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How one of world’s largest food companies is rethinking supply chains

Listen: How one of world’s largest food companies is rethinking supply chains

In this episode of the ESG Insider podcast, we sit down with Mars, one of the largest food and confectionary companies in the world, on the sidelines of the GreenBiz conference in Phoenix.   

Kevin Rabinovitch, Global Vice President of Sustainability & Chief Climate Officer at Mars, explains how the company is rethinking its supply chains as part of its decarbonization strategy and to address climate change and nature-related risks. 

"We have supply chains that weren't designed to ... tackle things like greenhouse gas emissions or, frankly, a lot of other sustainability issues," Kevin says. "At first, we thought of it as getting a better understanding of the supply chains we operate. But over time, what we've increasingly realized is that it's probably going to be as much about designing, redesigning supply chains into ways that are easier to manage and understand."

"If we don't change what we're buying, or where we're buying it, or how we're buying it, or who we're buying it from, we're not going to make a lot of progress on our performance," Kevin adds. 

Listen to our episode about how the Rockefeller Foundation partners with stakeholders around the world to finance solutions to issues like climate change and food systems transformation.

GreenBiz is hosted by GreenBiz Group and S&P Global Sustainable1 is a sponsor. 

This piece was published by S&P Global Sustainable1, a part of S&P Global.    

Copyright ©2024 by S&P Global    


By accessing this Podcast, I acknowledge that S&P GLOBAL makes no warranty, guarantee, or representation as to the accuracy or sufficiency of the information featured in this Podcast. The information, opinions, and recommendations presented in this Podcast are for general information only and any reliance on the information provided in this Podcast is done at your own risk. This Podcast should not be considered professional advice. Unless specifically stated otherwise, S&P GLOBAL does not endorse, approve, recommend, or certify any information, product, process, service, or organization presented or mentioned in this Podcast, and information from this Podcast should not be referenced in any way to imply such approval or endorsement. The third party materials or content of any third party site referenced in this Podcast do not necessarily reflect the opinions, standards or policies of S&P GLOBAL. S&P GLOBAL assumes no responsibility or liability for the accuracy or completeness of the content contained in third party materials or on third party sites referenced in this Podcast or the compliance with applicable laws of such materials and/or links referenced herein. Moreover, S&P GLOBAL makes no warranty that this Podcast, or the server that makes it available, is free of viruses, worms, or other elements or codes that manifest contaminating or destructive properties.

Transcript provided by Kensho.

Lindsey Hall: Hi. I'm Lindsey Hall, Head of Thought Leadership at S&P Global Sustainable1.

Esther Whieldon: And I'm Esther Whieldon, a Senior Writer on the Sustainable1 Thought Leadership team.

Lindsey Hall: Welcome to ESG Insider, an S&P Global podcast, where Esther and I take you inside the environmental, social and governance issues that are shaping the rapidly evolving sustainability landscape.

Esther Whieldon: So Lindsey, I'm just back from Phoenix, Arizona, where this week, a few thousand sustainability professionals gathered in a desert town to talk about some of the biggest challenges and opportunities they face in this space. I'm referring to the annual GreenBiz conference, which is hosted by GreenBiz Group, and S&P Global Sustainable1 is a sponsor.

Lindsey Hall: Esther, welcome back. So tell me, what did you see? And what did you hear?

Esther Whieldon: Well, this is my first time attending GreenBiz as well as my first time to Arizona. So for starters, I really love seeing all the cactus and birds and in particular, I really enjoyed soaking up the sun and not having to wear a coat, although I quickly learned in my first night there that it gets really chilly after the sun goes down.

Lindsey Hall: Well, I'm jealous, you've got some time in the sun.

Esther Whieldon: Yes. And as for the conference itself, over the course of a few days, I sat down with more than a dozen panelists and attendees. And in today's episode, we're talking with Mars, one of the largest food and confectionery companies in the world.

If you read in the packet of M&M'S, a Dove chocolate bar, or popped a piece of Eclipse chewing gum in your mouth, these are all Mars products. Mars also sells pet food and veterinary services. And while Mars is based in the U.S., he has global business operations across 80 countries, and so it has a big part to play in food systems.

Lindsey Hall: Yes. And if you listen to the episode we've released earlier this week, you heard the Rockefeller Foundation talking about transforming food systems. This is a big sustainability challenge in the face of climate change and biodiversity loss.

