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Denim, old tires: building blocks for green co-op

April 24, 2008

5 Min Read
Denim, old tires: building blocks for green co-op

Many natural products stores aspire to be ecologically responsible, but it takes commitment to implement renewable and sustainable practices.

When it came time for the Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op to open a second location in nearby Elk Grove, Calif., the decision makers put their money where their mouths were. The new store, which opened in June, sets a truly impressive standard.

?We wanted this store to be as green as possible,? says co-op General Manager Paul Cultrera. ?If we had built the store by conventional means, we probably would?ve spent about $300,000 less. But we wanted the new location to represent the values of the co-op.?

There?s nothing conventional about the new location. First, all of the store?s energy is renewable, thanks to a unique agreement with the Sacramento Municipal Utility District. The co-op pays a premium for solar and wind-derived energy, and the premium is funneled back into further renewable energy research. The co-op is currently the largest Sacramento business to use this program. Additionally, co-op members can sign up with SMUD to transform their own homes into green energy residences.

The Elk Grove store was built using almost entirely recycled and earth-friendly materials. The floors come from recycled tires and cork. The countertops are made of layered paper, compressed and baked to form solid sheets. The building?s insulation consists entirely of recycled scrap from manufacturing blue jeans. The indirect-direct heating and cooling system is 30 percent to 50 percent more efficient than traditional systems because it?s cooled with water rather than electricity.

These details represent only the tip of the iceberg for this marvel of green technology. It?s all in keeping with the Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op?s 30-year legacy of earth-friendly practices. Like so many co-ops, SNFC got its start as a buying club for a small group of local residents who wanted healthy food. It has gone from humble roots to $19 million in annual sales. And all of this has taken place in a city that, on the surface at least, doesn?t appear to be the best place for a forward-thinking, ecologically minded operation.

?Sacramento is a fairly conservative town,? Cultrera says. ?It doesn?t have a big university, either. It seems like it really doesn?t have what it takes for a successful natural market. It took Whole Foods up until two years ago to move in here, and I think that was because they saw the success we were having here.?

So what?s the secret to the co-op?s long success? Cultrera points to a few key ingredients. The first is overall appearance and vibe. ?Our store isn?t intimidating,? he says. ?People expect a natural foods co-op to be this dark place with raisins on the floor, and that you need a secret handshake to get in. Our co-op looks more like a supermarket. The products are completely different, of course, but [our appearance] doesn?t overstate that.?

Additionally, the co-op ensures that its customers know the benefits of shopping organic. ?We offer a lot of education,? Cultrera says. ?We?ve got a full lineup of classes that take place in our in-store education center. There?s everything from cooking to yoga to gardening.?

The educational efforts of the co-op extend to its newsletter, as well as its newly upgraded and revamped Web site. ?Our newsletter is a 24-page publication that goes out monthly to somewhere between 12,000 and 13,000 people,? Cultrera says. ?We just see it—and the Web site—as another vehicle to reach people, to educate them. There are recipes, class schedules and articles about current issues that we think might be of interest to our members.?

Cultera believes another factor behind SNFC?s success is that it sticks rigidly to an ?all organic? policy. ?I think people respect our integrity and vision,? he says. ?They know that when they shop at our stores, they?re going to get 100 percent organic products.?

Finally, the co-op has an extremely loyal staff. ?I?ve only been here about seven years, so I?m sort of the new person still,? Cultrera says. ?We?ve got a lot of people who have been working here for 10 years or more; some are even up to 20. The average staff tenure is about 10 years—I think that really helps to keep the co-op focused on its goals.?

The co-op?s ongoing success has allowed it to create progressive projects such as the Adopt-an-Organic-Farm Project, which benefits small-scale farmers who don?t have the money to certify their crops organic under the National Organic Standards Act of 2002. Instead of simply letting such farms? products slip from the shelves, the co-op now helps pay some of the farms? organic certification fees.

?We had decided that we wanted our produce department to be 100 percent organic,? Cultrera says. ?But we didn?t want to turn these [noncertified] people away—we still wanted to support local farmers.?

Proceeds from bumper-sticker sales and events such as the co-op?s monthly Bioneers Community Discussion Series, which highlights scientific and social innovators, help fund the Adopt-an-Organic Farm Project. Thus far, the program has aided three small farms in obtaining organic certification. Currently, a third of the co-op?s produce section is from local farmers.

Other successful programs the co-op has implemented include a 10 percent discount for individuals and families on government assistance, and a food share program, which gives shoppers an easy means to donate money to local nonprofit organizations dedicated to feeding the city?s hungry.

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVI/number 10/p. 58

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