The Food Journal and Food, Nutrition & Science

An alliance between The Lempert Report and The Center for Food Integrity

Sustainability Series: Publix Update

Sustainability Series: Publix Update


June 11, 2015

Publix is the largest employee-owned supermarket chain in the United States, boasting retail sales of $30.6 billion in 2014 and a current employee count of more than 168,500. With 1,102 supermarkets throughout Alabama, Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee, Publix prides itself on being a premier quality food retailer that passionately focuses on customer value. We talked to Publix’s sustainability team in 2009 about the smart choices they were making to enrich the quality of life of their associates, their customers and the planet. Recently, we caught up with Michael W. Hewett, Director of Environmental and Sustainability Programs at Publix, to talk about the progress they have made in the area of sustainability – and what lies ahead.

When we talked to you back in 2009, we learned that Publix has had a “Green Routine” since 2001, long before anyone was really talking about sustainability. How has your definition of sustainability changed over the years?  

Our definition hasn’t changed, but how we talk about sustainability, internally and externally, has grown to include efforts that benefit our associates and the communities we serve. We share our information on our sustainability website and in our annual Social & Environmental Stewardship Summary,  

What are the new ways in which you are incorporating sustainable practices into your business?  

We are very fortunate that the tenants of sustainability were sewn into the fabric of our culture many decades ago by our founder, George Jenkins. We have not always called it “sustainability,” but serving our communities, conserving natural resources, and valuing our associates is at the very core of our mission statement. Since we last spoke we have added Sustainability as a core objective on our Corporate Strategy Map, which means virtually every department within Publix is now aligned on this strategic objective and measuring their successes in this regard.

In 2009, your short-term goals were focused on resource conservation, and your long-term goals included wanting to help your associates and customers adopt more sustainable behaviors at work and at home. How have these goals changed in the last six years?  

We are still focused on improving our own performance while encouraging our associates and customers to continue greening their own routine at work and at home; not just in resource conservation but also healthy living. We’re helping our customers by using “Better Choice” tags, which tell the customers what products are a better nutritional choice. Our brown shelf tags help our customers easily identify products that are organic and/or products made without artificial colors, flavors, or preservatives. Our pharmacists are helping too by offering classes like “An Apple a Day” where our pharmacists provide customers with information on healthy living, better nutrition, and exercising to keep blood pressure and other health-related numbers in check. Our pharmacists also provide classes to customers with diabetes to help them understand food labels, carbohydrate counting, portions control and monitoring blood sugar.

Where do you think you've had the biggest impact thus far?  

While we continue our focus on resource conservation, waste reduction and recycling, one recent achievement we are particularly proud of is reaching a milestone of four billion paper and plastic bags saved. As we have worked hard to promote this initiative our customers have embraced the use of reusable bags, which is allowing us to save more than 50 million bags per month compared to a baseline we set in mid-2007. We are also proud that over the past five years we have been able to donate more than 115 million pounds of food to feed the hungry through our Perishable Recovery Program in partnership with Feeding America. Working with our food bank partners we are able to rescue unsaleables, which are still wholesome but have reached a pass-sell-by-date and get it quickly to feed those in need. This program has kept millions of pounds of food out of the landfills and has made a positive impact on the communities in which we live and work. 

Where do you think you will have the biggest impact in the future? 

As we work hard to reduce, shrink and rescue as much perishable food as we can for donation, we are left with food waste that, while unsuitable for human consumption, still has intrinsic value and should not be wasted. Last year we were able to recycle 20,500 tons of food waste from 529 stores and over 27,000 tons of food waste from our various manufacturing operations. In the future we hope to find new and innovative ways to reduce and recycle food waste.

How do retailers factor into your efforts? 

We work with other retailers in our industry through trade associations like Food Marketing Institute (FMI). This is an opportunity for competing companies to work together in a precompetitive environment on important issues facing our industry. FMI’s Food Waste Reduction Alliance is a cross-sector industry group made up of retailers food manufacturers and restaurants – all focused on the importance of reducing the amount of edible food being discarded and diverted from landfills to feed the hungry. 

Are sustainability business practices still relevant to the food industry and how are customers influencing the sustainability landscape?  

Because our industry margins are thin and our operations are resource intensive, sustainable business practices will continue to be imperative. Our customers vote with their dollars every day and there continues to be a growing demand for transparency. We also know that corporate sustainability and responsibility is important to millennials who are entering the job market so we must continue to do a good job of communicating our sustainability values.