Esther Whieldon: At GreenBiz, I sat down with Kevin Rabinovitch, who is Mars' Global Vice President of Sustainability and Chief Climate Officer, to hear more about the company's approach to decarbonization and nature and biodiversity. And as we'll hear from Kevin, the company is redesigning its supply chains to make them more sustainable and resilient to climate change. I started by asking him about the challenges his industry is facing.

Kevin Rabinovitch: Yes. I would say the biggest macro challenge for Mars and really, I would say, the food industry generally is -- so we made a commitment to net zero by 2050, which means we need to solve for greenhouse gases all the way up and down our value chain.

So in our commitment, we include everything. So nothing is left out. It's all in scope, which is great and the right thing to do. And the challenge is that of that full scope, 4% of our GHG emissions happen in buildings or assets that Mars' owns and controls.

So Scope 1 and 2, to use sort of GHG Protocol language, which means 96% of it is not coming from Mars' owned assets and things, which means lots of influencing without authority. And particularly, in again, in the case of the food business, the bulk of that 96% is upstream of us.

So there is some downstream in retail distribution and transport and logistics. And of course, we're working on that. But the lion's share is upstream. And that means lots of engagement with ultimately at the start of the supply chain, lots of farms even.

And historically, the way food and agricultural supply chains have operated, a lot of that's pretty opaque to us. We know, obviously, who we're buying raw materials from, and we probably know who they're working with, but the actual farmer could be 2 or 3 steps further up the chain than that. And so that means we have supply chains that weren't designed to be managed in the way that we want to manage them to try and tackle things like greenhouse gas emissions or frankly, a lot of other sustainability issues.

At first, we thought of it as getting better understanding of the supply chains we operate. But over time, what we've increasingly realized is that it's probably going to be as much about designing, redesigning, supply chains into ways that are easier to manage and understand.

But yes, that's been the biggest one is starting with going on the journey of we need to do a lot of work to gather better data about our supply chains and then kind of getting to like the next level up of thinking of going, well, actually, some of these supply chains are so complicated and so diffuse and have so many tiers that getting the data is always going to be a problem. And wouldn't it be better to redesign them that, that wasn't so much of a problem. 

And then you start thinking about like, well, what other benefits, not just carbon or even sustainability more broadly, d I get from a redesigned less complex, less opaque supply chain? And there are, right. You can get more into sort of strategic relationships with your suppliers and a little bit less transactional. Which then you start -- now you're not just talking about sustainability, you're talking about sort of your procurement strategy.

And that is actually the reason probably about 10 years ago. So we originally had someone who was just the Chief Sustainability Officer. The current occupant of the role, Barry Parkin, is our Chief Sustainability Officer and our Chief Procurement Officer.

And the reason those are sitting in one hat is because so much of our sustainability impact is about what upstream of us, what we buy, goods and services. If we don't change what we're buying or where we're buying it or how we're buying it or who we're buying it from, we're not going to make a lot of progress on our performance. And so having that sort of really tight alignment at the most senior level between sustainability and procurement is really critical.

Esther Whieldon: And you mentioned, right, your supply chain inherently involves a lot of farmers, even though you may not be directly interacting with them, and communities as well, right. How do you deal with the social side of the sustainability question in your supply chain?

Kevin Rabinovitch: Yes. So the sustainable generation plan has a healthy planet focus, which is the team that I lead. We also have a thriving people team, which one of my colleagues leads. And just like in healthy planet, we've got climate, water and land metrics. On the thriving people side, we have metrics around income and human rights. Fundamentally, it's the same challenge in a sense of, in the world before sustainability mattered or in the world before we knew sustainability mattered because it's always mattered, we're the ones that have changed not the world. But everything you cared about, you could -- in the raw materials you were buying, you could generally measure in the thing that showed up. So if this coffee cup, if we were buying a cup of coffee, everything that we cared about, we could measure in the coffee, right. What's the fatty acid profile, what's the moisture content, what's the color, you could measure all that stuff. And in that -- if that's what you care about, it doesn't really matter how it was produced because everything you care about is measurable.

