Co-op Steps Up Commitment to Environment

Since its founding 40 years ago by “a group of 100 concerned citizens and [Oregon State University] students,” the First Alternative Natural Foods Co-op, Corvallis, Ore., like most grocery co-ops, has been dedicated to a sustainable lifestyle. To that end, in addition to providing natural and organic foods in a cooperative business model, First Alternative set as its mission to be “a model for environmental sustainability through our purchasing and workplace practices,” according to its Website.

Over the past three years, First Alternative, which operates two for-profit stores, has “stepped up” its sustainability efforts with a number of major investments, said Donna Tarasawa, its marketing manager, known at the co-op as Donna X. During this period, the co-op has devoted a percentage of its annual capital funds - this year $20,000, more than 13% - largely to such costly measures as increasing solar panel installations at both locations and purchasing an electric truck. In addition, First Alternative buys over 100 units of alternative energy per store per month from local utility Pacific Power, making it the top purchaser in Corvallis.

“The condition of the world is getting worse and worse,” Tarasawa said. “So if we're making an effort to make it better, we have to make an even bigger effort to make up for the backward steps.”

First Alternative has also increased its emphasis on local products. Its “Local 6” program, begun in 2007, identifies vendors and producers who operate a business within Benton County, where the co-op resides, as well as five contiguous counties. To minimize packaging, more than 750 of the co-op's products are offered in its extensive bulk department.

For many years, the co-op has offered a Community Recycling Center where residents in outlying areas who do not have curbside recycling can bring items. The Center also takes many things the local refuse company does not accept, paying all expenses for transferring them to locales where they can be recycled.

In a reflection of the progressive slant of its clientele, First Alternative rewards shoppers and staff who come to the store via bicycling, walking or taking the bus. Those shoppers get an “Alternative Transportation Card” punched at each shopping trip; a fully punched card is good for $5.00 off their grocery bill.

For these and other environmental initiatives, and for investing more of its resources into energy-saving technologies, First Alternative has been chosen to receive SN's 2010 Sustainability Excellence Award in the independent category.

FULL PRODUCT RANGE

With total annual sales of about $15 million, First Alternative's two 7,000-square-foot stores carry a full range of grocery products - albeit of the natural and organic variety - so that customers don't need to supplement their shopping elsewhere. Its prices are comparable to those of natural/organic items sold in conventional stores.

More than 1,200 Local 6 items, roughly 10% of the assortment, come from neighboring counties, including everything from bulk items, eggs, and bread to milk, packaged grocery, wine and beer; in the summer up to 90% of the produce is local. These products are identified in the stores with special signage.

The Local 6 concept has caught on in the community, noted Tarasawa. It's been adopted by area restaurants and used in advertising by the Chamber of Commerce, which gave the co-op a “Good Steward of the Planet Award” in 2008. Other chain supermarkets in Corvallis, however, still offer relatively few locally made items, she said. If products are not produced in neighboring counties, the co-op still tries to buy them as close to Corvallis as possible, such as chickens in Washington state.

Over the years, the co-op has increased its bulk offerings to reduce prices and product packaging, and now offers a cornucopia of items ranging from cheese, beans, grains, baking ingredients, dried fruit, nuts, pasta and granola, to tea, spices, tofu, yeast, bee pollen, frozen fruits and vegetables and eggs. Bulk liquid products include honey, molasses, oil, vinegar and tamari, while bulk condiments encompass mayonnaise, mustard, ketchup, salsa, olives, pickles and capers. Rounding out the selection are bulk body care products, tinctures, household cleaners, pet food and henna. “We're now at our space capacity” for bulk products, said Tarasawa.

First Alternative offers free containers for the bulk items, but most shoppers bring their own. “We serve a wide range of people but our core shoppers are more sustainable in their own lives and want to shop at a place that backs that up,” she said.

Products that do come in packaging are assessed by the co-op's management before they are offered for sale. “There are a lot of things our buyers look at in new products, including what's in it, the taste, who owns it and the packaging,” with a preference for recyclable or biodegradable packaging that is kept to a minimum, she said.

Tarasawa pointed out that the First Alternative's role in the community extends beyond being a grocery store. In addition to running the Community Recycling Center, the co-op makes donations to local non-profit organizations.

About $8,000 per year in donations is generated through the store's grocery bag policy. Shoppers who bring a reusable bag receive a lima bean representing five cents that can be dropped into a collection tower in the store; the beans are tallied up and the sum is donated to local environmental groups. Shoppers who use the store's paper bags (no plastic is available) have been charged five cents per bag since July 2009. “We have cut our bag purchases way down,” said Tarasawa. “Most people bring their bags.”

The discount for bicycling or walking to the stores has proved quite popular among shoppers and employees. Tarasawa estimated that it costs First Alternative about $5,000 per year for shoppers and $1,000 per year for employees, who have won a statewide contest the past two years for riding their bikes to work on a regular basis. Bike riders can also enter a drawing for a gift certificate for a free tune-up.

Asked whether bicycling or walking to the store discourages large orders, she said that many customers shop multiple times during the week or even every day. “As a retailer, we actually benefit from people shopping more than once a week because they will almost always buy more than what they actually came in for.” Bike riders, she added, “have various ways of carrying an amazing amount of groceries with panniers, trailers, etc.”

BOLSTERING SOLAR

First Alternative began installing solar panels at its two stores in 2006, adding to the installation annually since then. The panels generate enough power to run the 12 registers in each store.

In other energy-saving efforts, the co-op uses efficient T8 lighting in all fluorescent fixtures on the retail floor, as well as refrigeration rack systems, which control the compressors for coolers and freezers in the stores. “The rack systems greatly reduce the draw on electricity over the old system, which required one compressor for each cooler or freezer,” said Tarasawa. In addition, all open coolers have night covers that are pulled down during off hours.

To save on fuel, First Alternative purchased a Ford Ranger that operates only on electricity - one of the few still in existence. It has a 40-mile range and is used to deliver goods between the co-op's two stores, which are 2-1/2 miles apart.

First Alternative has a storm water collection tank at its south store; the water is used for landscaping and the co-op is working on getting permission to use it to flush toilets. First Alternative is also working with a local group to build a demonstration area showing how to collect and use rain water; it will include collection tanks, permeable pavers, bioswale and a rain garden.