The Food Journal and Food, Nutrition & Science

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

Sustainability Series: Ukrop's

Sustainability Series: Ukrop's


November 23, 2008

Since its founding as a small, family-run market in 1937, Ukrop’s Super Markets, Inc. has grown to include 28 retail food stores throughout Central Virginia. Ukrop’s began to bale and recycle its paper and cardboard long before “going green” was a trendy corporate concept – more than 35 years ago. Today, through their community outreach efforts, Ukrop’s customers are now recycling more than 55,000 mesh and paper bags weekly. We talked to President and CEO Bobby Ukrop about the large impact a small company can have on the environment.

How does your business define sustainability?

We don’t really have a company definition, per se. We think about how we can be helpful. We’re a smaller company, so are able to listen to our customers more intimately. We look around for both the big and small things we can do. If we see things that we can recycle or reuse, we do that. If there are bigger tasks we can tackle, we do that too.

We also understand the important connection between customers and their supermarket. When people go to the market, they can learn about a variety of new things, including sustainability. They can pick up good habits from the store and apply those habits to their daily lives. It is through this connection that we can have an impact on our neighbors and inspire them to make changes. We are striving to be the kind of market that helps encourage customers to emulate our practices.

How are you incorporating sustainable practices into your business?

We have three major projects that we are focusing on, and all three are profitable and/or money saving endeavors that also help the environment.

The first one is our sustainable bag initiative. About a decade ago we started offering a four cent credit to customers for reusing paper bags, and we averaged 12,000 credits a week. In 2007, we upped that amount to five cents per bag, and now average 15,000 bags per week. Our new mesh bags are also pushing this program along. Since then more than 40,000 mesh and paper bags are reused each week. Our goal is to eliminate the need for ten truckloads or three million paper bags annually.

A second project we are focusing on is our biodiesel recycling program. Since our trucks use about 275,000 gallons of diesel fuel annually, we are trying to reduce our impact on the earth by working with local partners to convert our used soy oil into biodiesel. We are now collecting soy oil from 17 of our stores for conversion into biodiesel and expect to locally produce 50,000 to 60,000 gallons of biodiesel this year.

Another important project we have is the diverting of three million pounds of waste from landfills. We are doing this by partnering with a local landscaper to compost fruit and vegetable trimmings from our central kitchen. Our landfill costs were exceeding $50 per ton. Now our trimmings are picked up, hauled to the landscaper, and mixed with leaves to compost for four months. The organic compost is then sold by Ukrop’s and by local garden centers.

What is different about the way a small company approaches sustainability?

A key issue for a small company is economics. Sometimes, to get these efforts to work, the process is simply too costly. You have to find a marriage between functionality and sustainability; however, efforts that are not profitable in the short term should not be summarily dismissed if they are for the greater good of the community.

What are your short term and long term goals?

In the short term, we don’t want to be blowing a bunch of smoke. It seems that some firms are rushing to talk about their sustainable programs, so we want to take a step back and make sure that before we talk about progress, we are doing what’s best for both our customers and our business. Long term, we want to be a good citizen in the community, help our customers, and reinforce good sustainability practices.

Where do you think you’ll have the biggest impact?

We do a lot of things that are not readily visible to those outside the corporation. We try to be vigilant and not be wasteful. Ten percent of our pre-tax profit goes back to charity. Visibly, though, we’re probably having the most impact through the reusable bag program. This is something tangible that our customers can relate to.

Why are sustainable business practices important to the food industry?

Those of us who work in the food industry strive to be good stewards of this planet earth, but we’ve gotten caught up in using too much packaging: cardboard and plastic containers, for example. If we can reduce the amount of these items used or reuse them, costs will go down for everyone.

Why are sustainable business practices important to the consumer?

If we act in a sustainable manner, customers will want to join the bandwagon, and that’s good for everyone. It’s natural to be wary of new technologies, but ultimately, customers are the ones that can drive innovation. Once they understand what we are doing, and it makes sense to them, they want to join the cause. Customers are looking to us for leadership.

In upcoming issues, we will feature interviews with food companies that are making strides in their sustainability efforts. If you are interested in telling us more about what your company is doing to get involved please contact Allison Bloom