Sustainability valued but definition elusive

Sustainability valued but definition elusive

Retailers care about sustainability because consumers care, but for many the pursuit of sustainability tends to be more of an afterthought than top priority.

Sustainability is valued highly by growers, retailers and consumers, but there is not always common understanding of what it means, 

“There are common words, but not common language,” Scott Caine, executive vice president and COO of Aimpoint Research, Columbus, Ohio. Aimpoint gathered data from consumers, retailers and growers for The Packer’s sustainability study, supported by Apeel Sciences and Emerald Packaging.

Researchers found that “sustainability” can mean different things to different people, Caine said. One area of common ground is the concern about the impact of sustainability measures on human health.

“We might disagree as to what the nuances are, but at the end of the day, the thing that we saw is that human health, in whatever form you looked at the data, rose to the top.”

Growers are proud they provide the food needed for people to thrive, Caine said. 

“And consumers uniquely say what they’re trying to do is choose products that also allow them to feel good, not only about consuming that which helps them thrive, but doing so in a way that does not damage something else, such as the environment,” he said.

“We’re landing on the same answer from two different directions, so in my mind the bridge that we’re building starts at two very different points but lands on, even with the retailers, this common ground,” he said.

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More common ground is found in the fact that consumers trust farmers to do the right thing, and that farmers trust that consumers are looking for sustainability in the food they buy and will reward them.

While most farmers don’t think the consumer is willing to pay much at all for sustainability, consumers say they will pay perhaps 10% to 15% more on something they know to be sustainable, Caine said.

Retail perspectives

Retailer attention to sustainability typically is represented by targets and promises and less so on actual results, researchers said.

In general, retail buyers tend to approach the issue of sustainability with a primary focus on packaging (biodegradable, compostable, recyclable), with additional sustainability efforts toward carbon footprint, LED lighting, biodiesel and propane.

Some retailers report running at least part of their fleet on propane, and others are considering the use of electric vehicles. Some retailers also expect that trend to increase at the farm level.

The research found there is not a single definition of sustainability among retailers.

Some of the definitions offered by retailers interviewed include:

  • Actions that are taken to prolong the existence of the planet and life on the planet, relating to carbon footprint, recycling, biodegradable packaging and reducing fossil fuel consumption.
  • Reducing and minimizing the impact on the environment with every decision, from what is bought and what is sold, with an aim to preserve the limited amount of resources by recycling, limiting usage and making them last longer.
  • Sustainability is the maintenance and future care of Mother Earth. It is about environmental sustainability and it includes responsibility in packaging energy and how we operate.
  • “Our goal is to get better every year.” 
  • Sustainability is being able to guarantee freshness of products.
  • Sustainability is the ability to remain profitable in the long term with specific strategies on packaging and transportation.
  • Good for the environment, ethically responsible practices.

“When I think about sustainability, I think about the word ‘organic,’ plastic-free and a cleaner earth.”

Here are a few ways to ensure you never miss The Packer's sustainability content:

Catch up on what you missed at our first Sustainable Produce Summit, including full videos of the keynotes and presentations. Watch here.

Lettuce Learn More is a podcast focused on produce industry education, brought to you by The Packer. Season one of the podcast features educational sessions from the Sustainable Produce Summit. Listen here.