Generation Next Thinking: DE&I: Putting policy into action

While a work in progress, grocers are taking steps to make both workplaces and store shelves more inclusive and diverse

In the wake of growing awareness around diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I), many grocery retailers have publicly committed to offering employees a diverse work environment where their individual skills and differences are respected and valued. According to the 2021 U.S. Food Retailing Speaks analysis from the Food Industry Association (FMI), 73% of food retailers have policies in place to promote diversity in hiring, and 70% have targeted goals for their DE&I efforts overall.

The good news for Canada’s grocery sector is that several chains have already taken steps in following through on their DE&I policies. Both Walmart Canada and Loblaw were named among Canada’s Best Diversity Employers in 2022. Loblaw requires all its leaders to complete mandatory training on inclusive hiring and uses DE&I questions in its selection process when partnering with recruitment agencies. It has also set measurable goals to improve the gender, racial and ethnic diversity of its leadership teams within the next two years.

Last year, Metro added a dedicated resource to develop programs to promote equity, diversity and inclusion among its employees, which has enabled the rollout of several initiatives already. The grocer launched a voluntary self-identification questionnaire to all employees to better understand their diverse backgrounds and is currently in the process of training employees on inclusive writing. In addition to its already existing women’s leadership group, Metro has also started two new employee-run resource groups: the LGBTQ2+ Leadership Network and the Metro Black Community Leadership Network.

Hélène Rainville, Metro’s diversity and inclusion advisor, says participation in Diversity Week—an annual week to celebrate diversity launched by the company six years ago—doubled compared to last year. “The increase in engagement we saw in 2022 proves the value and significance Metro employees feel” towards DE&I, she says.

Metro has also partnered with Ready, Willing and Able to give employment opportunities for individuals with autism. “So far, the program has led to 12 hires in our e-commerce fulfilment facility and stores,” says Rainville. “The program has been a real success and we look forward to hiring more successful candidates with diverse backgrounds.”


Wendy Cukier, professor of entrepreneurship and strategy, Ted Rogers School of Management, and director of the Diversity Institute, says there is no question that the focus on DE&I in Canada has increased dramatically over the last few years, especially as it relates to awareness of issues in the Black, LGBTQ+ and Indigenous communities. “I think in most of Canada there is also much more sensitivity around religious diversity and finding ways to accommodate people of different faiths in the workplace,” she says. “But, in looking at the numbers, change is still pretty slow.”

A part of that is simply the length of time needed to change “who’s at the top of the house,” says Cukier. “It’s one thing to sign onto the BlackNorth pledge (a commitment to remove anti-Black systemic barriers) and another thing to actually change your hiring practices.”

Even with the gains Metro has already made in promoting DE&I in its workforce, Rainville says reaching as many employees as possible to raise awareness and encourage all to adopt more inclusive behaviours is an ongoing challenge. “While the events and employee resource groups have been a success, we are currently developing training capsules to be deployed company-wide so everyone can learn more,” about the main concepts related to DE&I, she says. “We know Metro is strong when our employees represent the communities we live in and serve.”

Ivona Hideg, associate professor and Ann Brown Chair in Organization Studies at the Schulich School of Business at York University, believes COVID-19 has significantly undermined some DE&I initiatives, especially as they relate to advancing women in the workplace. In the grocery sector, where lower-paying, front-line positions are predominately filled by women, she says they were the ones forced to reduce work hours to care for children when schools were closed, or take time off to deal with illness in the family, often without compensation. Even women in higher-paid positions were often forced to step back to balance demands at home during the pandemic. “Maybe I’m being overly pessimistic, but women had to shoulder all these additional responsibilities, so I don’t think we’ve seen a lot of movement forward or even the full impact of COVID yet,” says Hideg. “But I do think this is an opportunity for grocery stores to really take a look at what they can do better to support women and remove the hurdles preventing them from moving up in management positions.”

Data from Deloitte’s 2021 Future of Work series, in partnership with FMI, reinforces this notion that progress is lacklustre when it comes to advancing women and other minority groups. The representation of women and other historically marginalized people on boards in consumer staples (food) grew 4% in two years, compared to 11% in non-food consumer staples. More than half of industry executives surveyed for the report cited identifying and increasing the visibility of these groups as one of the top-performing ways to bridge the gap between DE&I promises and progress.

Based on their experiences in the workplace, they also felt building and cultivating a strong pipeline of diverse leaders that are two and three tiers below the most senior ranks can help ensure the right talent is available when senior positions open up—and create more career mobility for historically marginalized groups otherwise trapped in an organization’s lower ranks.

Not surprising, experts say real change stems from the top. While individual store owners can certainly make hiring decisions and workplace practices to improve their operations, Cukier says overall corporate commitment is “hugely important” because change cannot occur from the bottom up. “I’m also a big believer in what gets measured gets done, so you need to be prepared to do the audit and see what the representation is within your workforce at different levels,” she says.


Aside from DE&I in the workplace, Cukier says another real indicator as to whether grocers are embracing diversity is procurement and shelf-space. “How committed are they in supporting women and diverse entrepreneurs?” she says. “We certainly do see evidence of increasing diversification in products and services, which to me signals that they recognize the markets are changing and they have to keep up.”

