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.”
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.
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.”