The history of food retailing is filled with examples of how trading partners collaborated, or failed to come together, in the face of challenges. The specific situations varied but often involved some elements of cost-cutting, efficiency or merchandising enhancement.
That's why the latest partnering topic, sustainability, is a bit surprising. At first it doesn't seem to fit the pattern of prior collaboration efforts, given that a main focus is on doing the right thing for the environment. But look deeper and you'll also find the more familiar attributes of cost-cutting and efficiency.
These are the early days in sustainability collaboration, but already joint retailer-supplier work is starting and pulling in associations, consultants and other allied parties.
This week the Executive Conference of the Grocery Manufacturers Association/Food Products Association will highlight the topic with educational sessions that include presentation of a consultant's study (see Page 24). GMA/FPA is also planning a debut Environmental Sustainability Summit for January.
The association's near-term goal is to help its supplier members meet the needs of retailers on this issue. Everyone's attention has been captured by Wal-Mart, which is driving the charge by pushing suppliers to reduce packaging and judging those efforts with a packaging scorecard. Other retailers taking leadership roles include Whole Foods, Food Lion, Price Chopper and Safeway. In many cases retailers are asking suppliers to meet certain goals in arenas ranging from energy to water use.
GMA/FPA will spotlight retailer best practices across numerous channels through the presentation of new research from Deloitte Consulting this week. The next phase is for suppliers to figure out how best they can contribute. According to GMA/FPA, that will include creating metrics related to use of energy, water and packaging.
It's fair for retailers to ask suppliers to meet certain measures. But it isn't fair for manufacturers to have to reinvent the wheel for each retail customer. So a key goal of the GMA/FPA research is to create standards around which trading partners can collaborate, which seems a reasonable approach.
Keep in mind that U.S. suppliers aren't just followers of the retail crowd. Many are well along on programs to reduce packaging or improve the recycling capability of packaging.
Also note that some of the best collaboration efforts are taking place outside the U.S. SN recently reported on a partnership between retailer Marks & Spencer, London, and a supplier and other parties to create the world's first plastic milk bottle to use recycled materials.
It's hard to see how all these sustainability efforts can fail. When the food industry devotes major resources to a goal, it indicates consensus has been reached and usually results in a positive outcome. That bodes well for this campaign. Nevertheless, be warned that results often fall short of the most optimistic predictions. Anyone who remembers Efficient Consumer Response will understand that point.