Putting on the Green
In the News
March 30, 2008
Senior Vice President,
N.G.A. and Executive Director,
N.G.A. is pleased to provide you timely and relevant information from Food, Nutrition & Science – and at no cost as a NGA member! More and more consumers are educating themselves as to the nutritional and health value of the products they purchase, and this newsletter should assist you in keeping abreast of the rapid developments in the nutritional aspects of the food you provide to your customers. We sincerely hope you find this newsletter an important part of your education as you continue to improve the value proposition for your customers.
The line between dressing up sustainability to appeal to consumers and ‘greenwashing’ is a narrow one. How can you sell the benefits?
The President said to Congress, “To waste, to destroy, our natural resources... will result in undermining in the days of our children the very prosperity which we ought by right to hand down to them amplified and developed.”
Not that President.
You know it when you see it. Uh, what is it again? One of the issues still confounding widespread adoption of sustainable retailing is that it tends to be one of those concepts that you can’t describe, but you know it when you see it. And contrary to what you may have heard, the definition isn’t even settled in the agricultural and scientific circles where the term originated. Here’s one of the more widely circulated ones, from the 1987 World Commission on Environment and Development: “Sustainable development is... development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of further generations to meet their own needs.”
Practically speaking. Today’s sustainability faces the same risk of ignorability as that magic wand quality management, as long as the connect between abstract and concrete, between public good and private good, isn’t immediate and obvious. However, if retailer’s can embrace the need for sustainability without losing sight of sustainability’s real inconvenient truth — that there are no simple answers — they may find toeholds to work incrementally toward that grand design. One of the better working definitions of sustainability, for instance, is a system that looks for and then reduces “externalities.” That is to say, it tries to shift costs back onto the system that generated them, rather than hiding them in somebody else’s system. Examples include farming practices that hide true production costs in government subsidies, or sourcing practices that don’t pay a wage that permits workers to sustain their standard of living. Examining your own system for outdated cooling technology, water reclamation opportunities, prodigal packaging disposal, obvious pollution(real or imagined)— even though they may not satisfy the Grand Designers — certainly can offer a manageable starting point for grocers looking to become sustainable on the pay-as-you-go plan.
Hartman, which surveyed 1,600 representative consumers in January 2007, as well as conducted extensive qualitative research and interviewing, believes the present sustainability market breaks along three lines:
· A core group, which believes they can affect social change through their purchase decisions, and therefore researches where products come from, how they’re produced, and what impact they make on workers, local economies, the environment and animals. Like Ray and Anderson, Hartman tallies them at only about 18 percent of consumers.
· A soft middle, at about two-thirds of the market, which has a vague notion that sustainable products must somehow be better for their health and that traditional production practices may somehow be putting them at risk.
Talk the talk and...well, you know the rest. So although he’s characteristically dismissive of the market’s ability to affect public good, smug counterculturalist turned trend watcher Gerald Celente is right for the wrong reasons when he accuses sustainability of being “a trend driven more by economic survival—to make ends meet, to boost profits, and to assuage guilt—than by intellectual pursuit.”
• Control over their surroundings
• Environmental responsibility.
Bearing in mind, of course, that for now the going may be slow. The mass market may be making small changes in their own sustainability contribution, but they appear to be for the most part only changes that cost them little money, time or convenience — turning off the water while brushing their teeth is her example. Meanwhile, it’s prudent to remember that Europe, the bleeding edge in social design by American standards, currently supports a sustainable market share of only about 10 percent, only about 5 percent of Sweden’s farms — the globe’s pioneer — are organic, and if every square mile of land in the continental United States were one giant farm, the organic field would take up an area roughly equal to half of Rhode Island.
Such authenticity, that is, eating “real” food from “real” places with “real” stories, is an attempt by culturally adrift consumers to rediscover social networks sharing the same values. That explains, he says, community supported agriculture, for instance. In that way, although organic consumption begins as an attempt (for the most part, an unsupported one) to “eat healthier,” it ultimately turns into a way to appease the separation anxiety created when farmers moved away from consumers and vice-versa.
As green baker Ron Shaich observed of the meteoric growth of his Panera Bread, now the 17th largest U.S. food-service company, selling $1.9 billion worth of sustainable artisenal bread per year: “...Customers weren’t looking for commodity food. They wanted to feel special in a world in which they were not.” How you accomplish that remains the difficult part, but what better definition of the essence of sustainability could you ask for than that?