Sustainability and BEYOND

Natural products retailers weigh in on the strategies, successes, and struggles, of going green, greener, greenest.

Sustainability world and grass

The health of the planet is now a top global concern, surpassing human health. That’s according to Innova’s Lifestyle & Attitude Survey. “For the first time ever, more consumers surveyed globally for Innova’s Lifestyle & Attitude Survey say health of the planet is their top global concern, rather than health of the population,” said Lu Ann Williams, Insights Director at Innova Market Insights. And that concern is driving their habits.

Findings on consumer perceptions on sustainability issues:

49% of consumers consider sustainability when buying food and drink, according to market research from Kerry that involved 14,000 consumers from 18 countries. And their understanding of the issue, initially based in environmental and social responsibility, is evolving to include sustainable wellbeing and sustainable nutrition. Kerry’s takeaway: Sustainable packaging and environmental preservation are now considered standard for many consumers.
55% of consumers are more likely to purchase a packaged food item if it includes a sustainability claim, according to Cargill’s recent global FATitudes survey. That’s a four-point jump since the research was last performed in 2019.
66% of consumers are more likely to vote for a candidate who has shown support for sustainability initiatives around energy, agriculture, waste, alternatives to plastic, clean air, clean water, and/or the environment, findings from the Plant Based Products Council (PBPC).
49% of U.S. respondents to the Sensormatic Solutions 2022 Sustainability Survey said they believe businesses bear the responsibility to operate sustainably. (Only 34% said the responsibility for sustainability programs falls on individuals.) And, the survey found, consumers think businesses are falling short. Nearly 90% said retailers don’t do enough to showcase their sustainability efforts. More than 90% said retailers continuing their efforts toward sustainable operations is at least somewhat important to them; 35% said it’s essential that retailers continually improve their performance on the sustainability front.

For retailers in the natural and organic space, this has long been a focus and a priority. “The natural industry is growing exponentially and is viewed in many ways as the standard setter for cleaner, more eco-conscious living,” says Molly Miller, Marketing Manager, Fruitful Yield Health Foods, which has been family-owned since 1962, and now operates 15 stores throughout the Chicago area. “We believe there’s a level of ethical obligation to use that influence positively to protect people and the planet through sustainable business practices. Even for us as an independent locally based retailer with many different methods than larger retailers or brands, we support an ‘above and beyond’ mindset in our own small ways because we know that collectively we can influence the standard for what sustainability should look like.”

​​It is about setting an example, stress Francesca Siena, Tacoma Store Director, and Joe Moralez, Marketing Manager, from Marlene’s Market & Deli. Marlene’s has two locations in the South Puget Sound area, and was honored as WholeFoods Magazine’s 2021 Retailer of the Year. “Many of our customers align with us because sustainability has always been at the heart of our mission,” Siena and Moralez share. “In a broader sense, as more and more consumers begin to demand that manufacturers and sellers align with their values, more change is created. At Marlene’s, the ‘natural’ in natural foods has encompassed environmental sustainability since it affects the products we provide and the food we all eat every day of our lives.”

The impact retailers have on the bigger picture is significant. “America’s food system is remarkable, but it is also incredibly problematic in terms of environmental impact,” says Jon Roesser, General Manager, Weavers Way Co-op, which has three main locations in the Philadelphia area and was honored as WholeFoods Magazine’s 2020 Retailer of the Year. “The system is too dependent on fossil fuels, pesticides, and single-use plastic. As a grocer, we need to take steps to make our part of the food system less harmful to the environment.”

Educating Staff, Supporting Consumers

“We are always looking for ways to keep our shoppers informed,” says Miller. “For us, we know our biggest impact is made in person at our stores. We have a small education team that regularly visits our stores to train on products and initiatives we’re working on. This in turn supports the sales floor experience and our customer service overall, which is what our customers praise us for the most. Ensuring our teams are tuned in to our mission is how we maintain a strong connection with our customers. We also have a blog where we’ve shared zero-waste lifestyle tips, recycling guides, and special features with brands or local partners committed to sustainability.”

The co-op perspective: “As a member-owned organization, we have an advantage in that we can communicate with our customers as owners, so we can lay out the challenges of being more sustainable,” says Roesser. “Our principal method of communication is our monthly newspaper, the Shuttle, which allows us to communicate at a more in-depth level. We also do workshops and forums, though these were much better attended before the pandemic.”

At Marlene’s, Siena and Moralez say, “Education is, as always, the key strategy for us as we work on sustainability at our stores. Recycling and composting in all departments and for our customers in our deli seating area are ongoing. Our employees are taught in small groups what to do in each department. Labeling works well in the deli seating area, though in a perfect world we would have a staff member stationed there to help every customer!”

Sustainability Strategies

Look for every opportunity, big and small.

“One big way we promote sustainability internally is by reusing packaging material in our warehouse and e-commerce operations,” Miller says. “One of our store locations houses our e-commerce office and is also attached to our warehouse, which was intentional since both teams share similar materials. Our warehouse receives several pallets of product each week and instead of just recycling, we reuse all usable materials to package customer orders and warehouse shipments. We are also currently in the process of switching our grocery bags to a certified compostable version. As many of us know now, traditional plastic shopping bags are not recyclable. We previously had corn-based bags which were also biodegradable, but the newer bags are a step up in our sustainability efforts. We go through hundreds of bags each day across the chain, so it was important for us to reduce our footprint in this way.”