So you can say this is a good cup or a bad cup based on measuring it. In sustainability, both for healthy planet topics, so climate, water, land, and for thriving people topics, most of what you care about, you can't measure in the cup, right. There's no instrument I can stick in this cup of coffee that will tell me whether there was deforestation or whether the people that picked those coffee beans were paid a living wage. All of those things are what you would call process attributes.

So they're not a product of the process or the product, they're about the process that made the product, which means you have to know something about the process. Which brings you right back around to you need a different supply chain, you have different information and visibility, too, and then you can start working on engaging and addressing some of the issues.

Esther Whieldon: I asked Kevin, how is Mars going about redesigning its supply chains? Here's his answer.

Kevin Rabinovitch: So again, in the very early days of working on this sort of our initial idea to solve for sustainability was, oh, we'll just add a line to the specifications and then we put the specifications out for bid and whoever can do the best job, great.

And the problem with that is a lot of suppliers either didn't know what we were asking for or weren't able to comply or would say, well, we'll just charge you extra for it. And so what we realized was we needed to get into a deeper, more involved engagement with suppliers.

And so probably one of the biggest and earliest examples of this was before we started working on it, we were sourcing from something like 1,500 palm oil mills. At least, that was almost potentially in our supply chain, if you mapped it all back. That's about 1/3 of the mills on the planet. Mars buys, I think, a little bit less than 0.1% of the world's palm oil. So we were buying a tenth of a percent but exposed to 30-something percent of the supply chain.

And so we started working on how do we sort of consolidate and focus and partnership with -- it's called Unifuji, it's with United Plantations and Fuji Oil. We did a 1:1:1 palm plantation to mill to refinery for a reasonable chunk of our palm oil volume, and that significantly reduced the number of mills that were potentially in our supply chain down to, give or take, 100, the number varies a bit year-to-year.

And the power of that is if you say so I've got a certain amount of time and energy and resource to work on addressing whatever issues might exist at mill level in my palm oil supply chain. So before we did that consolidation work, whatever that resource we had available, we would divide it by 1,500, and that's how much attention each mill would get.

Now it gets divided by 100, right. So you've got -- it isn't a specific answer to what we're doing, but it really speaks to sort of the higher level of how do we reorganize to make the problems manageable and workable. And in the case of the Unifuji project, in addition to having sort of a more dedicated supply chain, we've gotten involved in addressing some of the recruitment fee issues that come up in sectors and actually repaying some of those fees.

Esther Whieldon: Recruitment fees, what's that about?

Kevin Rabinovitch: So in certain parts of the world, sometimes workers have to actually pay to get a job and essentially end up kind of working off that debt to get the job. And that is in contravention to sort of UN principles. And so we've done a lot of work to help start identifying some of these issues and drive not just ourselves, but more broadly through broader coalitions to one, eradicate that practice, and two, repay some of those fees over time.

Esther Whieldon: It's amazing like how many nuances there can be to just one aspect of a supply chain, right?

Kevin Rabinovitch: Yes. This is one of the fascinating things about sustainability as you get into this is -- it's a rabbit hole in a bit of an interesting way, right. There's sort of -- there's always another layer to figuring this out. I mean one of the things my team is responsible for is doing all of the sustainability math. So doing all the accounting, not just for healthy planet, but also for packaging and for the people teams. And there's always another click, right. You can always learn more and get smarter.

Esther Whieldon: So you mentioned deforestation. And obviously, palm oil is connected with that. And there's plenty of other things where for cocoa and all kinds of other things, right, whereas forests are being lost. What is Mars doing on that?

Kevin Rabinovitch: So we have commitments across all of our sort of the key recognized deforestation raw materials. So cocoa, palm, soy, beef, pulp and paper, by 2025 to be deforestation and conversion-free across all of them in varying stages of progress, but they're all well on track.

So that gets back to some of redesigning the supply chain so that you can know more of what's going on in the ground. The approach we take is one of map, manage and monitor. So first, you map to really understand what your supply chain is and where the risks and where the things are happening that we don't want to be happening.

Then manage is redesigning -- either redesigning the supply chain or redesigning the interaction with our suppliers so that we have reasonable expectation that deforestation will stop. And then monitor to make sure. 

And the map, manage, monitor is for us is quite an important sequence because a lot of people, at least, again, in the early days of this, went with a slightly different order, which was map, monitor, manage. Which is so you map, you know what's going on, you keep an eye on it when something bad happens, monitor, you jump in and you address it.

