FORTUNE -- Green conferences can get a little glum. With climate change, shrinking resources, and a growing global population, CEOs face serious, often frightening challenges over meeting business goals without trashing the planet.
But Smithfield Foods CEO Larry Pope ended his panel at Fortune’s Brainstorm Green conference with a much brighter message. “There are many people painting a picture of doom and gloom,” he said, “but I believe industry, government, and NGOs are working closer together. I think it’s a wonderful future. I wish I was 15 years old again.”
Pope nodded to the fact that it might seem strange to some that the CEO of a company that processes roughly 30 million hogs per year would be sitting in front of an eco-friendly audience. But he claims he’s made moves towards sustainability at Smithfield that have even pitted him against some people in the industry.
<!-- more -->Smithfield Foods (sfd) has its fair share of skeletons. In 1997, the EPA fined the company a record $12.6 million for dumping slaughterhouse waste into the Pagan River, the James River, and the Chesapeake Bay. In 2002, the year after Larry Pope took over as CEO, he hired Dennis Treacy, the lawyer who brought the case against the company. Treacy now serves as Smithfield’s chief sustainability officer.
Smithfield keeps evolving, Pope says. He claims that, over the next 10 years, the company will implement changes -- such as increasing the amount of space in pens -- that will improve the quality of life of the hogs in its supply chain. Those changes will cost the company $400 million, he claims.
“The industry proceeded to call me a traitor, but we moved forward against the industry.” He addressed the audience: “People have thought I’m more on your side than on our side, but it’s the right business decision to make.”
CEOs and companies will have to buck industry trends to address the environmental problems the world will face in the coming years, says Hunter Lovins, president of Natural Capitalism Solutions. “We’re going to have to move from incremental innovation to transformative innovation.” To really meet green goals, some companies are going to have to resort to wide-scale changes.
Pope believes he has a business advantage because of the product he’s pushing. “I’m not sure whether we need a new pair of shoes, but if people don’t get a couple of meals a day, we’ve got a world that’s going to be very difficult.” Yes, the company will need to continue to adapt if it wants to be a socially responsible corporate citizen, he says, but lucky for Smithfield, “virtually every person I’ve ever met likes to eat.”