As sustainability and efficiency become more of a priority for the food industry, many retailers are taking steps and making changes in their fresh departments to reduce the environmental impact of everyday business — a step that also happens to save them money, increase consumer loyalty and gain positive publicity.
“Like any industry, there have always been some in the supermarket industry that have included sustainability as part of their business plans,” said Alan Hiebert, education information specialist for the International Dairy Deli Bakery Association, Madison, Wis. The IDDBA recently published a report, “Environmental Sustainability: The Power of Green,” late last year, examining how “going green” is important to the industry and how retail food businesses are taking steps to reduce expenses and waste.
“Sustainability is attractive to many retailers and their suppliers, because it is currently seen in such a positive light. Companies that can position themselves as environmentally concerned are seen as good corporate citizens.”
Since around 2003 or 2004, several major chains have begun going public with their environmental initiatives, Hiebert told SN.
“In 2004, Giant Eagle became the first grocer in the United States to operate a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design [LEED] certified supermarket,” Hiebert said. “In the same year, Wal-Mart began its work in environmental sustainability. I think it was around 2006 or 2007 that a critical mass of consumers made many companies investigate sustainability more seriously.”
Hiebert says he sees three main ways retailers are taking steps to reduce the environmental impact of their refrigeration units in their perishable departments.One is by investing in more efficient refrigeration units that use non-ozone-depleting refrigerants. Another is by using cases and refrigeration units lit with light-emitting diode (LED) lighting. LED lights are more efficient than incandescent or fluorescent lighting and often turn off automatically when they're not needed. A third initiative is the use of electricity from alternative sources.
“Many municipalities now offer wind or solar power,” Hiebert noted.
“Additionally, many new stores have skylights and solar panels on their roofs. Skylights and solar panels may not provide all of the light and power a store needs, but will help to reduce a store's electricity bills.”
Most of Seattle-based PCC Natural Markets' refrigeration systems use the latest energy-efficient technologies, according to Lori Ross, director of store development.
“We use floating-head-pressure as well as floating-suction-pressure systems,” Ross told SN.
“Our case temperatures are monitored frequently and adjusted for optimal temperature and energy efficiency. We use night covers and strip curtains in some applications for off-hour energy savings.”
Space heating, hot water heating and refrigeration systems are interconnected by the same refrigerant loop, so waste heat from the refrigeration system is used by other functions. In addition, the refrigerant used in the equipment is R-404a, a zero-ozone-depleting blend that contains no chlorofluorocarbons.
Also, at PCC's Redmond, Wash., location, stovetop exhaust hoods operate only when they sense the presence of smoke or steam, rather than operating continuously.
Most retailers experience a return on investment with these technologies due to lower energy bills, Hiebert said.
“They save money,” Hiebert said. “While up-front investments may be large, they can be recouped quickly. In perishable departments, for example, refrigeration is one of the biggest expenses, so more efficient refrigeration can cut a store's energy bills significantly.”
Although the ROI on eco-friendly investments can sometimes be difficult to track, PCC has seen savings.
“Savings are apparent,” Ross said.
“Our newer stores include monitoring programs that allow us to identify energy usage and the impact when new features are implemented.”
According to the IDDBA report, by converting refrigerated case lighting to high-efficiency LEDs in 500 stores, Wal-Mart, Bentonville, Ark., will save more than $2.5 million annually and reduce energy consumption of case lighting by about two-thirds. Its high-efficiency supercenters in Kansas City, Mo., and Rockton, Ill., recycle heat generated by refrigeration equipment into heating and cooling systems as well.
Safeway, Oakland, Calif., saves 98 million kilowatt-hours of electricity annually with new refrigeration systems that use 18% less electricity, and with computerized sensor systems that manage the operation of lights, heating, cooling and refrigeration systems to optimize energy use.
PCC Natural Markets and Santa Cruz-based New Leaf Markets have both received certifications for their eco-friendly and energy-efficient business operations. PCC's Redmond store most recently became the first grocery store to have achieved LEED Gold certification in the United States.
The U.S. Green Building Council's LEED green building rating system is a voluntary third-party rating system in which credits are earned for satisfying specified green building criteria. Projects are evaluated within six environmental categories: sustainable sites, water efficiency, energy and atmosphere, materials and resources, and indoor environmental quality. Certification is awarded in four tiers — in Giant Eagle's case, Certified; Silver; in PCC's case, Gold; and for the most efficient buildings, Platinum — based on total credits earned.
“Because green building was an integral component of our construction and operations procedures, we felt it was important to gauge our efforts against a common scale,” said Ross. “We felt the USGBC LEED program was the most appropriate certification program.”
PCC is aiming for LEED Platinum certification with its upcoming ninth store, in Edmonds, Wash., which is currently in construction and is expected to open in mid-July.
New Leaf turned to the Monterey Bay Area Green Business Program for help with making eco-friendly changes throughout the store. Following its recommendations, New Leaf changed the water sprayers in produce and prep areas, and the faucets in hand wash sinks, to be low-flow fixtures to save water; it made sure there were cooler strips in all walk-in refrigerators and freezers; it put new sealing around all refrigerator and cooler doors; and it switched to energy-efficient light bulbs.
“The Monterey Green Business certifiers were very impressed with how many green practices we already had in place,” Sarah Miles, spokeswoman for New Leaf, told SN.
“Other green changes we have made recently are switching to using Taterware cutlery in the delis instead of plastic — that is, biodegradable knives, spoons and forks made from potatoes. And we also use compostable Ecocups for hot drinks.”
The Monterey Bay Area Green Business Program is a partnership of environmental agencies, professional associates, waste management agencies, utilities and concerned citizens who work together to recognize and assist businesses that wish to operate in an environmentally friendly way. The program is voluntary and certifies businesses that go above and beyond regulatory requirements.
“We have all business types in the program, some of them retailers,” said Josephine Fleming, green business program coordinator at the organization, noting that it has grown exponentially and expects to have certified about 200 businesses by the end of next year.
“Retailers say that the program helps attract extremely loyal customers, and that the free advertising is great. But most businesses find that the free technical assistance and cost savings are the biggest reason they apply for the program.” ? ?
Both New Leaf and PCC express a strong commitment to being environmentally friendly, and both already had many eco-friendly and energy-efficient business operations in place prior to getting involved with LEED or the Monterey Bay Area Green Business Program.
“For us, doing green business makes doing business truly satisfying,” Miles of New Leaf said. “If it increases the bottom line — as it has done, for example, with our sustainable seafood program — then it is only evidence that others also feel better when making green choices.”