But that's kind of an end of pipe solution, right. Because you're looking and something bad happens and then you deal with it. But that means you're expecting bad things to happen. Whereas we've flipped around the other ring and so like let's understand what's there, let's design a process that we expect to not have problems but recognizing that we live in an imperfect world and things happen, you keep an eye on it to monitor. And then if there is some sort of a failure, you come back to your management system and go, "well, okay, is there something we could change about the management system that would prevent this from happening again in the future?"

Esther Whieldon: It's interesting. It's proactive versus reactive more so, right?

Kevin Rabinovitch: Exactly.

Esther Whieldon: Although you still have to have the reactive part of that, right?

Kevin Rabinovitch: Yes, exactly. And on the proactive side, this again comes back to sort of the rethinking supply chains piece is if you're sourcing from 1,500 mills, it's very hard to design a proactive strategy because we're a tiny portion of each of those mill's customer base and how much influence do we have over them, how excited are they about working with us? Or frankly, if they've got 1,000 customers, they have 1,000 people asking them different things, what are they supposed to do.

Esther Whieldon: What about the physical impacts of climate change and supply chains? Where is the risk seen on that for your company? And how is it may be manifested in how are you maneuvering to address that?

Kevin Rabinovitch: Yes. So this is a really interesting question because there are some sustainability issues where the impact that Mars has and our value chain has is quite well correlated with the risks that we face.

So water is a good example of this. So we have a metric that's focused on reducing unsustainable water use in each of the watersheds where we operate or source from. And our definition of unsustainable water use is in a stressed watershed, using water in excess of sort of the stress level, right.

So that's our measure of impact that we're having on the world. Well, how would we figure out what our risk is from a water point of view? Well, the first thing we're going to do is look at water stressed places where we're using lots of water which coincidentally is exactly the same as our impact metrics. So they're super well correlated. So the work we do to reduce our impact will also reduce our risk. Great. Very convenient. 

Climate, unfortunately, is not like that. The things that are the biggest parts of our GHG footprint are not necessarily the things that face the biggest threats from climate change. So for example, dairy usage in our confectionery products and some beef usage in our pet food are relatively significant parts of our GHG footprint, not particularly at risk from climate change, right, because they generally are being produced by fairly sophisticated, fairly well-off farmers in developed countries that have industrialization and automation and are pretty well-equipped to address some of the challenges of climate change.

Whereas some of the crops that we buy that are grown by small holders in developing countries that don't have some of that adaptation capacity, may be smaller footprints, but more at risk. And so it's an interesting challenge for us because they don't line up in the way that they do for water. 

So I think that's where we look at how do we build the adaptive capacity of some of those suppliers, either through training or technology or breeding. So Mars has a long history of both sort of -- lots of technologies related to crop breeding. But for example, we sequenced the cocoa genome with a bunch of partners and actually put it in public domain something like 10 or 12 years ago. And the reason we did that was that then makes that a public domain resource available to plant breeders and ag universities all over the world to try and develop better disease resistance, better drought resistance in cocoa as opposed to it being sort of a privatized tool that's being used strictly for commercial purposes.

So yes. So that's a big part of it. And -- but I think it's important to recognize. The other thing that we're looking at and trying to think about is, as climate patterns change, and in the short term, it's really more precipitation or water that changes more than temperatures.

I was at a meeting a long ago and someone used the great metaphor that, "Climate change is a shark, but water is the teeth." And so what's going to happen is that in some places that have grown crop X for some length of time, as a consequence of climate change, that may just not be a suitable crop to grow there anymore. And so that then leads to some very sort of thoughtful discussions about, well, what do we do from a sourcing point of view? And in some cases, we have -- we will have farmers that move away from us, right.

So if they see the growing crop X doesn't work anymore, they'll start growing crop Y. At which point -- of course, they come out of our supply chain because we don't buy Y. So yes, I know it's an important question, but in some ways, it's a much more complicated one than doing decarbonization. Because when you're working to reduce your carbon footprint or water footprint or whatever, you know what it is, you know what you want to do and at least you think you know when you take the action, what's going to happen, and so it's all very sort of deterministic. 

All this risk stuff is all probabilities, right. Maybe the crop will fail, but you don't know for sure that it's going to fail, and so it's a different sort of calculus but a very important one to do.

