Grocers Make Sustainable Visions Reality

Bridget Goldschmidt
Managing Editor
Bridget Headshot

These days, it isn’t enough for a company just to do business — it has to conduct itself as a responsible corporate citizen.

A growing number of consumers and prospective employees want to know that a company doesn’t just make money, but that it also helps make the community, region and country in which it operates a better place.

Along with traditional philanthropic causes, sustainability has increasingly become a corporate  responsibility priority for grocers.

For instance, at SpartanNash, local products serve several purposes.

“A key component of our corporate responsibility (CR) is providing a ‘local flavor’ in our stores whenever possible, because we understand that locally grown and produced items travel fewer miles to store shelves, which improves quality and reduces the product’s environmental footprint,” explains Meredith Gremel, VP, corporate affairs and communications at the Grand Rapids, Mich.-based retailer and distributor, and executive director of the SpartanNash Foundation. “At SpartanNash, we are passionate about supporting local farmers and food businesses, and are dedicated to helping them succeed through merchandising opportunities in our stores.”

Adds Gremel: “This also strengthens our relationship with the communities we serve, which is a key focus of our corporate responsibility programs.” All of this is set in motion, she points out, by the fact that “customers have a growing appetite for locally grown items.”

These objectives are in keeping with the grocer’s “corporate responsibility 2017 dashboard [that] includes both environmental sustainability and social responsibility initiatives,” she points out. “On the environmental side, our key initiatives are waste and energy reduction.”

Earth Week at SpartanNash

Another way that SpartanNash champions sustainability is through Earth Week donation drives in partnership with Goodwill Industries, which the grocer has held for the past seven years at 80 of its corporate-owned stores in five states.

“Since 2011, SpartanNash associates and store guests have diverted more than 211,000 pounds of materials from landfills, and Goodwill has converted these donations into approximately 45,275 hours of workforce redevelopment training for people in their local communities,” notes Gremel, adding that in 2017, the grocer rewarded anyone who dropped off a donation at a participating Goodwill organization with a coupon for $10 off a $25-or-more purchase at one of its stores. “The Earth Week coupon successfully engaged customers in our recycling efforts, as more than 2,100 customers redeemed the coupon,” she says.

What’s more, the company is able to leverage the occasion to encourage even greater shopper and employee participation.

“In addition to our Goodwill donation drives, our Earth Week campaign employs a number of creative ways to involve both store guests and SpartanNash associates in our CR efforts,” observes Gremel. “Leading up to Earth Week, we held a reusable-bag design contest and asked our store guests, associates and communities from across the U.S. to submit digital designs that represent local state pride in Nebraska, North Dakota and Michigan. Three winners were chosen, and their winning designs [were] featured on limited-edition reusable grocery shopping bags sold in SpartanNash corporate-owned stores this [past] fall. The reusable bags contain up to 20 percent recycled material, and feature our CR message and information about the winning artist on the sides.”

Further, she notes: “Many of our stores’ bakeries also participated in an Earth-themed bakery contest, displaying their creative — and delicious — homages to the environment. The items were for sale to our store guests as well.”

SpartanNash was pleased by the response to these contests, according to Gremel: “Both of these efforts engaged our associates and our customers in our sustainability efforts — and brought in an element of friendly competition.”

Licensed to Chill — and More

For its part, Pittsburgh-based Giant Eagle endeavors to attain the highest sustainability standards to demonstrate its commitment to aiding the environment.

“We … work diligently to ensure operational sustainability in all retail locations throughout the company’s footprint,” says company spokeswoman Jannah Jablonowski. “For example, recent efforts to continue to reduce our refrigerant emission rate have resulted in a leak rate that is well below the industry average and recognized with multiple GreenChill achievements.”

The grocer’s sustainability accomplishments don’t end there, however. “Giant Eagle was the third grocery chain to enroll all of their stores in the Grocery Stewardship Certification (GSC) program,” after Hannaford Supermarkets and Weis Markets, notes Peter Cooke, GSC program manager at Plymouth, Mass.-based nonprofit organization Manomet. “In an effort to improve team member engagement in the management of store-level sustainable practices, Giant Eagle began working toward chain-wide Grocery Stewardship Certification in 2015. Through their work with the GSC, each Giant Eagle supermarket location has designated a sustainability coach and completed our workbook-based program designed to foster continuous improvement and increase accountability.”

As a result of its participation in this program, in which more than 700 grocery stores nationwide are enrolled, Manomet estimates that Giant Eagle annually saves nearly 6,000 tons of waste from going to landfills; more than 45 million gallons of water from being used; and about 260,000 tons of greenhouse gas from being released.

Beyond what she deems “‘behind-the-scenes’ initiatives” like the above, Jablonowski notes that “we also understand the need to provide a robust assortment of locally and sustainably sourced and organic offerings to our customers. For example, we work with Sustainable Fisheries Partnership and other nongovernmental organizations to ensure our customers can be confident that the seafood they purchase in Giant Eagle or Market District has been sourced from fisheries and organizations that take every measure to lessen their environmental impact.”

In common with SpartanNash, the company features sustainability as a key pillar of its corporate responsibility agenda. “At Giant Eagle, we are committed to making socially and environmentally responsible business decisions that have a positive impact on the communities we serve,” says Jablonowski.

Waste Not, Want Not

In its ongoing mission to promote sustainability, SpartanNash has identified a key issue. “Food waste is a big concern in our country — and being in the grocery industry, we have a real opportunity to reduce food waste, minimize damage and divert products,” notes Gremel. “We have employed a number of innovative programs and partnered with local food banks and pantries in all of the communities we serve. … Our merchandising teams also donate display products from our food shows to local food banks and pantries. This is product that would have otherwise gone to the landfill, but through these partnerships, we are giving food a second life, fighting hunger and reducing our food disposal costs.”

