May, 2010

Fruits of Thought

Tale Of Two Chains

Here is a tale of two large retailers, each proclaiming its interest in sustainability. Both are large chains; both have various pilot efforts; both an extensive supply chain. Though there are many similarities, a few minutes with each and an obvious difference surfaces. One is heavily focused on ordering its supply chain to do things and sees the results of its sustainability push primarily in terms of what it gets these suppliers to do. The other retailer, though collaborating with its supply chain on many sustainability issues, prim arily sees sustainability as something it has to do itself.

It is that distinction — between sustainability as something imposed on others and sustainability as a primarily self-referential activity, embraced by associates and engaged in because it is so compelling — that one finds the crucial reason Produce Business honors Safeway with its Second Annual Retail Sustainability Award.

In many ways, Safeway, at least among large chains, is the most ideally suited to embrace sustainability. In the first place, its clientele, especially now that almost all stores have been converted to the Lifestyle format, do not merely skew upscale, but psychographically are more inclined to value a commitment to sustainability. The fact that so many of its stores are in California, where electricity is expensive, makes many alternative energy options feasible. Finally, its Bay Area headquarters assures a roster of employees relatively well versed in the ethos of corporate social responsibility and environmentalism.

Of course, a company can be perfectly positioned to take advantage of something and neglect to do so, so credit is due to Safeway's corporate leadership for stepping up to the plate. You know Safeway is different when you learn that a person whose job focuses on “leadership development” coordinates its sustainability effort, because sustainability, in this way of thinking, is integral to leading every effort in the company. There are a lot of buzz words related to sustainability in produce: Organic, local, etc. — and Safeway engages with these terms as well. In the end though, sustainability, must depend on the intersecting of three responsibilities: environmental, social and economic. So imposing metrics doesn't really make much sense because it is easy to meet any particular metric. What is hard is to do so without violating the other responsibilities.

In other words, set up any group of environmental standards that you choose, tell a vendor he can't get business without meeting them, and he will meet them — but maybe at the price of economic viability or at a cost to social engagement.

Safeway’s interpretation of sustainability neither involves a strict vendor metric nor does it involve a distorted vision of sustainability that some retailers have adopted that sees the whole thing as a massive cost-reduction program. Safeway is not averse to profiting from sustainability, and the decision to invest in solar panels, fuel cells or wind energy is carefully monitored to ensure it makes financial sense. On the whole, though, Safeway engages in sustainability almost as a form of higher consciousness in which, through acute observation of its own business practices, it discovers opportunities for greater efficiency.

In a world filled with green-washing, where some retailers issue more press releases than they have accomplishments, Safeway is reticent about tooting its own horn. Yet, its accomplishments, expressed on its Web site, are impressive: “Safeway was the first and only retailer to join both the Chicago Climate Exchange (CCX), the world’s first and North America’s only voluntary, legally binding greenhouse gas emissions reduction registry and trading program, and the California Climate Action Registry, the state’s official registry for greenhouse gas reduction projects in 2006. Currently Safeway is working with both organizations to develop our carbon baseline. Through CCX, Safeway is legally committed to reduce its carbon footprint by 6 percent from its 2000 baseline by 2011.”

The sustainability movement is in a bit of flux right now. It is not 100 percent clear how sustainability differs from a good management practice; it is not 100 percent clear how companies can balance the trend to achieve environmental accountability with sustainability’s requirements for social and economic engagement.

What is clear is that Safeway has leveraged the enthusiasm of its people to carve its own way through the forest of sustainability. And that enthusiasm of people doing things because they are so compelling is, in fact, the root of a successful sustainability program. Produce Business is proud to present Safeway with its Second Annual Retail Sustainability Award.      pb