Taking Stock of Sustainability
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.
- 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 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
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.
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.
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.