Esther Whieldon: Has it affected where you decide to focus your supply chains? Like have you decided to make them closer to where you need them to be processed or like have you like strategically, locationally reorganized some of that as a result in any way?

Kevin Rabinovitch: Yes, it's a great question. So broadly speaking, within Mars, there's sort of 2 types of raw materials. So there's a lot of the raw materials that we use, which are essentially grown everywhere. So a lot of the grains, corn, wheat, soy, and a lot of the animal proteins that we use in our pet food chicken, pork, beef, right, that sort of produced everywhere.

So in general, those already tend to be sourced pretty close to where our factories are, which tend to be pretty close to the markets they sell into. So for a lot of our raw materials, we already have a geographically relatively short supply chain. And the costs of moving that to somewhere far away are generally kind of prohibitive so we work quite hard to maintain those.

But then we also have a number of, what I guess you could maybe call specialty raw materials. So for example, cocoa, which we've already talked about. Cocoa basically only grows plus or minus 20 degrees from the equator. Most of the world's population and certainly most of our consumers live north of 20 and then some south of 20 and some certainly in the middle there.

So cocoa does travel some distances and things like vanilla are even more concentrated. So it does lead to sort of 2 questions. One, thinking about the supply chains we have and where do we invest, and how do we build those. And then also as we develop new supply origins or we need new raw materials, thinking about where we want to source them from not just where is a good place today, but based on looking at forecast and modeling, where is still going to be a good place 20, 30, 40 years down the road.

Esther Whieldon: Kevin went on to describe how the Mars approach the nature and biodiversity has evolved over time.

Kevin Rabinovitch: Yes. So we did some work in 2016 with the World Resources Institute on looking beyond climate. So we'd originally set science-based GHG targets in 2011, and that actually helped create the science-based targets initiative in 2014. And sort of on the heels of that, we were looking at the next horizon and saying, well, we are definite believers and advocates of the planetary boundaries model.

And in the planetary boundaries model, climate is 1 of the 9 indicators. And so we were looking at the other indicators, and we said, so what other science-based targets do we need? And we did a big project with them, which led to the development of the land and the water targets that we have in the sustainable and generation plan.

And we had a lot of conversations then about biodiversity and nature. And I think our view today largely reflects the inclusion we got to then, which is most of the biodiversity that we -- the big "we" should care about is not biodiversity on farms. It's biodiversity in nature. And by definition, we don't want nature in our supply chains, right. We want that to be in nature. And so what that -- which makes it sort of fundamentally different than thinking about climate, where the problem is GHG emissions on the farm or deforestation or whatever. So we've got a -- the thing we're trying to solve can be solved in the place where we're actually growing corn or sugar or whatever.

Whereas with biodiversity, the problem we're trying to solve or the risk we're trying to mitigate is not in our supply chains, it's somewhere else. And so that sort of led us to the conclusion that from a corporate perspective, the right way to think about biodiversity is to operate our supply chains and our value chains and businesses in a way that reduces the pressures on nature, right.

So obviously, stop conversion and deforestation. Our land foot target is to hold the physical land footprint of our supply chain flat over time. So we've calculated the number of hectares or acres for an American audience, of land that it takes to supply our raw materials. And we've said that number, we're going to hold it flat over time.

So if our business grows, the burden is on us to figure out how to get more crops from the same amount of land. And the logic of that is if everyone set that target, the total footprint of agriculture would stop expanding, which then takes pressure off of nature because when agriculture expands, it expands at the expense of nature.

So if you're controlling for climate change, which is the biggest threat to biodiversity, if you're controlling for land conversion and land expansion, if you're reducing your water use in stressed watersheds and reducing our use, humanity's use, in the stressed watershed means there's more water available for the nature in that water.

So you have sort of this multilayered approach where our targets are trying to remove some of the pressures from biodiversity. But at the end of the day, that's not a proactive defensive nature and biodiversity. It's proactive protection. It's sort of defensive protection. And really, what we need are national governments, or governments at any sort of jurisdictional level, who actually do have a responsibility for that land.

So the farms are in our supply chain, but the nature preserve is not. But both the farm and the nature preserve are within the jurisdiction of the country. So our role is to really reduce those pressures and support the ability of governments to play their sort of appropriate role in protecting nature, which is a common good, which is really what governments are there for is to protect the welfare of their citizens.

