All Aboard The Sustainability Train

Search For Sustainability ROI Elusive

If you go to the United Kingdom, where sustainability has been a hot issue far longer than it has been in the United States, and you ask produce suppliers what sustainability means, they’ll most likely laugh at you. They will explain that each big supermarket chain has its own program and that the key issue is simply conformance with whatever that customer wants.

In this sense, sustainability is just another burden, another requirement dictated by the buying community.

It is a shame that sustainability should come to be so uninspiring, but probably inevitable, as the need for customers is so overwhelmingly important that in order to win business, most vendors will gladly put aside such academic debates as to the correct definition of a term.

Besides, sustainability is by definition a good thing. Would anyone say, “No, I wish to do unsustainable things,” and make any sense? So, very often the things that seem to be “no-brainers” in practicing sustainability are resisted for very good reasons.

It is satisfying to read about PMA’s new servers and the energy they save. Yet another operation, perhaps without cash or credit to buy new servers, may stick with the old energy hogs because, until something changes, that is its way to stay in business or, put another way, to sustain its business. So passing judgments about others is a tricky wicket when it comes to sustainability, because the exact same action, taken by two different players, can have quite different results.

Defining sustainability is a double challenge. First, because sustainability traditionally involves three spheres — the social, the economic and the environmental — a definition is elusive because there is no obvious way to trade off between these responsibilities. If one company elects to invest money in, say, solar power, but doing so provides a lower return on capital than some other investment and thus, will lead to slower growth with fewer jobs produced, is that decision more or less sustainable than that of a company that made the opposite choice? What if one grower goes fallow every few years to save water, but that means lower production over a multi-year cycle so that it results in higher food costs for consumers? Is that more or less sustainable?

Just balancing — or choosing — between the three pillars of sustainability would make definitions difficult. Then, add to it that each organization has its own imperatives that change the balance between these items, and one sees the virtual impossibility — and the great danger — of “top-down” sustainability being dictated by buyers.

I was with Bryan at the PMA Board Meeting and had the opportunity to hear the truly inspiring stories that he recounts in his column. Yet we would also submit that the stories show how any broad-based standard is bound to fail as each story grew out of a particular situation. To give two examples:

Pablo Borquez of Campo Pablo Borquez did, as Bryan indicated, focus on social factors. It was such an uplifting story of helping to raise up his employees and serve his community that one wanted to rush and give him a medal.

We realize that not every Mexican grower would think in such an ennobling fashion, so we wish to take nothing away from Pablo. Yet, surely, those decisions to emphasize the social sphere in that way grow out of the fact that he is a Mexican-based grower and the public support system is thin in Mexico.

In the United States, an equally kindhearted grower might take different actions because in the United States, people are eligible for Medicaid, food stamps, subsidized housing, etc. If a community doesn’t have clean water, a U.S. grower may be more inclined to call up the County Health Department than to do what Pablo did, which is bring clean water to the community on his own dime.

Miles Reiter of Driscoll’s would be the first to acknowledge that he was speaking of the water problem in one particular valley, and what was the right course in that valley may not work elsewhere.

So although there are many metrics that can be used in sustainability, they are most useful on a self-assessment basis to judge how one is proceeding along the journey. If big buyers start to use these metrics as requirements — use less than X amount of water per pound of a particular produce item produced — useful tools will lose their nuance and the orders from buyers will neither take into account the tradeoffs from different spheres of sustainability nor the individualistic situation of each company and location.

The search for an ROI in sustainability is natural, but it implies a kind of alienation of sustainability from the rest of the business enterprise, which doesn’t really make sense. Sustainability should be integrated with the efforts a business makes and its ROI flows through all those efforts as greater attention is paid to the broader, long-term implications of every decision.