Partner with changemakers.

“When we meet with new brands, we always ask about their social, environmental, and sustainability efforts,” Miller says. “We are not only concerned with bringing in a natural product, but we also want that brand to care about the impact of their sourcing and manufacturing practices. For the brands that have exceptionally impressive efforts, we highlight those on our blog, or we’ll host a special live stream to help promote their products.”

Expand on successes.

“All of our stores are powered 100% by renewable energy (solar/wind),” says Roesser. “We do not have plastic bags at checkout. Our produce bags are compostable. In 2021, we launched our Container Return Program (CRP), where product is packaged in returnable containers. The customer pays a deposit, which they get back when they return the container. We wash the container in our high-heat, commercial grade dishwashers, which meets health deptartment code. So far, the CRP includes soups, bulk items, and grab-and-go prep foods. We plan to expand over the next few years and eventually get to the point where every item we sell in a single-use plastic container can be purchased using a returnable container instead.”

Grow…at your pace.

“Room for improvement is everywhere to be found,” Siena and Moralez acknowledge. “It is safe to say we are at a new phase of starting over. And that is, in our opinion, where the gift is. For us, the reality of two-plus years of COVID has been damaging to our ability to focus optimally on our environmental sustainability efforts. Our core values have not changed, but the supply chain and our societal surroundings sure have! We continue to focus on non-GMO foods and supplies for our stores. We continue to prioritize local goods and business partners. We continue to minimize food waste through composting efforts and sharing with our community. We continue to recycle wherever possible, within our local systems’ reduced capacity and shifting capabilities. And we will continue to focus on growing our relationships with vendors who share our passion for a sustainable food system.”

There will be challenges, of course. “The last few years have forced us to confront our need for self-care, a practice of sustainability,” Siena and Moralez say. “At every level of our organization, we had to renew our commitment to take care of Self in order to preserve our capacity to support each other in such challenging times. We are first and foremost a team of people supporting each other, our customers, and our communities. We do hope to soon be in a place where we begin to act once again on our loftier goals of deepening our education on sustainability topics, perhaps starting an internal committee to drive the enthusiasm back to recycling and composting and other environmental sustainability topics.”

Advice for retailers on sustainability

The team at Marlene’s has some advice for anyone who is working on improving their practices:

  • Start small, and have a long-term strategy.
  • Keep it simple.
  • Be satisfied with tackling one sustainability goal at a time.
  • Develop a great rapport with vendors and community leaders.
  • Stay informed on the latest practices.
  • Research through the lens of the company’s mission statement, which may help in identifying the best option for each organization.

And sneak it in. “Consider the existing methods for day-to-day procedures and find ways to reduce the environmental impact,” Miller says. “No idea is too small. For example, our store managers receive tons of large plastic zip-close pouches that come with product deliveries. These bags cannot be recycled, and we receive so many that we hate throwing them away. Instead, many of our managers reuse these as envelopes to send interoffice mail!”

Roesser, too, stresses how huge small acts are. “Modifying consumer behavior takes time, so be prepared for a long-term strategy and embrace small, incremental changes as the progress they are. Undoing decades of environmentally damaging practices will take time.”

Most importantly, do whatever you can: “It’s inspiring to see larger brands and retailers come up with innovative methods, but it can also be overwhelming for a smaller business to feel like they can keep up,” Miller says. “The way to stay encouraged is to focus on the quick wins and continue to have that ‘above and beyond’ mindset to stay creative with improvements.”  WF

Shout-out to companies going above & beyond

“There is a lot of room to improve on reusability and reduced packaging in the body and home care spaces,” Siena and Moralez say. “We appreciate what some of the up-and-coming brands are doing. Current standouts include Patch, Last Object, Tru Earth, and HiBar. In the food space, there is so much good work being done to reduce packaging, transit resources, and build a thriving local and responsible national system. A few organizations that come to mind are Lundberg, Nature’s Path, Hummingbird Wholesale, and Redwood Hill Farm.”

Miller shines a spotlight on NOW Foods and its partnership with TerraCycle. “Many other natural brands have joined the TerraCycle movement too, but we first saw NOW Foods take the steps to rally their retail partners together for this neat way to recycle. They provided each of our stores with a branded NOW Foods + TerraCycle collection bin where customers can bring back their empty NOW Foods bottle/bag/tube. Once the bin is full, we send it out to a TerraCycle plant, and for every shipment they give us points that can be redeemed for a donation to a non-profit of our choice! Our teams and customers love being a part of this. Another brand that really stands out to us is iwi, an innovative algae-based omega brand. They’re protecting the ocean’s ecosystem by not needing fish or krill to create their omega supplements. Even cooler, their land-based algae farm does not use fresh water or soil, and only salt water is needed. They also reuse 97%+ of that saltwater within their harvesting system. Their mission is so creative and inspiring.”

And while plenty of brands in this space are making a positive difference, beware of posers. “Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference between brands that are really doing a good job and those that are greenwashing,” Roesser laments. “Many of our local vendors are taking important steps when it comes to using more sustainable packaging, but that also almost always drives up the cost.”

To spotlight more of the good guys, we invited brands throughout the natural products industry to share the strategies they have implemented, and tell us how they are going above and beyond with sustainability initiatives. Read our expanded coverage on sustainability. Hear from True Grace, Sabinsa, Indena, and many, many more!