Regardless of the specific motivation of grocers'increasing commitment to environmental issues, one thing is certain: We all benefit when grocers reduce waste.
The supermarket industry has made remarkable environmental progress over the past few years. Customer awareness of environmental issues has increased, as has customer attention to corporate environmental performance. People want to do business with companies that share their environmental values.
In response, grocers have taken action on a broad range of environmental problems, including energy efficiency, plastic waste, sustainable sourcing, saving water and, last but not least, the widespread and important problem of refrigerant emissions that harm our ozone layer and contribute to climate change.
The environmental challenges are many, but so are the opportunities. The best companies in the supermarket industry realized a long time ago that solving environmental challenges can, and does, bring financial rewards. All waste costs money. In an industry with such small profit margins, where every penny counts, eliminating waste, and the costs associated with it, directly helps the bottom line.
An impressive environmental record can help a company find, recruit and keep good employees, because good people want to work for companies that do good things.
One of the best demonstrations of this concept is the example of an average supermarket in the United States and the cost of its refrigerant leaks. An average U.S. store carries about 4,000 pounds of refrigerant in its commercial refrigeration and air conditioning systems, and these systems leak about 25 percent of that 4,000-pound refrigerant charge every single year. Refrigerants cost about $8 per pound, so the average store spends about $8,000 per year to replace leaked refrigerant. If supermarkets' national average refrigerant emissions rate were reduced by half — from 25 percent down to about 12 percent — the supermarket industry could save over $100 million every yearjust in replacement refrigerant costs.
Eliminating waste wherever possible pays off in other ways, too. Other financial benefits of environmental improvements are perhaps not as immediately measurable as cost cutting, but that doesn't mean they're less important. An impressive environmental record can help a company find, recruit and keep good employees, because good people want to work for companies that do good things. Everyone wants to be proud of where they work. And after all, supermarket employees want to breathe fresh air and drink clean water just like everyone else. Whether grocers care about the environment for financial reasons, health reasons or moral reasons, the end result is the same. We all benefit when grocers reduce waste.
Of course, caring about the environment isn't a new phenomenon for many companies. These companies know that environmental stewardship isn't something you do once before moving on to the next big thing. Environmental stewardship is part of good management. Period. Just like every other part of good management, a company has to constantly strive to get better at it.
It's no accident that many of Progressive Grocer's Green Grocer Award winners, this year and last year, are also partners in the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) GreenChill Partnership, which works with grocers to reduce their refrigerant emissions, thus helping to repair and protect the earth's ozone layer and reduce the industry's global warming impact. GreenChill is one of the best and easiest ways for supermarkets to help each other continuously improve environmental management: Partners work together to transition to environmentally friendlier refrigerants, reduce refrigerant charge sizes and leaks, and adopt green refrigeration technologies, strategies and practices.
Environmental improvements in this area are enormously important. Refrigerant emissions can harm the earth's ozone layer, which protects us from harmful ultraviolet rays that cause skin cancer and cataracts, and they're highly potent greenhouse gases. The most popular refrigerants used in new stores are almost 4,000 times stronger global warmers than carbon dioxide. The climate impact of an average store's annual refrigerant emissions is higher than the climate impact of the whole store's yearly electricity use. It's important for human health and the environment that every supermarket company plays a role in improving this industry's impact.
There's a lot of overlap between GreenChill partner companies and PG's Green Grocer Award winners. Harris Teeter and Publix were founding members of GreenChill. Hy-Vee, Supervalu and Price Chopper joined GreenChill shortly after its launch. Harris Teeter, Fresh & Easy, and Publix have all achieved GreenChill's tough Store Certification Program standards and received the program's Silver, Gold or Platinum Store Certification Awards. Harris Teeter has three GreenChill Gold-level stores. Fresh & Easy currently has the most GreenChill-certified Stores in the nation. Publix has GreenChill-certified stores throughout the Southeast. The only companies in the nation ever to achieve GreenChill's Platinum-level Store Certification Award, the nation's highest standard for refrigerant management, are also Green Grocer Award winners: Supervalu, Price Chopper and PCC Natural Markets. These three stores haven't leaked a single pound of refrigerant since they opened.
Past Green Grocer Award winners include Giant Eagle, the winner of GreenChill's Best Emissions Rate award every year since the program launched. Food Lion's Columbia, S.C., store, a 2010 Green Grocer Award winner, was also the first store to achieve a GreenChill Store Certification Award for a carbon dioxide cascade refrigeration system, continuing the grocer's role as a GreenChill pioneer.
All of these companies work with EPA to develop and share best practices and solve common refrigeration problems, increasing their environmental progress exponentially by cooperating with each other. Newer partners recently discovered what older partners already know. Joining often pays off in the first couple of months, just in information gathered from other partners.
Partners are trying out new strategies and technologies all the time, and they share their experiences with each other. Green-Chill has monthly roundtable discussions for supermarket partners to focus on solving problems that partners currently face. Every partner learns something that would cost money to find out on their own.
“The environmental challenges facing retailers aren't going to get any easier in the upcoming years. Some companies will be challenged by regulatory changes that set more stringent minimum standards for refrigerant management. The R-22 phaseout continues, and EPA recently proposed changes to the Section 608 Leak Repair Regulations. Companies that started to pay attention to the need for environmental improvements a while ago will be better positioned to face upcoming challenges than those that are just starting to think about environmental strategies now. But it's never too late to start.
There's always a range of options to achieve improvements. GreenChill doesn't prescribe a single solution to the problem of refrigerant emissions, because there isn't any one answer that works for every company. Partners discuss and share best practices on refrigerant retrofits, advanced technologies, better system components, leak detection methodologies, and new strategies like better emissions tracking and contractor incentives. The broad range of these technologies, strategies and practices offers a solution to each individual company's particular needs.
The key to next-generation improvements is to challenge industry assumptions about what can be done. During GreenChill's first year, in 2008, industry experts told EPA that it was impossible for a company to achieve a corporatewide leak rate that was lower than 10 percent. High refrigerant leak rates were seen as a fact of life in the supermarket industry. When GreenChill partners reported their emissions data to EPA, it was clear that it was possible to achieve leak rates much lower than predicted.
GreenChill now has quite a few companies that have lowered their emissions rates to below 10 percent. In 2009, GreenChill's second year, industry experts anticipated that it would not be possible for companies that were below 10 percent to achieve further improvements. Yet GreenChill now has several partners with corporatewide leak rates that are around 6 percent to 7 percent. Some of these companies with better-than-average emissions rates are small; some have more than 1,000 stores. Both small and large companies have their challenges. These partners weren't granted perfect systems, perfect employees and failproof components by a fairy godmother. They got where they are today with a lot of hard work, store by store. If these partner companies can achieve these high standards, so can every company out there.
When GreenChill partners are asked how they achieved significant progress, they all say that it started with a change in attitude. Establishing a no-tolerance policy at your company for refrigerant leaks goes a long way toward quick, measurable improvement. Setting measurable reduction goals goes a long way toward achieving them. Sharing information with other companies goes a long way toward receiving helpful information in return. Next-generation improvements will result from the same motivation as last-generation improvements: the drive to be the best, both environmentally and financially.