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The Greening of grocers


Last Thursday, September 20, grocery industry professionals gathered in Toronto for Canadian Grocer’s Commitment to Sustainability conference, proclaiming sustainability has moved beyond the carbon footprint of store operations and now must also consider broader implications of procurement decisions.

For those who skipped this conference fearing that it would be a tree-hugging, granola-crunching, Birkenstock-wearing love in, throw your stereotypes aside.

Sustainability is increasingly becoming the language of business.

Resource scarcity is leading to resource efficiency and with those changes businesses increasingly have to adjust their practices in order to ensure profitability in a changing business environment.

David Smith, VP of sustainability at Sobeys; Bob Chant senior VP, corporate affairs and communication at Loblaw; and John Coyne, VP legal and external affairs with Unilever all presented a vision of our industry that incorporates a different set of standards than we have employed in the past.

Smith began his segment with a picture of four earths.

His message being that demographic changes and an increasingly middle-class global population would continue to place pressures on the food industry.

With 80 per cent of the world population projected to be middle-class by 2030, four earths would be needed to support current consumption patterns, based on present practices.

The challenge: increase food production by 50 per cent, while addressing a waste factor of 40 per cent, and do so without further impacting the environment.

Bob Chant made it clear that sustainability is also on the minds of decision makers at Loblaw.

Canada’s largest grocer is zeroing in on areas with the most impact and focusing on consumers.

Chant shed some light on the mindset of consumers point out that most consumers expect price parity with traditional products and that sustainability is mostly viewed as a value add, not a chargeable commodity. With this in mind, Chant added, “Voluntarism cannot crack where we need to be.”

Perhaps the most poignant question of the day came from panelist John Coyne. In addressing Chant point on voluntarism, Coyne asked, “How do we remove the dirty discount?”

The economy must change in order to deal with shifting landscapes.

Finite resources are going to become more expensive and governments will continue to feel pressure to deal with the effects of environmental degradation caused by the effects of an increasingly affluent world population.

At some point governments will have to address resource consumption with some type of regulation or tax scheme to address problems such as carbon emissions and water use.

In the meantime, these three companies seem intent on addressing the issues before governments mandate change.

Following the panel discussion I asked John Coyne what message he had for companies that are either apathetic or dismissive to his call for change. His response: “I’ve got four words for them; listen; learn; ask us.”

Sobeys, Loblaw, and Unilever for their part aren’t viewing sustainability as a matter of competitive advantage as much as they are committed to changing the systemic problems of an inefficient, outdated industry model based on plentiful, inexpensive resources.

If you’re not considering how your business will function in this new economy, you’re likely to be left behind.

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