There’s certainly been more talk in retail sectors about the importance of diversifying supply chains—particularly considering pandemic-induced supply issues and ongoing growth in multicultural markets. But whether actions so far among grocers are significant enough is still in question. Cukier and other experts say those who aren’t already on board in sourcing diverse suppliers will have to catch up soon if they hope to stay relevant.

A diverse supplier is one that is at least 51% owned/operated by a group or individual from a traditionally underrepresented group. This could be a female-run business, or those coming from minority groups such as the LGBQT+ and First Nations communities, or people with disabilities.

The United States still far outpaces Canada as a global leader in supplier diversity initiatives, but the fact the awareness and demand for diversified supply chains is so prominent these days bodes well for everyone, believes Hideg. She says “the movement” is here to stay and is enabling a better playing field for all suppliers who were traditionally ignored or disadvantaged in the grocery sector.

Big box U.S. retailers like Sam’s Club have done open vendor calls to source more diverse brands, while supermarket giant Kroger introduced 107 new diverse suppliers in 2020 totaling US$4.1 billion in diverse supplier spend. The company says it’s on track to reach its goal of US$10 billion in spend by 2030. Last year, Kroger also launched a Small Business Resource Guide to encourage more diversity in its supplier base. The free, downloadable guide offers best practices on product development, pricing, supply chain, promotion, research and preparation, outreach and partnership development.

This spring, FMI is planning to launch its own Supplier Diversity Best/Next Practices Guide, which will serve as a resource for both large and small industry members. It will feature a compendium of current best practices—and projected next practices—in advancing supplier diversity. “In addition to investing in [diverse] talent, supplier diversity is integral to our business and meeting consumer demand,” says FMI’s Heather Garlich, senior vice-president, communications, marketing & consumer/community affairs. “The goal [of this initiative] is to provide the foundation for FMI’s leadership in advancing supplier diversity, racial equity, economic justice and community transformation in America.”

It’s no secret that early adopters of supplier diversity programs are expected to see the greatest impact on their bottom line. “Even if it’s not happening as fast in our country, this next generation [of grocery shoppers] has a more global view and will demand it,” says Schulich’s Hideg. “It’s becoming too large to ignore for any sensible business.”

Hideg says millennials, in particular, are conscious about their social responsibility and are demanding that organizations bear the brunt of sourcing equitable suppliers. “They are entering the workforce and becoming customers and are a dominant force,” she says.

While Canada lags behind the United States, the fact more and more retailers here are making concerted efforts to source diverse suppliers is a promising sign. Last year, Walmart Canada became the first and exclusive provider of Klemtu Spirit Hot Smoked Atlantic Salmon, produced by B.C.’s Kitasoo/Xai’xais First Nation in partnership with Mowi Canada West. “We’re incredibly proud to be able to support Indigenous people by exclusively carrying this new product in more than 330 Walmart Canada stores,” says Robert Pereira, senior director of merchandising for meat and seafood, Walmart Canada. “This is only the beginning of Walmart’s commitment to the Kitasoo/Xai’xais as we’re exploring ways to use our size, scale and expertise to create further ties and partnerships in the community.”

Pereira says the partnership between Mowi and Walmart Canada has been developing for the last 18 months. “This exclusive product launch has been a win for all involved,” he explains. “Our customers are getting 100% Canadian, locally-sourced smoked salmon while supporting Indigenous communities and jobs.”

Walmart counts others such as Ohh! Foods, Verka and Amira among its growing list of diverse suppliers, too. “We recognize the diversity within Canada and are committed to addressing systemic barriers to equity and inclusion; we’re stronger as a company when everyone is included and empowered,” says Pereira.

At Sobeys, an initiative called Fab Female Local Boxes launched in Ontario in 2021 and featured 17 products (ranging from granola bars to hand soap) from 12 women-owned businesses. Even the box was designed by a woman-owned business called Nature Knows and shipped by a Black-woman-owned logistics company called Simplify Supply Chain Solutions. Each box contained a card with an overview of the products and a QR code linking to the Canadian Women in Food website, which helps support women-owned food and beverage businesses.

Sheri Evans, Sobeys’ local development manager in Ontario, says the idea came about during the pandemic when in-store demos were no longer available. “We thought this was a great way to showcase the entrepreneurs we work with aligned with International Women’s Day,” she says. “We wanted to give these women-owned brands more of a spotlight.”

The challenge in getting other, smaller Canadian grocers focused on diversifying their supply chain really comes down to scale, says Cukier. “When you think of supplier diversity, it really is the big names that typically come to mind and in Canada, we have far fewer large retailers compared to the U.S.,” she says. Not only are some of these small- to medium-sized grocers just struggling to survive, she says, many don’t have the same kind of resources dedicated to a diversity and inclusion strategy.

That said, Cukier also points to the fact Canada’s younger generation, regardless of demographic, is more concerned about diversity and inclusion than any generation prior. “An organization that has a reputation for not being inclusive—in their workforce and supplier base—will not only miss out on tapping into diverse skills and labour, but I think no one will want to work for them.” CG

This article appeared in Canadian Grocer's May 2022 issue


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