Taking Stock of Sustainability

Press enter to search
Close search
Open Menu
Taking Stock of Sustainability

Taking Stock of Sustainability

By Lynn Petrak - 07/13/2020

When talking sustainability, one of the most obvious and traditional dimensions is the use of environmentally friendly practices. In the farm-to-fork, field-to-table chain, those practices span the responsible use of land, water, air and energy, and the effort to curtail waste in its many forms. It’s about the health of the planet and, by innate association, the people who call it home.

For those who produce and sell food, the facets of eco-responsibility are often driven by their own desire to protect the planet and those who share it. It’s often been said that food providers have the biggest stake in stewardship and a healthy environment, given that their livelihoods and future depend on it.

Key Takeaways

  • Studies show that consumers are concerned about sustainability issues such as environmental health and food waste — even in the midst of a pandemic.
  • Grocers are taking a multifaceted approach to sustainability, addressing its various dimensions by procuring and promoting sustainable products for shoppers, and changing their way of doing business.
  • U.S. companies can gain inspiration from abroad in making e-commerce and other areas of business more eco-friendly.

Efforts are helped along by a consumer base that’s increasingly interested in — and often demanding — earth-friendly actions as a way to protect and conserve resources and blunt the effects of climate change. An overwhelming majority — 88% — of consumers surveyed in a poll for Futerra by OnePulse said that they would like brands to help them be more environmentally friendly and ethical in their daily lives.

In a study conducted by Nielsen, 81% of global respondents said that it’s very or extremely important that companies implement programs to help the environment. Lining up with those numbers, Innova Market Insights found that 85% of consumers in the United States and the United Kingdom expect companies to invest in sustainability in the next year or so.

But will shoppers invest in sustainable products? A study from IBM for the National Retail Federation, released earlier this year, showed that more than 70% of consumers would pay a premium of 35% for brands that are seen as environmentally responsible. That research also confirmed that every age group cites sustainability and environmental and personal wellness as important attributes when choosing brands and products.

The proof is in the organic, Fair Trade or vegan pudding when it comes to some purchase behaviors. Research from New York University, using data from IRI, found that half of CPG growth from 2013 to 2018 came from products marketed as sustainable. Based on its own insights, Nielsen projected that shoppers will spend up to $150 billion on sustainable products by 2021.

Even as the novel coronavirus has overtaken headlines and become the focus of much of the food and retail industry, consumers remain concerned about sustainability, especially food waste. According to the U.S. Grocery Trends COVID-19 Tracker, released by FMI – the Food Industry Association, 37% of grocery shoppers say that they’re more successful in avoiding food waste now than before the pandemic. FMI, along with the Consumer Brands Association and National Restaurant Association, continues to work with the Food Waste Reduction Alliance to divert food waste from landfills and cut down on the amount of food waste generated.

The pandemic has revealed some vulnerabilities in the current food chain and opened the door to changes in sustainable protocols and practices.

The United Nations Secretary-General, António Guterres, has scheduled a Food Systems Summit in 2021 to raise awareness and launch actions to transform systems to help the planet and alleviate hunger and diet-related diseases.

A World of Meanings

Despite the seeming agreement on the need to protect the environment and its resources, sustainability is an all-encompassing term, and its dimensions are open to interpretation.

What, exactly, is “responsible”? If something is sustainably sourced, what does that entail, and how does that definition vary by industry and category? How do standards for organic, Fair Trade, natural and non-GMO overlap, and how do products labeled as such really impact the environment?

Officially, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations defines a sustainable food system as one that provides food security and nutrition for all in a way that doesn’t compromise economic, social and environmental bases. From an environmental perspective, the FAO notes that a sustainable food system has a positive or natural impact on the environment.

Eco-improvements in the egg industry include better use of natural resources,
Eco-improvements in the egg industry include better use of natural resources, disease control and a new hen house design (seen above). Source: The American Egg Board

While sustainability is an umbrella term that covers an increasing number of concerns and initiatives, the traditional meaning of protecting and preserving resources has spurred actions across the industries that connect consumables to consumers, from origin to disposal.

Sustainability from the Start

Back in the beginning part of the chain that links people to the foods and beverages they consume, sustainability encompasses the care of land, water, crops and animals. While agriculture comprises about 10% of U.S. emissions, comparatively less than transportation and industry, that sector has received a lot of attention for its methods.

In recent years, those in the livestock, seafood, dairy, produce, egg and grain industries, among others, have focused on eco-friendlier practices. The organization Farmers for a Sustainable Future reports that farmers and ranchers have added 132% more renewable-energy resources in the past five years, spanning solar panels, geothermal solutions, windmills, hydro systems and methane digesters.

