Retailers

For Grocers, What Should Define Sustainability Strategies Post-Pandemic?

Executive leadership is a must, but giving team members at the store level ownership and input is essential, too, GSC veteran says
food retail recycling
Photograph: Shutterstock

Catrina Damrell is engagement manager for Ratio Institute, a Santa Cruz, Calif.-based not-for-profit that works with grocery stores on advancing their sustainability initiatives. She joined Ratio in January after serving as program manager for Manomet, the organization originally behind the Grocery Stewardship Certification program (GSC). GSC changed hands in 2020 to Ratio Institute; Damrell joined her Manomet colleague Peter Cooke there, as well. She spoke with Winsight Grocery Business recently about new and re-emerging conversations around sustainability in the grocery industry in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Christine LaFave Grace: 2020 brought so much upheaval to food retailers' operations. How are you seeing conversations around sustainability re-emerging, and how do they look different than they did two years ago?

Catrina Damrell: That’s such a good question. I think that the pandemic has shown how critical the food retail sector is to keeping our communities resilient and healthy and equitable.

I’ve done work with some of the grocery stores that were hit by Superstorm Sandy in 2012, so to me, COVID, the sudden disruption from COVID feels similar to the sudden disruption that Superstorm Sandy posed to the food retail sector, in the sense that they’re both directly impacting people’s health and access to very basic needs. And it’s the people behind the stores that we as a society need to keep in mind as sustainability progresses.

COVID has given us time to pause and reflect and see—it’s exposed a lot of the inequities that have been here for a while, and I think this moment of reflection then also becomes a moment of opportunity and collaboration. What I think the industry needs after this is a space, an industry meeting point, where other food retail companies can come together and share their best practices and learn from each other. On our end, we are hoping to be able to create that meeting point. It’s not quite solidified yet, but we’re on our way.

What are some of the success stories you’ve seen? What defines a productive strategy when it comes to sustainability?

I think sustainability around food retail is always going to be an iterative process. There was a chain I was working with in the Midwest, and I was in Iowa visiting seven of their stores. They all had a composting program in place with a local composter, an organics diversion vendor. Six out of the seven I visited were having a lot of trouble keeping food waste as food waste in the bin and not also having things like plastic packaging or rubber bands in there. The seventh store, they were perfectly fine.

I was like, “What’s your secret?” The store manager said, “We’re all about keeping the message but changing the messenger.” They asked the organics company to come in and do regular run-throughs with teams on the floor and reiterate, “If there’s plastic or other packaging in this food waste, then on our end it becomes [unusable] waste, so we just need you to keep that rhythm going.”

I think being able to connect the dots between people’s actions and how that affects other people down the line certainly helps drive home the point.

Another success story—I’ve done a lot of work in the past with [Ahold Delhaize banner] Hannaford, and there’s a store out kind of on the edge of the Berkshires in New York. Hannaford as a company has a very strong zero-waste platform and program. They also have organics diversion, and to address the same issue of contamination, this store manager that I was working with had designed a system using the u-boats—the carts that produce managers wheel out to the floor to swap out produce with—where he had taken two small trash cans, the small blue plastic recycling trash cans you might see in your office, and made DIY hooks to hang on the side railings of the u-boat.

So they would roll out the boxes of produce, and they’d be out there by the shelves, swapping out products and at the same time, also separating out the different materials that are created in that process—plastic film, cardboard. And then in the other bin they had all of the food scraps going in.

It was a really easy and innovative system. It’s something I’ve tried to show to other stores—get creative and make it a fun process. It’s so important to have team members feel valued and be valued.

We look at huge companies that produce annual sustainability reports and social responsibility reports, and it’s one thing to set ambitious goals and overarching plans, but to execute on the store level is another. What are some of the keys to making it happen on the ground?

On the ground, I think having a systemized approach and having the opportunity for education and engagement is really key.

The GSC can catalog all of these different aspects of the grocery store which, to a consumer, might feel very organized, but in reality there’s really not much of a systemized approach to managing sustainability. There’s the refrigerator that holds the milk, and the supplier that the pasta came from—what happens if the pasta gets close to its sell-by date? Does it get thrown away, or could it go to a food bank?

There’s so much to manage, and a lot of times, I’ll find going through stores initially [that] store employees could be resistant or defensive, which is understandable. I think leaning into their insights and ingenuity—again going back to the Hannaford store—and creating that kind of system of sharing best practices would be key in making it more manageable.

What should define or inform a corporate sustainability strategy going forward?

Going back to COVID or Superstorm Sandy or Hurricane Harvey, whenever these extreme events happen, I think that food retail will become increasingly part of making a community more resilient for the future. I think that can and should start with the people behind the company.

I think sustainability also can be viewed through the lens of risk management in the sense that a changing climate poses an inherent risk to almost every product on a grocery store’s shelf and therefore the health and strength and well-being of a community.

Do you see a growing appreciation for infusing sustainability into all areas of the business—making it a consideration in a broad range of discussions?

Yes, I think so, knowing that there’s more and more interest in managing for sustainability in terms of the conversations that I’m having with retailers.

So much of sustainability makes such good business sense, too, so why not have energy efficiency be a constant conversation not just for engineering but also the operations team and HR and part of the onboarding process?

Who do the top champions for sustainability need to be; who needs to be at the table?

Going back to talking about sustainability being so iterative, I think that’s really good to remember. Internally, we talk about the four Ds—discover, develop, deploy and document—that process can go in a straight line or in a circle.

I think the more stakeholders at the table, the better, and support from leadership is critical to having the compass focused on [sustainability]. I think right now there’s not a concrete answer to what makes a sustainability strategy fly. But I think having an industrywide standard to work toward or at least a common set of goals or practices would be helpful. Right now, there’s a lot of different things happening.

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