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Consider UNFI's Triple Bottom Line Strategy

Consider UNFI's Triple Bottom Line Strategy

My stock investment strategy is simple. I invest in what I like. For example, I like to eat wholesome, natural, healthy foods. I like companies that do good too.

That's not to say I'd ignore profits, growth by acquisition, geographic expansion and market share. All factors Elliot Zwiebach heavily weighs in on in this week's cover story on United Natural Foods Inc. The distributor's corporate social responsibility (CSR) platform, core to the company's operational philosophy and performance, is fundamental too.

In its first CSR Report that covers 2009-2010, UNFI documents an impressive list of sustainable and philanthropic accomplishments too long to list here ( UNFI has won media recognitions for its CSR efforts, including SN's Sustainability Excellence Award in 2008.

Many of the distributor's sustainable programs came together under the direction of company co-founder and Chairman Michael Funk, who realized the very nature of UNFI's business called for a commitment to environmentally sustainable practices. UNFI's “driven by nature” motto is played out in its efforts to monitor genetically modified organisms and home in on GMO-free certification standards.

I talked to Funk in 2007 about a partnership with Vitamin Angels to aid the poor in Haiti and distribute vitamins to children living in poverty in the Dominican Republic. At the time UNFI executives traveled to the country to distribute the supplements and to experience the living conditions first hand. That experience proved to be life changing for some and it illustrates the oversight UNFI seeks in its commitment to philanthropy. It's more than donating funds.

Lisa Madsen, director of sustainability and philanthropy, told me the distributor likes to think outside the box and come up with creative ways to get associates involved and understand why UNFI chooses to partner with an organization.

The distributor recently launched a new associate volunteer community outreach program at each UNFI facility. Associates come up with two projects each year and are given a day of paid leave to volunteer their time. Examples are building with Habitat for Humanity and watershed and coastal clean-ups. “Such projects allow our associates while working to do good and give back,” said Madsen.

Steve Spinner, UNFI president and chief executive officer, framed the distributor's philanthropic efforts.

In the report, Spinner calls UNFI's CSR work the “triple bottom line — a passionate social and environmental conscience with shareholder value.” The distributor's sustainability investments make it efficient and cost effective. Meanwhile, associates' good works enrich the distributor's goodwill.

Last year the distributor offered over 3 million shares of common stock at $33 per share. As of last week UNFI stock was valued at $40.66 per share, a 23% return, not a bad investment strategy to go with what you like.