Sustainability: Defining the Future

by Jennifer Barnett Fox
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How does your company define “sustainability”? Is it environmental, social, economic, personal or perhaps a combination of all those aspects? Sustainability initiatives are a continually evolving idea and can be a goldmine of opportunity to improve day-to-day business operations and build strong connections with consumers both now and in the future.

During the past five years, sustainability initiatives have played a part in construction plans and media blasts and have been a topic of discussion around boardroom tables and at industry conferences. Sustainability can no longer be contained in corporate social responsibility initiatives highlighted during annual shareholder meetings.

To date, the biggest changes in sustainability initiatives can be attributed to the human element. Research conducted in 2010 by The Sustainability Consortium found that consumers desire meaningful, transparent and scien­tifically valid information about product sustainability. Kevin Dooley, PhD, co-director of The Sustainability Consortium, defined sustainability by economic, social and environmental impacts with the level of sustainability dependent on the benefit of each of the three dimensions, with the most desirable initiatives providing a benefit in all three components.

“Messages that resonate with consumers will discuss impacts in terms of things that a consumer can personally relate to, such as their family or their immediate community,” Dr. Dooley said. “Organizations are no different from people; they are just motivated by different things. The important point is that we are becoming more intelligent about inventing solutions that are a triple-bottom-line (people, planet, profit) win.”

FIND YOUR OWN.

The inherent flexibility of the sustainability movement allows the solutions and outcomes to be as impactful as the individual values and core needs behind their creation. Clif Bar & Co., Emeryville, CA, measures sustainability according to its Five Aspirations: sustaining business, brands, people, community and the planet — taking the triple bottom line two steps further.

“We’re committed to adopting practices that support organic, regenerative agriculture and a zero-waste philosophy that reduces our climate footprint and conserves and restores the natural resources and ecosystems we depend on,” said Elysa Hammond, director of environmental stewardship for Clif Bar.

In 2002, Clif Bar committed to become climate-neutral. This included offsetting carbon dioxide by moving its warehouse closer to its bakeries, purchasing wind energy credits to offset its historic carbon footprint, and retrofitting an existing building with solar power for its new headquarters in Emeryville.

Ms. Hammond said she foresees cooperation as the new business paradigm among leading green companies. Clif Bar is a member of Businesses for Innovative Climate and Energy Policy, which works to support strong, effective climate policies and renewable energy at a national level.

“For us, the best way to connect with consumers is face-to-face, with food in hand,” Ms. Hammond said. “We go where they are playing, and we play with them. We also connect with consumers on the issues and places they care about.”

WALKING THE WALK.

A decade-long personal commitment to protect the earth through organic farming was the catalyst behind Annie’s Homegrown, Napa, CA. Today that organic farmer, Annie Withey, continues her pledge of holistic living through a cyclical “planet to food, food to people and people to planet” approach at Annie’s Homegrown. The company introduced the industry’s first organic macaroni and cheese in 1989, and its efforts continue to drive the organic industry with its emphasis on organic ingredients, recycled paperboard packaging and prominent support for local activities such as community and school gardens.

“People are paying more attention to sustainability,” said Aimee Sands, director of marketing, Annie’s Homegrown. “They are asking what goes into products and packaging, and they are asking about how people are treated. We’re excited to hear these questions and see consumers caring about these things.”

Already a well-known brand among organic consumers, Annie’s is a prime example of how organic products have successfully infiltrated the mainstream. The company’s strong social media presence on Facebook and Twitter has furthered communication between Annie’s core early adopters and mainstream consumers. The resulting dialogue has helped the company more succinctly define its sustainability initiatives to mainstream consumers who might be new to the concepts.

Another outcome from the dialogue is Annie’s in-store February promotion, which introduces children and their parents to gardening. With the purchase of two Annie’s products, consumers can receive for a free gardening kit with gloves, seeds and a “Guide to Gardening” DVD. This is part of a larger community initiative to inspire children and their parents to dig in the dirt and get excited about planting and eating real foods. Annie’s also partners with Farm to School to help bring farm food into schools.

“We’re not just coming into a green message right now,” Ms. Sands said. “Annie’s has been working on the concept of sustainability for more than 20 years, and sustainability is a movement that’s built on best practices. We want to run a business that’s good for all that it touches.”

