s going to stop the B Corp movement now. Next year, we’re going to reach almost a precipice where all companies are going to be called to join, it’s going to be something that consumers demand, which is very exciting. Another really interesting thing about the B Corp movement is this concept of collaboration. And I was thrilled to see your latest flexible packaging consortium, and I wondered whether you can give us a bit more detail around that.

MC (3:44)
Again, I’m a passionate believer that we’re not going to get out of the mess that we’re in, if we’re all just doing it ourselves. When you think of net zero, there was a great piece by Bill Gates talking about two numbers you need to know, 51 billion and zero. 51 billion is the tonnes that we put into the atmosphere every year. Zero is the number we need to get to. We can’t get there unless we all collaborate together.

And I just don’t really believe in having competitors anyway, we don’t view anybody in our category as competitors. We don’t treat them like competitors. We don’t down-talk people that are in the same category as us. But when it comes to the environment, surely we can’t compete, surely we’ve all got to hold hands and help each other. So with SUEZ, the recycling experts, we got together with four other companies, Nestle, Mars, and Taylors of Harrogate, to try and solve the flexible issue that we have in UK, which is that no flexibles are collected, sorted, and recycled. Local authorities and governments in the past have said it is too difficult to sort. And secondly, it’s not worth it. And over the course of the last two years, this consortium has come together, put a lot of resources into it, and actually proved that it is possible to collect it and sort it. And it does make commercial sense, which is fantastic.

And lots of other countries around the world do this but this is the first time that we’ve been able to prove that it makes sense in the UK. So we’re hoping, fingers crossed, that the government take action on this. Because at Ella’s Kitchen, we can’t solve the flexible issue that our pouches can’t be recycled at the moment. But together, we’re going to be much, much stronger. And the recycling system is pretty broken in the UK. With the will, we can fix it, which is why we’re very excited and hopeful and confident that flexibles will be included. And if you put them in your bin, eventually, it will be recycled, which would be great.

JB (6:04)
Oh, brilliant. I think the challenge is so enormous, that the idea that you’re tackling these problems face on and trying to partner with as many organisations as you can is just really, really inspiring. So I’m glad to see that you’re taking problems like flexible packaging head on. How have you approached net zero targets as a company to date?

MC (6:29)
So we’ve relied quite heavily on experts. And third parties, in fact, some of which were B Corps, which is great. But first, we look to our impact. So we looked at our Scope 1, Scope 2, Scope 3, impact. And now we’re using this data to develop a reductions pathway, which will include setting science based targets, which is seen as the sort of gold standard by the UN companies, and that will show us what we need to do to become a net zero business.

In essence, we need to reduce our carbon output, our impact as a business by over 50%. We will get there, we’ve committed to get there by 2030 and we will because it’s super, super important. But it’s going to be really, really difficult. And it will definitely lead to difficult discussions and decisions we will have to make as a business, across everything from packaging, our ingredients, what we do in head office, our personal travel. And how we inspire our manufacturers, because they’re not our manufacturers, to join us in this process. We will get there. But it’s going to be incredibly difficult.

JB (7:48)
I think it’s really important you talk about the fact it’s going to be difficult, because often people are trying to really optimistic and say we can do it, we can meet these challenges, but I think it is worth saying this isn’t easy. And it’s about transforming everything. So I like the way you’ve gone into so many different aspects of your business that you’re going to have to rethink. From your perspective, what does a net zero future look like? What’s that vision that you’re working towards?

MC (8:18)
Well, we don’t really have a vision at Ella’s of what it would look like, but I can tell you what I think it’ll look like. It’ll look like, that simply, there’s a future. I’ve got two children, two girls, nine and 11. And we had to stop watching the David Attenborough BBC documentary series Extinction: The Facts, because it was too upsetting for them. It was pretty upsetting for me and they wanted to understand two things. Why is this happening? And what can we do? And I think there is this feeling with a lot of people that if we can turn away, it’ll go away. It’s like an ostrich, putting your head in the sand – it won’t go away.

And there’s a great quote that I often use from Barack Obama, saying we are first generation of leaders who won’t be able to look back and say, we didn’t know. So the only question really, to the leaders is, what are you going to do about it? You can’t say you didn’t know, you can’t say that it’s not coming. You know, 99.9% of climate scientists agree. This isn’t something that there’s really any debate about what is happening, and that this is a clear and present danger to the planet and the human race. So what are you going to do, you’re going to put yourself and your greed and your company’s profits ahead of the children and your grandchildren? I mean, it’s insane.

And there is a real urgency, we need to act now. So us committing to 2030 is great. We need to get there as quickly as we can. I’ve seen quite a lot of companies, I obviously won’t call them out, that are making great claims about being net zero by 2050, or 2060. That’s too late. And these are companies that think they are leading the way – no, that’s the latest, you know, if the good companies are claiming they’re going to get there by then it’s like, no! What’s taking you so long?

JB (10:25)
I was at an event last week with Jonathon Porritt speaking. And he was saying 2050 – we need to just forget 2050, it’s 2030 or nothing. And I think that kind of urgency is what people really need to see. So I love that you’ve got 2030 out there as the target, but you’re going to try and exceed that, which I think is really responsible as well as a business leader. What do you think the general public understand about net zero? What do you think it means to them?

MC (10:59)
I’m not sure it means anything at all, I think it is incredibly confusing. There’s, you know, we’re going to be climate positive, you’re going to be, climate neutral. I think there are so many different terminologies out there. And I think it’s very, very confusing. If you try and explain about keeping within the UN targets, some people think they can just offset everything, and that’s okay, you can become climate neutral by just offsetting everything, job done. No, you basically need to reduce your carbon output by half. That’s what we need to do. Not just you, everybody needs to do that.

