Sustainability seems to be on consumers' minds these days, and several groups within the natural and organic food industry are hoping to be the movement's trailblazers.
Most recently, 19 organic food companies joined forces to launch the nonprofit Food Trade Sustainability Leadership Association. The group intends to help companies share best practices and work toward solutions to sustainability challenges. Some of the initial companies that have joined include Amy's Kitchen, Nature's Path, Organic Valley Family of Farms, PCC Natural Markets and UNFI. The group hopes to sign on 50 more companies throughout the next year.
"The unprecedented scale and speed of global climate change, combined with the rising cost of energy inputs, puts into stark view the vulnerabilities of the food system," said Natalie Reitman-White, executive director of the FTSLA and sustainability coordinator at Eugene, Ore.-based Organically Grown Co. "Our vision is for the organic sector to lead the way in the transition toward a sustainable food system by demonstrating successful, sustainable business models that will, in time, become the beacon for the entire food industry."
The FTSLA's first action was to launch a "Declaration of Sustainability" campaign focused on defining what sustainability means to the food industry; creating processes for businesses to work toward 11 action areas such as climate change, labor, water and animal care; providing a framework for businesses to transparently report progress; and recognizing businesses that make measurable gains. Companies that sign the pledge will receive education and tools to support their efforts.
Other groups have also joined the sustainability chorus. The Leonardo Academy, a nonprofit environmental think tank based in Madison, Wis., is seeking to create, in partnership with the American National Standards Institute, a new label for sustainability. But the National Campaign for Sustainable Agriculture finds that goal redundant, and likens it to a chase after a moving target.
"We are unconvinced of the need for or merit of a new and broad sustainable agriculture standard beyond already existing eco-labels addressing sustainability in the farm and food sector. The United States already has a very reliable and effective organic standard," the NCSA wrote in an e-mail. In addition, "Ecosystems in which agricultural practices operate are extremely versatile and dynamic. Creating static, universal ‘sustainable agriculture' standards cannot meet the ever-changing and geographically different ecological conditions that govern agriculture. In our view, it is better to retain sustainable agriculture as a statement about goals and objectives rather than try to capture it at one moment in time as a roster of specific standards."
Reitman-White, of the FTSLA, said her group has no interest in creating a new certification. "We're more interested in the process in which companies move toward action." As for whether Leonardo is a bane or a boon to the industry, the FTSLA is taking a wait-and-see approach. "We've applied to the [Leonardo] committee because we want to be involved in influencing its direction. We have some concern if the standard ends up permitting practices prohibited by the National Organic Program," Reitman-White said.
"I think creating standards at this point is somewhat premature because sustainability is such a huge topic. Transportation, packaging, energy—most green-team leaders I know are just trying to wrap our heads around what are all the things we should be working on and how do we make progress? It's a long-term goal."
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVIII/number 9/p. 9