DIMINISHING FOOTPRINT.

The International Food Information Council Foundation (IFIC) said sustainability would remain one of the top issues of 2011. IFIC pointed out that sustainability is an issue that affects food, nutrition, health and food safety and that “efforts will continue to ‘tread lightly’ on our natural resources and replenish diminishing resources.”

Mark Singleton, vice-president of sales for Rudolph Foods, Lima, OH, was raised with an edict to protect resources to ensure there’s something left for future generations. This impassioned message is also practiced by his employer, Rudolph Foods, which was recently recognized by the US Department of Energy as a 2010 Energy Saver at its Lawrenceville, GA, plant. The initiative — which focused on monitoring energy, electricity and gas — is part of a larger holistic plan to cut energy usage 3 to 5%. The company also plans to remove trucks from the road by creating the most efficient case count for its customers through the use of a new barrel-shaped recycled container.

“I believe there are skeptics and cynics in every audience, but our company and others see it as a better way to do business,” Mr. Singleton said. “By using less electricity, gas and water and creating an income stream for what you disposed of before, there really aren’t any negatives to this for any part of our business.”

Rudolph’s employees have taken charge of the energy-saving initiatives. “We have some great folks who are fired up about saving the world, and we are willing to invest with them and show them our commitment to this cause,” Mr. Singleton added. The open flow of ideas has triggered the application of some employees customizing home-based energy-saving solutions for the workplace.

The company proudly celebrates its accomplishments, but it is careful to share these with consumers only when it’s pertinent. “We want to share without appearing in­sincere,” Mr. Singleton said. “There is a very sophisticated consumer out there, and we want to reach beyond the clatter and keep our messaging light and fun.”

LOOKING BEYOND.

While many companies highlight their sustainable or green activities such as using solar or wind power or reducing their packaging or carbon footprints, consumers attribute the greatest importance of sustainability to brands and companies they perceive as good guys or good neighbors who follow the Golden Rule, according to The Hartman Group, an ethnographic research group, Bellevue, WA.

“Industry typically places great emphasis on energy and projecting an image of being stewards of the planet,” said Laurie Demerrit, president and COO, Hartman Group. “But consumers are focused on more personal benefits like whether a company is healthy for their families or how a company invests in the welfare of their local community. Above all, consumers are looking for companies that are good citizens.”

Wisdom Natural Brands, Gilbert, AZ, started with a goal of providing a healthier alternative to natural sweeteners, but its mission became something much greater in scope. Wisdom’s founder and president Jim May was first introduced to the stevia plant in 1982 and became the first to introduce commercialized stevia to the US through the SweetLeaf stevia brand.

Knowing it would take time for Food and Drug Administration approval and consumer acceptance, Mr. May and his associates Angus Flood, vice-president of strategic development, and Carol May, executive vice-president, implemented the infra­structure necessary for sustainable farming of stevia in Latin America, where it grows stevia on land previously used by drug cartels for narcotics such as coca. Stevia is manufactured using a water-based solvent, which can be further used by both plants and animals as mineral-rich by-product, contributing to the core sustainability of the product.

“We see sustainability as a virtuous circle where you can change the world through self, through the active choices of what we purchase and by knowing the people who choose to grow our crops are making a passionate commitment to heal their land and their lives,” Mr. Flood said.

Wisdom Natural Brands has also made a commitment toward individual health and well-being through campaigns that combat childhood obesity and family-oriented interventions that teach and reward healthy eating and fitness habits. The company’s initiative to improve one life at a time also includes working with chefs and dieticians to influence eating habits with stevia-based recipes that reduce sugar consumption.

“We believed that it would take time for the acceptance of stevia, but that day has come, and we’ve seen first-hand when people see how their lives have changed through the growth of the plant and the use of it as a sweetener,” Ms. May said.

The 24/7 information age creates an ever-growing opportunity for companies to incorporate sustainability measures into their business operations and communications. But that opportunity comes with the caveat that sustainability initiatives must remain sincere and applicable on environmental, social and economic levels.

“We’re still working on how to show consumers the message of sustainability in the best way, but to inspire just one person is a start,” Rudolph Foods’ Mr. Singleton said. “If it’s important to consumers, it should be important to us and part of our core decision-making in all aspects. You can embed it into everything you do.”

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