Esther Whieldon: Was there anything we didn't talk about or anything you wanted to mention that I didn't ask about?

Kevin Rabinovitch: Well, as you could tell, I could go for hours but...

Esther Whieldon: And I love asking questions. So it's hard to stop, right?

Kevin Rabinovitch: Yes, no, it's terrific. Maybe one thing just to wrap up. So just last fall, we did publish our net zero road map, which is both a very detailed articulation of our plan for how we're going to get to 50% absolute GHG reduction by 2030. And really, the key headline there is that we believe that is affordable and achievable, which is actually not a particularly common narrative, right. So we think getting to 50% is absolutely achievable. The science, the technology, the projects, the strategies, they all exist, what we just need to do is deploy them at scale in our value chains. 

And it's affordable. So we think it's going to be about 1% of sales to get to 50%, which is a really interesting number because if you're a business that's waiting for decarbonization to be free, you're wrong. It's not free. But if you think decarbonization is a business model breaking challenge, you're also wrong, right. It's 1%, which is a challenging but makeable decision for a leadership team. 

And then the other thing that we talked about in the net zero road map is we've always been back to sort of 2010 and how we got involved with setting helping create the science-based targets initiative. We've always used science as the core of our program and what we've driven in.

And that's led us to a number of conclusions which we articulate in what we call the net zero fundamentals in the road map. So things like, of course, you have to include all of your emissions. Even if some protocol or standard says it's okay to exclude something, the climate doesn't know that the protocol says it doesn't matter, right.

The climate just knows about molecules up and molecules down. And so we have a number of principles like that we lay out in there that are -- something that we're really hoping catalyze a broader discussion about how to really move away from celebrating promises and driving accountability on performance.

Because again, the climate doesn't know what year your net zero target is. It just knows whether you put more or less carbon in the atmosphere this year than last year. We're hoping to really drive the focus back to that or not back to that, but to that, maybe for the first time because that's what will really make the difference in the long run.

Esther Whieldon: Now a couple of notes on some terms we heard today. When talking about how Mars is reducing its nature-related impacts, Kevin said the company is looking to stop conversion and deforestation. That term, conversion, refers to when land has changed or converted from its natural state such as fields and forests to be used for agricultural production or other purposes, and it is a key driver of biodiversity loss.

Kevin also talked about the planetary boundaries model. This model was created by a group of scientists and it refers to the 9 processes that regulate the stability and resilience of the Earth system as well as how they interact with each other.

Lindsey Hall: What Kevin said about how companies can accelerate the low carbon transition without breaking their business model, this is a topic I hear a lot of companies contending with as they develop their sustainability strategies.

Esther Whieldon: And it also stood out to me what he said about how Mars is reconfiguring its supply chains and its approach to engage with suppliers. Supply chain engagement is one of several key themes that came up at GreenBiz and we'll be exploring in more detail next week on the podcast. So please stay tuned.

Lindsey Hall: Thanks so much for listening to this episode of ESG Insider. If you like what you heard today, please subscribe, share and leave us a review wherever you get your podcast.

Esther Whieldon: And a special thanks to our agency partner The 199. See you next time.

Copyright ©2024 by S&P Global  

This piece was published by S&P Global Sustainable1, a part of S&P Global.     


By accessing this Podcast, I acknowledge that S&P GLOBAL makes no warranty, guarantee, or representation as to the accuracy or sufficiency of the information featured in this Podcast. The information, opinions, and recommendations presented in this Podcast are for general information only and any reliance on the information provided in this Podcast is done at your own risk. This Podcast should not be considered professional advice. Unless specifically stated otherwise, S&P GLOBAL does not endorse, approve, recommend, or certify any information, product, process, service, or organization presented or mentioned in this Podcast, and information from this Podcast should not be referenced in any way to imply such approval or endorsement. The third party materials or content of any third party site referenced in this Podcast do not necessarily reflect the opinions, standards or policies of S&P GLOBAL. S&P GLOBAL assumes no responsibility or liability for the accuracy or completeness of the content contained in third party materials or on third party sites referenced in this Podcast or the compliance with applicable laws of such materials and/or links referenced herein. Moreover, S&P GLOBAL makes no warranty that this Podcast, or the server that makes it available, is free of viruses, worms, or other elements or codes that manifest contaminating or destructive properties.