As more consumers begin to take an interest in how their food is grown and made, retail businesses across the country as well are taking an interest in how to best meet their customers’ needs. In many cases, it’s a need to offer more sustainable programs and choices. How this manifests in different supermarket chains depends on how green they already are and what they can do to improve – and, no matter where a store starts, there’s always room for improvement.
The Mainstream Goes Green
Few things in the food industry have made more headlines in the recent past than the following two words: pink slime. Its fifteen minutes in the spotlight weren’t exactly kind, as the ammoniated ground beef trimmings came to stand in as an emblem of consumer frustration over a lack of knowledge as to what’s in their food. When retailers started dropping the product from shelves, the supermarket chains Safeway and its West Coast equivalents Vons and Pavilions stood at the vanguard. Safeway’s decision may have made headlines, but it wasn’t the first foray the chain has made into sustainability.
“Our commitment to corporate social responsibility goes back decades,” says Safeway CEO Steven A. Burd in a statement that caps the chain’s Social Responsibility Report. “It began in the 1960s when we were among the first in our industry to recycle cardboard. It was a small step, but as with any journey, it was the beginning of other steps that would add up to years of progress.”
As a founding member of the Sustainability Consortium, Safeway continues to take sustainability seriously to this day, and its efforts are widespread as far as mainstream supermarkets go. Over the past few years, the chain has begun to roll out more eco-conscious choices like its all-natural Open Nature brand and more locally sourced produce whenever possible.
Of course, while Safeway recently made headlines, it’s also not the only mainstream supermarket to make commitments to sustainable products. Supermarket chains like Albertson’s and Wegman’s have also introduced lines of certified organic products. It all makes it clear that a desire for organic and natural products is catching on and promises to build even further as time progresses.
The Alternatives Go Greener
On the other end of the spectrum are the alternative markets – the farmer’s markets, the specialty stores. It’s often assumed that stores like these are already at the greenest end of the spectrum, but there’s always room for improvement.
Take Whole Foods, for example. The supermarket chain has always been known for its organics and its natural products. But this year, it took yet another step forward with its announcement that as of April 22, 2012 – this year’s Earth Day – it will no longer sell red-rated seafood in its stores. This includes Alaskan Halibut, octopus, skate wing, and certain versions of swordfish and tuna among others.
“We are now able to offer more sustainable seafood choices than ever before, and we are thrilled that our suppliers have worked with us so swiftly to find high-quality green- and yellow-rated seafood so we could not only meet, but beat our deadline. This shift allows us to promote and highlight fisheries that use responsible fishing methods and source from areas where fish are most abundant and fisheries are well-managed,” said David Pilat, Whole Foods Market’s global seafood buyer. “Through collaborations with the Marine Stewardship Council, Blue Ocean Institute and Monterey Bay Aquarium (SeaChoice in Canada), we offer our shoppers information to help them make conscious seafood choices for themselves, their families and our oceans.”
More of a specialty store with great deals, Trader Joe’s offers quite a few organic options and promises that all of its private label products are produced from non-GMO ingredients – but even so, the chain has never been as explicitly linked with green shopping as some other markets. Still, with a ranking as one of U.S. consumers’ favorite supermarkets, it’s a chain with a lot of influence and the ability to make a change for the positive. So it was encouraging to see the chain recently team up with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) to sign their Fair Food Agreement and strive toward better working conditions and pay for tomato pickers. Providing a better quality of living for its supply chain may be a different form of sustainability, but it’s sustainability nonetheless.