Consumers loved it when Wild Oats Markets introduced compostable containers for its deli, salad bar and cut fruit.
"Our sales went up 7 percent over six months in 11 stores in the Pacific Northwest," says Sonja Tuitele, spokeswoman for the 108-store natural foods chain. "That told us that consumers are paying attention."
So are manufacturers. Since the chain's January 2004 rollout of the "corntainers," made out of corn rather than plastic, a number of other companies started using the material for packaging, including Newman's Own and Wild Oats' cut fruit vendor. Wild Oats plans to test biodegradable flatware, plates and drinking cups soon.
"This industry started with that kind of environmental stewardship," says Tuitele. "It's part of our culture."
True, natural foods retailers may be more inclined to look for energy-efficient and environmentally friendly business practices. And now more than ever, they don't have to go far for ideas on how to go green, nor go broke getting there.
In 2002, green construction made up 7 percent of all U.S. construction projects, and that number is rising. "There's a lot of interest, and there's sort of a momentum building," says Brendan Owens, manager for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, a program of the U.S. Green Building Council that guides environmentally sustainable construction.
"The marketing is absolutely key. It puts them out there in the forefront, and customers are going to respond to it," says Owens.
But going green can also provide a financial payoff. Green construction can net tax credits in some states and can also earn a business better insurance rates. The U.S. Department of Energy also claims that building owners can cut electricity, natural gas, fuel oil and heat costs by 30 percent by adopting energy-efficient measures.
For small, cost-conscious retailers, protecting the environment can be as simple as recycling, buying bus passes for employees and encouraging car pools. Businesses can also use wheat-board shelving, a substrate laminate taken from the husk of wheat. They can buy energy-efficient vehicles or use non-chemical cleaners to prevent allergic reactions or illness among employees. Bi-O-Kleen, the Vancouver, Wash., maker of natural cleaners, offers cleaning products in industrial-sized packages.
At Whole Wheatery in Lancaster, Calif., it's all about recycling. The store recycles old invoices for incoming faxes, lets customers know that boxes are available for moving, and offers customers who garden apple and carrot juicing pulp for composting material. That's a few of a long list of recycling efforts. "It's everyday, normal, routine attempts to reduce, reuse and recycle," says store owner Cheryl Hughes.
Rich Samar, owner of Garden Gate Natural Foods in Allentown, Pa., recommends using paint with low levels of volatile organic compounds. He painted his 800-square-foot store using low-VOC paint to cut down on indoor air pollution. "I don't want to be breathing anything in," says Samar. "I want a comfortable store."
Samar also switched to energy-efficient lighting as part of his recent $60,000 remodel of his grocery. He said ideas for going green abound. "Just ask around," he says.
As environmentally friendly products become more available, prices are also dropping. "It's all become really affordable," says Courtney France, an engineer with Architectural Energy Corp., a Boulder, Colo.-based environmental consulting firm.
Recycled products proved to be less expensive for Wild Oats when it built new stores for its Henry's Marketplace chain in Southern California. The stores used reclaimed brick and wood from old barns, and flooring made out of recycled plastic. The 23,000-square-foot Henry's stores cost about $2 million each to build, or about 25 percent less than traditionally constructed Wild Oats stores, says Tuitele.
For many food retailers, perhaps the biggest lure to be green is energy conservation. Food retailers typically spend 60 percent to 80 percent of their energy bills on refrigeration, says Owens. That compares to an office building, which uses 20 percent on refrigeration.
Energy costs are the second-largest expense behind labor for the Salisbury, N.C.-based Food Lion grocery chain, which has won plaudits for its efforts to reduce energy use since 1998. "Anything a grocer can do to decrease energy goes straight to the bottom line," says Jeff Lowrance, spokesman for the chain of 1,220 stores. More than 200 Food Lion stores—more than any U.S. retailer—have earned the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Energy Star designation.
The chain estimates it has reduced its energy use by more than 1.62 trillion British thermal units since 2000. In 2004, Food Lion says, the amount of energy it saved was equivalent to preventing 270 million pounds of carbon dioxide emissions, taking 27,700 cars off the road, planting 37,000 acres of trees or powering 12,159 American homes.
Food Lion cut its energy costs by 18 percent last year after switching to energy-efficient lighting, installing new anti-reflective freezer doors and setting up company-wide rules that require employees to turn off unused equipment, such as a deli oven.
Shading sun-exposed windows and repainting building exteriors with light colors can also cut air conditioning expenses. A number of bigger retailers, including Whole Foods, are increasingly using natural light from windows and skylights specially designed to prevent glare and allow the proper amount of daylight. Because light can hurt produce, some retailers use a "kawl wall," which lets 99 percent of the light through but cuts out the harmful UV rays.
A less expensive tip: Switch to compact fluorescent lamps or other energy-efficient lighting. That is perhaps one of the simplest ways to yield fast paybacks on an energy bill, according to the Department of Energy. A lighting calculator found on the Department of Energy's Web site, www.eere.energy.gov, can help estimate potential energy savings for lighting systems, water and heating, air conditioning, and a refrigeration system. More tips on going green can be found at www.usgbc.org and www.energystar.gov.
Jennifer Alsever is a business reporter in Denver.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVI/number 3/p. 58