Farmers and ranchers have increasingly adhered to better husbandry methods that are lighter on land, water and energy. The beef industry, for example, has invested in a life cycle assessment (LCA) to set and measure benchmarks on the environmental, economic and social contributions of the cattle industry. The Beef Checkoff-funded LCA found that various methods, from irrigation to nutrition to animal care, have lowered the negative environmental impact of raising beef, and enhanced farm and ranch sustainability overall. 

renewable-energy resources in the past five years, spanning solar panels, geothermal solutions, windmills, hydro systems and methane digesters.

The egg industry, meanwhile, conducted a life cycle analysis showing that the industry has cut its environmental impact even while increasing hen supply to meet the population’s food need. Compared with 1960, today’s egg production results in 71% lower greenhouse-gas emissions. The analysis’ researchers attributed the eco-improvements of the egg industry to a variety of factors, including better use of natural resources, disease control and a new hen house design.

At a time when the dairy industry is facing stiff competition from plant-based milks and dealing with concerns about the environmental impact of dairy production methods, more dairy farmers are using anaerobic digesters to break down food waste and dairy cow manure to power their operations. Small changes are making a difference, too, like the use of recycled bedding for cows in dairy barns.

The seafood industry, in particular, has put significant muscle behind sustainable practices. Many organizations and industry groups are part of those initiatives, including the Walton Family Foundation and the James Beard Foundation, the latter of which launched a Three Steps Sustainable Campaign that encourages consumers to look for sustainable seafood from retailers and restaurants.

“All over the world, we are working with fishermen to help them adopt sustainable practices so that we can protect species vulnerable to overfishing and preserve the habitats the ocean species need to thrive. Consumers demanding sustainable seafood, whether in a restaurant or in a grocery store, is an essential component to accelerating change in the marketplace,” says Teresa Ish, program officer for the Oceans Initiative of the Walton Family Foundation. The foundation, established by the Walton family that founded Bentonville, Ark.-based Walmart, has invested in fisheries that support the sustainability of a variety of fish sourced in the United States.

Elsewhere in agriculture, farmers across the fruit, vegetable, nut and grain industries are implementing practices that lessen their impact on the earth’s resources. Whether improving soil health, monitoring air quality, changing irrigation methods to conserve or maximize water use, or examining and changing their use of pesticides, farmers are taking steps to improve their carbon footprint.

Planet-Friendlier Production

Moving through the supply chain, a range of food processors, producers and manufacturers are working with their suppliers to develop products made in more sustainable ways and/or with more sustainable ingredients.

In late June, Smithfield Foods Inc. revealed that it was teaming up with San Francisco-based farm management software provider Granular Insights to enhance its grain supply-chain efficiency and increase its farm sustainability. The Virginia-based pork producer and food-processing company uses 13 billion pounds of feed a year for its animals.

“Over the last several years, we’ve focused on working alongside grain farmers in our supply chain to provide information and advice about strategies to improve fertilizer usage and crop production,” says Stewart Leeth, Smithfield’s VP of regulatory affairs and chief sustainability officer. “With Granular Insights, we’ll be able to partner those recommendations with a technology-driven solution to help drive farm profitability with fewer environmental impacts.” ­­

Some manufacturer goals are broad in scope and reach, like Purchase, N.Y.-based PepsiCo’s sustainability plan that covers next-generation agriculture, positive water impact, packaging, sourcing, climate change mitigation and social impact. Paris-based Danone, for its part, has a multipronged approach to become carbon neutral by 2040.

Taking Stock of Sustainability
Hormel Foods is employing solar energy to power a California plant.

In following and sharing what it calls its “food journey,” Austin, Minn.-based Hormel Foods reached its first set of environmental goals in 2011 and is working toward completing its 2020 goals for lowering waste, water use, greenhouse-gas emissions, nonrenewable energy use and packaging.

Some of the biggest players are teaming up on sustainability as an interlinked priority. The Sustainable Food Policy Alliance was formed by Danone North America, Mars Inc., Nestlé USA and Unilever USA to “drive progress in public policies,” often focusing on carbon emissions and nutritional labeling. In June, the group commended recent congressional legislation aimed at transitioning to low-carbon alternatives while also helping ensure opportunities to create value for farmers, ranchers and others in food production.

More recently, companies of many sizes and types have zeroed in on packaging as a priority, from discontinuing the use of single-serve plastic to embracing compostable or easily recycled materials. PepsiCo is working toward a goal of 100% recyclable, compostable or biodegradable repackaging by 2025. Arlington, Va.-based Nestlé USA has likewise pledged to make 100% of its packaging recyclable or reusable by 2025.

