Future sustainability trends and concerns
Going forward, industry watchers say there are some key areas gaining favour in sustainable practices that retailers should keep on their radar. One is circular economies, where the goal is to extend the lifecycle of products for as long as possible. This year, Canada held its inaugural Circular Economy Summit in Toronto, which attracted more than 450 attendees including brands, retailers, waste management companies and academia. As producers take more responsibility around the lifecycle of the products they sell, EY’s Wong says consumers will be engaging with retailers in different ways. “So, think about refillable packages for free in bulk shopping, or recycling and payback programs,” she says. “We don’t necessarily see that in many stores today, but it’s definitely something to watch.”
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The regenerative agriculture movement is another key area, as consumers shift towards being more proactive about sustainable food systems – including how to promote better soil health and discourage over-harvesting. Wong says retailers are starting to think more about the entire supply chain, too, in terms of how they can collaborate with farmers and other suppliers. “They’re recognizing they have a sphere of influence in being able to bring sustainable products to their customers,” she says.
Martin Gooch is CEO of Oakville, Ont.-based Value Chain Management International (VCMI), which helps businesses create environmentally and financially sustainable supply chains. He says if retailers really believe sustainability will be a differentiating factor, it’s key they figure out how to place themselves ahead of the curve now by collaborating across the supply chain. A recent report from VCMI, Low Carbon Food Production: How farmers and food businesses can profit from decarbonizing, delves into strategies on ways to do this.
He says a barrier to progress in this area is that some retailers don’t have a good handle on what sustainable really means to their target shoppers, which is preventing them from seizing opportunities. “It’s difficult to target consumers’ sustainability issues if you don't know what they are to begin with,” he says. “I’m also not convinced that consumers factor sustainability alone in their purchasing – you have to make it meaningful, so how do you make the food system more efficient and then communicate that to your customers.”
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Kantar’s Babbage agrees, noting that some retailers and brands think sustainability will sell itself because there will always be people willing to pay more for these products. “I don’t think that’s true because sustainability is something people care about when it’s woven into other aspects of the brand,” she says. “Otherwise, [grocers and brands] are attracting a niche audience and it’s got so much more potential than that.”
What grocers are doing right
In staying ahead of the curve in sustainability practices, grocers like Ontario-based Goodness Me! have made concerted efforts to ban plastic bags in their stores well before government regulations against plastics kicked in. “We were offering earth-friendly, compostable bags to our customers years and years back, and we’ve always offered eco-friendly solutions for food storage,” says head merchant Kathleen Carroll. In the organic bulk food section, customers are encouraged to bring in their own reusable food storage containers and the weight of each carrier is deducted at cash. “We have bamboo-made bento boxes for lunch and larger food storage solutions, too.”
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A new initiative across its 10 stores and on social media this year is a push to educate people around sustainable living practices. “Anyone new to sustainable living can come to us to get that content,” says Carroll. “Our staff is living this life and talking to customers, so what differentiates us is having roots in this education already.”
When it comes to sustainability initiatives, Longo’s is making good on a series of commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, reduce food waste and source responsibly. The grocer eliminated the use of single-use plastic bags from all its stores by the end of 2022 and established a recycling program for all waxed cardboard and plastic case wraps to divert from landfill. (One of its sustainability goals is to divert 90% of waste from landfills by 2025.) It also partnered with a global organization called Too Good To Go, a service with a mobile application that connects customers to stores with surplus, unsold food at a discount. At Longo’s, customers can purchase a bakery or prepared food bag at a fraction of its original price. “We noticed huge, huge interest among our guests for this program, and in 2022, 20,000 meals were saved using the app,” says Sara Olivieri, Longo’s sustainability specialist. “Guests still want to get that Longo’s quality product and it’s coming at a really great value.”
The grocery chain is also on track to meet its goal of having 100% of stores using refrigerants with a lower global warming potential or a natural refrigerant by 2030, which coincides with its targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 55% by the same year. In addition, Longo’s has made it a priority to source locally, and was the first retailer in North America to offer fairtrade bananas exclusively across its stores.
Olivieri says shoppers are made aware of all these initiatives through the company’s annual sustainability report, which is posted on Longo’s website and through its newsletter and social media. “We’re working toward the highest standards out there in the grocery industry when it comes to corporate sustainability,” she says. “We continually seek feedback from our guests to understand their needs and ensure we are meeting – and exceeding – their expectations.”
This article first appeared in Canadian Grocer’s August 2023 issue.