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Sustainability Winners Get Direction From the Top

Sustainability Winners Get Direction From the Top

The first thing that struck me about the winners of SN's 2009 Sustainability Excellence Awards — Publix Super Markets (chain category), Associated Food Stores (wholesaler) and Buehler's Food Markets (independent) — is the commitment of their chief executive officers to sustainability.

What this underscores is that sustainability — the pursuit of policies favorable to a sustainable earth and food supply — is a top-down process, requiring executive vision and leadership. These three companies, who will be recognized at next week's Food Marketing Institute Energy and Technical Services Conference, have it in spades.

As described in a news feature this week, Publix's companywide focus on sustainability was launched by CEO Ed Crenshaw. Two years ago he defined sustainability as a “Tier-One initiative” and for 18 months chaired a Core Committee charged with planning and executing strategy.

“His level of commitment virtually assured the committee's success,” said Publix spokeswoman Maria Brous.

At Associated Food Stores, twice in the past three years CEO Rich Parkinson has called for each department in the company to come up with ideas to make the wholesaler more efficient and green, and present those ideas to him during a two-day meeting. He made sustainability “one of the priorities of our company,” said Roger White, executive director of marketing.

At Buehler's, a 13-store independent retailer, sustainability was stressed by the company's founders 80 years ago and passed down through the generations. Environmental initiatives are currently overseen by Scott Buehler, vice president of real estate and new store development, and a grandson of the founders.

There are other common tendencies shared by the winning companies. They have all invested in LED lighting and established reusable shopping bag programs, for example. But what is more significant is that each company has pursued a signature sustainability initiative that sets it apart and advances the cause in some unique way.

Publix, for example, has developed a “Get Into a Green Routine” program that instills good conservation habits in its 140,000 employees, such as watching for leaking fixtures and turning out the lights in empty rooms.

Associated Food Stores has gone beyond just helping its retail members sell reusable bags by partnering with Salt Lake City's mayor in a campaign to remind shoppers to bring their bags on shopping trips. AFS is producing promotional items for both consumers and stores, and selling them to any other interested retailer, including competitors.

And Buehler's has distinguished itself by configuring one of its trucks to run on waste vegetable oil instead of diesel fuel. It's done the same for a Volkswagen Jetta used by the corporate chef to visit the restaurants at the company's stores.

It's clear that companies that are great at sustainability do at least one thing that's quite different — with a little push from the CEO.

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