But I think when you get into the technicalities of it, I found it quite confusing. Embarrasingly, I’ll admit maybe two years ago, I thought it was all about being climate neutral. I thought that was it, carbon neutral, we’re going to be carbon neutral, as a business. And then Chris, our head of sustainability said, no Mark, we need to be net zero. What does net zero mean? That doesn’t mean anything to people, it’s all about carbon neutral.

But it’s not all about carbon neutral, because he’s very kindly taught me that it isn’t all about being carbon neutral, that’s not enough. There is a path, there is a an important point where you do offset the stuff that you can’t avoid at the moment. And we do that with two partners, we use the World Land Trust, and Trees for Life. And that’s all protecting the ecosystems which we rely on, which is really, really important. But we’ve got to reduce, we’ve got to reduce, and I think, my message to the public, to try and keep it simple is: by half, you’ve got to reduce your output by half, all of the places you work have got to reduce it by half. And then the half that they can’t avoid at the moment, because some of this is is unavoidable, you need to offset.

JB (13:02)
It’s an interesting way of wording it, as well. And I think it’s easier to understand, reducing half and then regenerating half as well. And how do you think we should work on communicating net zero, because I think you’re right, it’s become a buzzword, and people don’t understand it, it doesn’t really mean anything to them. Do you think it’s a term we should use and change the meaning of or do we need to just develop more of a vocabulary around net zero that people can connect with?

MC (13:32)
I mean, I’m not the expert on this. But I do think there needs to be a campaign to see people understand. And I do think the simplest things are the things that are most likely to succeed. And you have the scientific experts, you’ve got the UN, you’ve got governmental departments, you’ve got consumers, you’ve got business, and, I tried to explain to my wife what net zero means? It would be quite difficult for me to explain. That’s not great. I think something like half your carbon output as a business and offset the other half, that’s pretty simple for me.

JB (14:11)
I completely agree. So looking to the future, what ambitions do you have for Ella’s Kitchen over the next five to 10 years?

MC (14:19)
Wow, that’s quite a long way, isn’t it? So if I look 10 years further forward. I’d have been at Ella’s for 20 years. And I don’t want to be like Arsene Wenger and just hanging on and outstaying my welcome with the team there, but I would say there are three areas: there’re good for tiny tummies, good to the planet, and good business. So under good for tiny tummies, which is our mission, we want to continue to deliver our mission and look at how we can use our voice to promote the importance of early years nutrition, especially in the post-Covid world. So that’s the first area.

The second area, good to the planet, we want to deliver our net zero ambitions. And we want to do that as quickly as we can. And then after that, we need to be looking at completely decarbonizing our business. So we bring it down, as Bill Gates says to zero, we hope the technologies will catch up to enable us to do that, but we’re just going to keep pushing, and we’re going to keep pushing and keep pushing. So that’s the second one.

And the third, good business, is continue to lead the B Corp movement. So we want to inspire other businesses to certify and continue to use the certification and community to be better. As a business, we’re not perfect, nobody is perfect, we all make mistakes. But we are passionate advocates of the B Corp movement, and one of the things I’m most proud of outside of us certifying as a B Corp, is the way we’ve taken it to all of our suppliers.

So there are under 100 of us that work in Barnes, we used to work in Barnes, outside Henley – everyone’s still working from home – there are probably a million people that work in our supply chain. And we have an opportunity, and I would argue a responsibility at Ella’s to try and impact all of their lives. And if we can get their companies to certify as B Corps, we literally can do that. And we can also lessen the impact all of those businesses have on the environment.

And I hope, if we had a conversation in two years time, that half of our suppliers would have certified as B Corps by then, which is extraordinary and that’s the way the movement works. It’s a bit like a Ponzi scheme, but the only two things that benefit are society and the planet. And that, to me sounds like a pretty good Ponzi scheme.

JB (16:56)
I didn’t think that we were going to approach Ponzi schemes! But no, thank you so much for your time. And I think what I love as well is that you’re sharing that the B Corp movement, no one’s perfect. We’re always pushing to do more. And work isn’t done once you get certified. It’s also about who else can you influence to join? And how can you continue to improve? So I hope in two years time, you can just say actually, we’ve surpassed that, it’s more than half.

MC (17:23)
I’ve got an interesting story, I did a talk at Facebook, this is a few years ago, before lockdown. And at the time you had to re-certify. Once you certify as a B Corp, you have to recertify every three years, right? And the assessment gets progressively harder, every couple of years, it gets updated and it gets harder, which is great, which is the way it should be, right? And I finished this talk and somebody said, “I don’t like the fact you have to recertify every three years”, and without thinking I just shot back and said, “Well, I don’t think anybody should be a CEO or leading a business if they’re not up for continuous improvement”. And then there was silence, and I was thinking whoops, I may have overstepped the mark here! But you know, that’s the whole thing, right? We are on a continuous journey. We’re never perfect, we can always be better, especially with regards to the environment. So this idea of becoming net zero, job done, thanks very much, it’s like ‘no – keep pushing, keep pushing’. We all want to be better and better and better. You just reminded me of this story.

JB (18:32)
I love that story. I think I can just picture the silence afterwards as well, which makes it even better. Thank you so much for your time today Mark, really, really inspired by Ella’s and everything you’re doing, so thank you for being our Net Zero Hero.

MC (18:47)
Ta, well thank you for having me.

JB (18:51)
You have been listening to Beyond Net Zero, a campaign celebrating pioneering B Corporations from Greenhouse PR. Find out more on our website and sign up to our webinar on March 31 with John Elkington, a world authority on corporate responsibility and sustainable development.