Using systems thinking to reduce carbon emissions

California-based distributor Veritable Vegetable won the 2018 Climate Collaborative Award for Outstanding Company by drastically reducing carbon emissions throughout its truck fleet and warehouses. Here, CEO Mary Jane Evans talks all things sustainable, and gives advice to companies hoping to have a similar positive impact.

6 Min Read
The Climate Collaborative

As we move toward the 2019 National Co+op Grocers Climate Collaborative Awards on Climate Day at Expo West this year, we're talking with the leaders of our 2018 award-winning companies to learn a little bit more about what drives their climate leadership.

Our fifth interview is with Mary Jane Evans, CEO of Veritable Vegetable, winner of a 2018 Outstanding Company Award.

California-based distributor Veritable Vegetable received an Outstanding Company Award for its comprehensive and successful approach to reducing emissions throughout its fleet and warehouses.

Congratulations on your award! Can you talk a little about how you got started on a path to climate leadership?

Systems thinking has always informed our approach to reducing our carbon footprint throughout the company. For example, we divert 99 percent of our waste from landfill, follow stringent guidelines for everything we procure, use all non-toxic supplies and always research the most efficient solutions for everything from lighting to refrigeration.

Because our trucks represent a large carbon footprint, we began developing a greener fleet and prioritized environmental concerns regarding fleet-related purchases as soon as we began purchasing our own vehicles. We consider the manufacturer’s commitment to the environment as demonstrated by their business practices, as well as specific model emission data. 

Our first investment was for an alternate fuel (dual fuel) straight truck. Although we only utilized the dual fuel truck for a few years, it fed our determination to continue finding resources to green our fleet. In addition to purchasing sustainable equipment, our efforts also included better operational efficiencies, such as making sure our vehicles are full in both directions to maximize every mile driven.

We continuously invest in state of the art equipment and adopt new technologies to increase our efficiencies on the road, including: adopting telematics and idle shutdown technology before they were mandated, using insulated cabs for the comfort of our drivers, and developing a robust tire program to increase our fuel efficiency. We investigate emerging technologies and support vendors’ efforts in advancing their developing technologies.  We’re really excited about renewable diesel and all-electric trucks as we continue to find ways to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions. 

How do you integrate climate into your work, internally and externally?

We don’t have a director of sustainability or one person that manages our environmental initiatives, rather our efforts take place in every department at every level of the company.  All of us are on the green team at VV. It’s in our DNA and has been from the beginning. This systems approach places the work we do in our own company to care for our staff in the larger context of how we impact our broader community of customers and growers, and ultimately to how we sustain the environment as a whole. 

We get a lot of interest in what we are doing from our network of customers, vendors, and community partners. It deepens our relationships, our partnerships, and opens the door for conversations about our values and our commitment to sustainability. I believe this helps us internally, too, attracting and retaining staff who are committed to climate action and our mission-driven business model. 

What are some of the challenges you’ve had to overcome to get where you are today?

From the beginning, I wanted to reduce the environmental impact of our fleet of trucks, but it was hard to find the technologies to suit our needs. We met resistance from two of our fleet suppliers—they wanted to see more widespread adoption before offering alternatives. There was lack of infrastructure to support hybrids. We persevered and kept pushing and asking until we found a supplier that understood our vision and could work with us. It took some time but the industry eventually came around.

We’ve also been working to reduce our reliance on wooden pallets and one-use plastic wrap by incorporating reusable pallets and reusable pallet wrap in our operation. Our customers like the idea of reducing their footprint in this way, but it’s been challenging to get more customers on board. We’re currently working on new strategies to make this program more robust and adopted widely. 

What inspires you to pursue climate leadership? Was there a defining moment, experience or realization you can share that really crystalized this direction for you?

I’ve been about the environment since long before I came to Veritable Vegetable. As a sailor, biker, hiker—understanding the world around me was always imperative. In my late teens, I was convinced I needed to make a difference. The late '60s and early '70s were so transformational–for the country, too–so much science and literature came out to support the interconnectedness of all species and ecosystems and the importance of understanding the whole process. Luckily, focusing on organic agriculture and distribution was an easy vehicle to hold these values close as I helped develop the business. 

As a leader in the organic distribution trade, we must demonstrate our commitment to the environment. We’ve seen first-hand the effects of climate change on our growers. An extreme drought or wet season can decimate entire operations for our farmers. It’s devastating. We know cherry growers who have lost 5 successive years of their crop due to climate change. Making a difference by constantly improving our business and incorporating the cleanest technologies and equipment on the market is imperative. 

What is your vision for the future of climate action in the natural foods industry?

Our goal is to have every business in the supply chain, or values chain if you want to be more accurate, comprehend the importance of climate action and do their part, no matter how small, to reverse the direction we are going. So many practices need to change throughout the values chain. My favorite idea is that the economic system and profit model will shift, that we can develop a food system focused on quality and cost, not quantity and price. 

What advice would you give companies who hope to have a similar positive impact?

Your values have to be at the root of your business model because they will inform your actions. It’s not easy; being an early adopter and pushing new environmental initiatives involves risk. But if you engage your community, and continuously strive to learn and change, then you often find creative solutions that you don’t expect. Staying nimble helps, as does investing internally in better systems and more support for your staff.  When you approach your work systemically, it all matters—the actions that take place internally, how you support your staff, the environment you create and cultivate within the walls of your business, all the way to the decisions you make regarding your broader network of community. I would close by saying, don’t give up, stay curious and determined to make a positive change in the world.

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This article is the fourth in an eight-part series of interviews conducted by The Climate Collaborative.

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