At the same time, food and beverage manufacturers are taking steps to make their own operations more sustainable. Deerfield, Ill.-based Mondelez International, for instance, reported that it has lowered carbon emissions by 15% across its manufacturing facilities and slashed waste in its operations by 21%.

The Grocery Link in a More Sustainable Chain

A step closer to consumers, grocers are taking a multifaceted approach to sustainability.

Recognizing the immensity of sustainability as a concept and in action, grocery chains and stores are addressing its various dimensions by procuring and promoting sustainable products for their shoppers and changing their own way of doing business.

Walmart, which got into sustainability early and often with the launch of a program in 2005 and the rollout of its Sustainability Index in 2009, continues its march toward earth-friendlier retailing. Two years ago, the mega-retailer met its goal of buying 70% of its goods in 125 categories from suppliers that participate in the index.

Starting this month, Walmart is sourcing its Great Value canned tuna as either Marine Stewardship Council-certified or from a time-bound fishery improvement project working toward certification. Notes Sean Reber, head of Walmart’s global sourcing team on direct import programs for packaged food: “With a clear signal from leadership, our team has invested in research to help us better understand the value chain of tuna and ask the question, ‘What’s the right way to do this?’”

Other retailers are also diving into sustainably sourced seafood. Salisbury, N.C.-based Food Lion, an Ahold Delhaize USA banner, recently joined the Ocean Disclosure Product (ODP) and revealed that its seafood products are completely traceable to wild fisheries or farms and come from sustainable sources.

“Being a good neighbor to us means offering the products and services our customers expect from Food Lion, but also sourcing and packaging those products and operating our stores in a sustainable way,” says Food Lion President Meg Ham. “It’s important to us that our customers know where their seafood comes from, so it only makes sense to join the ODP and make public the origin of wild-caught seafood sold in our stores.”

Publix Super Markets is conveying its sustainably and responsibly sourced seafood choices to shoppers with new store-brand packaging for seafood. According to company information, Lakeland, Fla.-based Publix will also begin reverse audits on sustainability information to verify the accuracy of sourcing claims.

Nestlé is one of the major CPG companies that have committed to improving packaging performance.
Nestlé is one of the major CPG companies that have committed to improving packaging performance.

In addition to carrying and verifying products that meet consumers’ interest in sustainable products, progressive grocers are making internal changes for the betterment of the planet. The Kroger Co., based in Cincinnati, has rolled out several ongoing initiatives as part of its action plan; these span the reduction of water use to the implementation of food-waste recycling programs in more than 2,000 stores.

Earlier this year, Wegmans Food Markets, based in Rochester, N.Y., said that it was working with a packaging and supply-chain partner to ship case-ready meat products in reusable plastic containers, eliminating more than 1 million pounds of corrugated packaging from the supply stream. Wegmans also has removed single-use plastic grocery bags from its New York state stores, in line with that state’s ban. To be sure, many retailers are moving that way, including Kroger and Pittsburgh-based Giant Eagle.

Beyond packaging, grocers are taking a new look at their stores’ consumption of resources, such as the use of water in the produce section, or refrigeration and cooling systems that rely on water and use up energy. Retailers can install more efficient appliances, switch to less environmentally impactful practices and educate their staffs on ways to conserve resources when possible.

Nestlé is one of the major CPG companies that have committed to improving packaging performance.

There are many examples of such improvements. The De Pere, Wis.-based Festival Foods chain has updated its stores with features like LED lights that reduce electricity consumption and new refrigerants. Earlier this summer, Landover, Md.-based Giant Food, another Ahold Delhaize USA banner, started installing electric vehicle-charging stations at select East Coast locations.

Store design, especially for greenfield buildings, is moving in a more environmentally responsible direction, too. San Antonio-based H-E-B built a store in Austin, Texas, that is LEED Gold-certified and has received an Austin Energy Green Building 4-Star sustainability certification.

Finally, with the notable upswing in home delivery this year due to COVID-19, there are some ways that e-commerce is becoming more environmentally friendly here and abroad. For instance, to lower package waste for deliveries, South Korean e-commerce company Coupang is moving to a zero disposable-packaging system for fresh orders. Products are shipped or dropped off in recyclable cooling bags that are later picked up, cleaned and reused, and shelf-stable products are delivered boxless.

Looking to the future, there may be clues to future actions in the United States based on what’s happening elsewhere. As one example, an S-market grocery store in Finland hosts a “happy hour” aimed at clearing shelves with lower prices to reduce food waste. A Berlin store called Original Unverpackt is a zero-waste business that allows shoppers to buy exactly how much they need. Italian organic supermarket company NaturaSi has added boxed-water dispensers to move consumers away from plastic bottles and also offers an app to let customers know when products are nearing their expiration date. Time will tell how many of these ideas will catch on in this country.