Making Sense Of Sustainability

Some savvy produce industry members will save millions of dollars this year from steps they’ve taken to be more sustainable. From eco-friendly refrigeration systems to bio-diesel truck fleets to sustainable buildings, energy-saving initiatives and conservation can deliver a big return on investment. And, safe to say, companies gain a competitive advantage when their green practices are part of a sustainable business model — one that meets present demands profitably without compromising future generations’ ability to satisfy their own needs.

These leaders also know that consumers play an important role in sustaining their businesses and that shoppers’ opinions on how sustainable we are increasingly drive where they choose to spend their food dollars. Sustainability is here to stay as a consumer force and as a business force. Produce Marketing Association (PMA) recently surveyed consumers to learn how they define sustainability and how they grade our industry’s sustainability efforts, from farmers to retailers.

Survey results show consumers have a decent understanding of sustainability, with 32 percent citing environmental, green or ecological themes; another 11 percent describe sustainability using terms such as “long-lasting” or “continuous.” These shoppers hold our industry accountable for a range of sustainable actions, most notably worker safety and compensation, water and energy conservation programs and reductions in transportation-related pollution. And they want sustainability efforts to be verifiable.

A caveat before I venture into reporting what consumers tell us: Yes, Jim, what consumers tell researchers they value and are willing to pay for is not directly comparable to their purchasing behavior! But I also watch for trends in what they say are priorities and see signs of directional movement. Take a look at the explosive growth of reusable grocery bags or increased sale of FairTrade coffee as examples.

Respondents say they are serious about the significance of these issues — so much so that they tell us they’re willing to pay 25¢ per pound more for produce to ensure the industry exercises these sustainable activities. Thirty percent of those surveyed are willing to pay at least an extra quarter per pound to guarantee produce workers receive a fair wage, and 26 percent would also pay an extra quarter to ensure lower transportation pollution.

Twenty-five percent of respondents also said they would pay a quarter or more per pound for energy conservation programs, water conservation programs, and reduced pesticide usage. We shouldn’t expect consumers to practice all of what they say to us, and I don’t expect to see all of this impact at the cash register. But asking consumers to vote with their money does give us good information about where their priorities are.

Surveyed shoppers also understand that sustainability extends beyond environmental efforts alone. At PMA, we define sustainability as incorporating three priorities: planetpeople, and prosperity.

Planet means sustainable practices must focus on crop production, resource conservation, energy efficiency, ecosystem protection, integrated waste management, packaging, and office, warehouse, meeting and event efforts. People are an important component of our sustainable business, which means exercising fair labor practices, providing community benefits, supporting social causes and fostering a work environment that supports health, wellness, and proper nutrition. Prosperity means keeping our businesses thriving through cost savings, revenue generation, customer- and market-enhancing efforts and a positive public image.

PMA is taking a holistic approach to sustainability — engaging with others in discussions about how our industry can best measure sustainability efforts, monitoring other groups’ sustainability activities, education, and information for members, and internal efforts at the PMA office and at our events.

It’s rewarding to see so many creative PMA members supporting sustainability, such as the member who recently built a processing facility that runs on methane gas from a nearby landfill and uses reclaimed and cleaned water from a mining operation, or the many buyers and sellers partnering to source more fruits and vegetables locally or sell produce waste to composters.

If you are reading this article as you attend PMA’s Fresh Summit International Convention & Exposition, I invite you to get involved in the dialogue. Sustainability will be a big part of this year’s convention, from my annual State of the Industry address to our educational workshop programming to registrant and exhibitor bags made from recycled material to the fact that we will be posting workshop presentations online rather than printing them out. See your Fresh Summit directory for more details about our sustainability track — and don’t forget to recycle that directory at the end of the event.

PMA is committed to influencing sustainability-related activities to help our members and our association to manage a business in a way that creates an overall positive impact on society and delivers a vision of where we want to lead our industry. After all, the produce industry’s enduring prosperity has to be part of any sustainability solutions.