DALLAS — While most consumers have not yet demanded that food businesses engage in business practices that protect the environment, it’s imperative for retailers to support sustainable sourcing now rather than later, said Harriet Hentges, vice president of corporate responsibility at Ahold USA.
That’s because customers are intuitively and innately asking where their food comes from and how it was farmed and produced, she said.
“We need to lead, or it will rise up to bite us,” Hentges said in a presentation at FMI2012.
Hentges was part of a panel discussion on strategies and guidelines for sourcing more sustainable products. Other participants were Amy Kirtland, executive director, Unified Grocers, Los Angeles, a grocery wholesaler; Jeanne von Zastrow, senior director, sustainability and industry relations, Food Marketing Institute; Roberta Anderson, business development director, Food Alliance, Portland, Ore., a third-party certifier of sustainable agriculture practices; and Sri Artham, director of strategic accounts, Fair Trade USA.
Starting a sustainable sourcing program requires simple, clear targets. Companies need to identify goals, risks and opportunities, Hentges said.
Ahold did just that within the seafood category. For instance, it first needed to identify the category’s biggest negative impact on the planet. It found that the problem area was the catching and raising stage, which led to habitat destruction and pollution effects. It teamed with the New England Aquarium to develop an action plan to prevent those effects.
Consumer demand for sustainable sourcing is already on the rise in Unified Grocers’ retailer member operating areas, said Kirtland.
“The consumers in our market no longer feel it’s important only to understand product labels,” she said. “They want to know the country of origin, certifying agent, and how it was produced.”
To help retailers provide answers, Unified created a pilot database covering 10,000 new natural and organic products.
“We realized we needed a tool to educate our retailers about how to answer customer questions,” Kirtland said.
Retailers can use the database to perform searches for products that are, say, Fair Trade Certified, non-GMO, cage-free or allergen-free. They can then order products based on the attributes they want.
The database is now part of Unified’s procurement process. So when a vendor comes in with a deal or promotion, they are required to update information about their product in the database.
“We put the onus on manufacturers for accuracy and maintenance,” Kirtland said.
Unified hopes to expand the database to additional products.