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FMI: Sustainability concerns food retailers


LAS VEGAS Want to jump start a sustainability effort? Try a contest. Michael Hewett, manager of environmental services at Publix Supermarkets told the Sustainability in Action seminar, held as part of the Food Marketing Institute's FMI Show, that a sustainability contest the company launched for employees in 2002 rendered an 11% to 19% reduction in energy consumption in winning stores.

Overall, the contest drove down energy consumption by 5% and, with encouragement from the company in the form of posters, stickers and other media that promote the benefits of turning off computers and lights when not needed, the initiative stuck. Over the past six years, Hewett said, it helped generate $7.5 million in energy savings.

The effort was such as success, that Publix recently launched a second sustainably contest. It didn't result in the same kind of dramatic energy consumption reductions, but that's not a big problem, Hewett said, because it energized employees who can look at more ways they can promote sustainability and confirmed that Publix programs have maximized savings that can be had from changing associate behavior.

Laurie Demeritt, president of market research firm the Hartman Group, warned the seminar that retailers must be careful in how they approach consumers on sustainability because much of what the industry considers when the word is mentioned is different than what consumer is thinking about. In fact, according to Hartman Group research, only about 54% of consumers say they have any familiarity with the word and only 5% can name, unaided, companies that are leading sustainability efforts. While concepts such as authenticity and transparency get bandied about in the media, among regulators and with committed environmentalists, most mainstream consumers relate sustainability to issues of health, support of local institutions and simplicity that relates to risk avoidance. While consumers are trying to cut down on bottled water, Demeritt noted, they are doing so less from concern about landfills and more from concern about elements of the packaging plastic that might migrate into the beverage. The good news, she said, is that mainstream consumers are hungry for information on sustainability and retailers that can provide credible data will find a receptive audience among the biggest subset of consumers.

Credibility is an issue and the panelists noted that reaching out to experts and promoting communication with consumers and interested parties outside retail organizations can help companies develop sustainability efforts and communications. One fault that the panelists found with retail sustainability initiatives is that companies who are doing a lot internally aren't telling consumers and sometimes even different departments within their own organizations about their efforts.

 Bob Garrity, senior vp of store planning, construction and conservation at Giant Eagle, discussed FMI's Sustainability Task Force and, in which he and Hewett participate as do Wal-Mart and Target. He said the task force is developing frameworks and programs retailers can apply to help them advance sustainability efforts and communicate them effectively.

FMI has developed a definition of sustainability that is consumer centric and emphasizes the promotion of environmental, social and bottom line well being, Garrity noted. Building on the basis is critical, he said, and from the definition FMI is currently focusing on programs to deal with the issue of plastic bags, which, he said, have a limited life, and carbon footprinting. The two are emerging critical issue areas where retailers can work together and with outside sources, ranging from market research firms such as the Hartman Group to non-governmental organizations, to organize appropriate responses. The method is almost as important as the outcome because, while those issues are urgent, new concerns will keep emerging and retailers have to be ready to face them as they do.

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