Additionally, in 2016, 10 SpartanNash grocery stores — five in Michigan and five in Nebraska — rolled out a food waste recycling pilot program “with the goal of diverting as much produce, bakery and dairy waste as possible into the food-recycling dumpster instead of the trash dumpster,” recounts Gremel. “Our partner collected the material, partnering with local cattle farms in Kennard, Neb., and Webberville, Mich., where the watermelons, carrots, cupcakes, bananas and other produce were blended down to a smaller ration size and mixed with grains, corn, wheat and other nutrients to create the final cattle-feed product.”

Along with food waste, Gremel predicts, “Sustainable packaging and sustainable food sources will … continue to gain traction” as issues that grocers address through corporate responsibility efforts. “Our category managers study the continuously changing market, trends and consumer preferences, so they have the knowledge and expertise about how to best get the right products onto store shelves,” she adds. “We will continue to work with them to advance our corporate responsibility efforts and messages, so our customers are able to find the products they need and can feel good about their purchases.”

Giant Eagle, meanwhile, has in recent years begun “partnering with fresh food rescue programs, like 412 Food Rescue in Pittsburgh, that enable us to donate products that conventional food banks cannot accommodate, to meet an immediate need in the area and reduce overall food waste,” observes Jablonowski.

Getting the Word Out

SpartanNash has found signage to be particularly effective in making customers aware of its eco-friendly efforts, including the in-store signs, photos and information it uses to highlight local products and farmers across its store footprint.

“In September, we celebrated the grand reopening of our Forest Hills Foods store in Grand Rapids, Mich., showcasing [among other things] our commitment to local flavor … and a focus on environmental sustainability programs,” says Gremel. “Store guests can … learn about Forest Hills Foods’ energy-efficiency improvements and savings and recycling options from signage throughout the store.” These improvements, which include the installation of LED interior and exterior lighting, lights that dim to 50 percent when there’s no activity nearby, glass doors on produce cases, and energy-efficient entry and exit doors, should enable the store to reduce its annual energy consumption by 1.4 billion BTUs — equivalent to the greenhouse gas emissions created annually by 38 homes’ electricity use, or 592 barrels of oil consumed.

“As we continue with store remodels, we will increase our corporate responsibility signage,” asserts Gremel. “By sharing our corporate responsibility messages with store guests and associates as they shop the store, we can demonstrate how our efforts are having an immediate and lasting impact on our local communities and on our environment.” The grocer also published an inaugural corporate responsibility report last year, highlighting its commitments and accomplishments in this area.

Giant Eagle is a proponent of similar methods. “As we have noted increased customer interest in sustainability touch points, we strive to engage customers with strategically integrated signage throughout the store,” says Jablonowski. “In our Market District locations, local purveyors and farmers are highlighted with dedicated displays and callouts above their products, and highlighted in the monthly newsletter and in proactive media outreach. Energy Star and LEED-certified buildings have specific callouts, and locations that are fitted with dairy doors have vinyl cling decals on the doors to educate customers on the energy-saving benefits. Additional information about many of our sustainability initiatives are publicly available on our website, and details are in our annual corporate social responsibility report.”

The important thing is for grocers to publicize their sustainability strides — and dry published statistics may not be the best way to do that.

“When it comes to sustainability, the consumer need to feel a connection can be particularly powerful,” notes Andy Harig, senior director for sustainability, tax and trade at Arlington, Va.-based Food Marketing Institute (FMI), in a blog post published on the organization’s website last April. “Grocers are committed to improving lives outside of their stores by dedicating time and resources to enhancing their communities through sustainability efforts, but many retailers seem sheepish about sharing these efforts, or hide them away in annual sustainability reports that very few consumers access.”

According to Harig, consumers “want to see behind the numbers to what these efforts really mean. Data is always impressive, but how food retailers tell the story of sustainability to consumers matters more than ever. … Successful businesses depend on the ability to tell a story that compels organizations forward and harnesses the authentic connection between a brand and a customer. Strategic storytelling transcends company narratives and has become a powerful skill that can better frame and impart experiences and knowledge to others.”

He believes that “telling this story can be a powerful tool that transcends marketing and educates consumers about the kind of company you are today and aspire to be tomorrow.”

Why Do it?

For retailers that undertake sustainability programs, the benefits can be substantial.

“Most customers prefer to purchase products or shop at retailers where sustainability is a key part of the corporate strategy and brand,” says Manomet’s Cooke, while FMI’s Harig echoes in his blog post, “Consumers … want to feel like the store where they shop and where they get their favorite things shares their broader values.”

Highly prized as it is, shopper good will isn’t the only advantage, though. “Additionally, improving operations and efficiency through sustainable operating practices can reduce costs and dramatically shrink environmental footprint,” observes Cooke. “When approached purposefully, these efforts engage employees and help attract and retain talent, thus increasing productivity and reducing recruitment costs. Food retailers who have integrated sustainability into corporate strategy have also reduced material business risk and improved their company reputation.”

Despite the challenges inherent in living up to their sustainability commitments, grocers are firm believers in the worth — in more ways than one — of such endeavors. Referencing SpartanNash’s investment in fleet efficiencies, which increased the company’s miles per gallon and reduced its fuel consumption — “very important when the fleet travels more than 55 million miles per year” — Gremel notes, “Our environmental initiatives to reduce energy and fuel consumption are not only good for the planet — they also [positively] impact our bottom line.”

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