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Natural Foods Merchandiser

12 budget-friendly sustainability tips for natural retailers

Retailers employ many sustainability efforts in their stores to not only cut costs but also to be kind to the environment. But which strategies, beyond looking good for business, make the best use of a retailer's time and have the most environmental impact? Retailers share their favorites.

LeeAnn Zubay, owner of Zzest Market and Café in Rochester, Minn., knows sustainability isn't as easy as it sounds. Garbage is included in her rent, but her building complex doesn't offer recycling. A customer recently told Zubay that she wouldn't return because the business doesn't recycle beyond cardboard. "All I can do is apologize," Zubay says. "To her [the customer] it seems simple, but I'm just doing what I can to stay in business."

Zubay's situation is a classic example of smaller, independent natural retailers nationwide that don't have the time to focus on sustainability measures, whether due to competing with big box grocers or to not having the staff or even the facilities to carry out their eco-friendly efforts.

One of the biggest reasons sustainability is so difficult to incorporate for natural retailers is because sustainability is all encompassing, says Jeanne von Zastrow, senior director of sustainability and industry relations for Food Marketing Institute (FMI).

"The thing that makes it so complicated is that it is literally part of everybody's job in the entire company. It's not just one department or one person," von Zastrow says. Sustainability also encompasses everything from operations to how a retailer talks to customers. "There's no easy way to approach it, and that's why people have a really hard time with it because it's not easy to define," she adds.

A sustainability starting place

Two guides published by FMI seek to make sustainability a no-brainer for smaller to medium-sized companies. The FMI Sustainability Starter Kit [PDF], developed by FMI, is a 106-page guide provides a framework and strategic guidance to help retailers create different levels of sustainability programs in their stores. The price of the guide ranges from $195 to $395, depending upon membership with FMI.

The Sustainability Quick Start Guide [PDF], a new, free guide from FMI was first initiated by The New Jersey Food Council and The Massachusetts Food Dealer. By retailers, for retailers "it's really simple stuff but organized in a way that's easy to check off," says von Zastrow.

The Quick Start guide was created to help a wide range of retailers, from convenient stores to large grocery chains, says Bill Sweet, vice president of engineering and construction for Price Chopper Supermarkets. Sweet was instrumental in creating the starter kit, and says it's great for "those interested in some commitment to sustainability but who are not positioned to do a complete rollout."

Going green on a budget

So what's the best way to spend your time if you want your business to be greener? The answer depends on your budget, your time and your team. There is no one-size-fits-all approach, but the key to starting with sustainability is to start small and measure results.

"Moving your business toward more sustainable operations doesn’t have to cost a lot of time or money," says Diana Crane, director of sustainability for PCC Natural Markets. "Good areas to start are natural resources use [such as energy and water] and waste generation as they are both easy to baseline and track over time."

Here are 12 recommendations by retailers and industry to jumpstart your natural store's sustainability.

  1. Offer plastic bag recycling.
    Four out of five grocery bags are plastic, according to The Society of the Plastics Industry. Because recycled plastic bags are worth about $400 per ton, FMI says that offering recycling could create revenue for retailers and partnering municipalities. Retailers are already taking advantage. The American Plastics Council reports that more than 1,800 U.S. businesses recycle post-consumer plastics, and most are food retailers.
  2. Recycle whenever possible and compost spoiled produce.
    In the event a store's building complex doesn't offer recycling (as is the case with Zubray's store), take advantage of the recycling options that may be available (as Zubray does with cardboard recycling). Break down cardboard boxes and reuse them, and find out which shipping companies are happy to collect them.
  3. Sell reusable shopping bags.
    The Food Marketing Institute found that more than nine in 10 food retailers sell reusable shopping bags and half of their customers use these bags at least one to three times a month. In addition to cutting down on plastic expense, reusable bags offer a marketing opportunity for the store. Two grocers leading the anti-plastic charge include PCC Natural Markets and Natural Grocers by Vitamin Cottage.
  4. Source locally.
    Part of the appeal of Zubay's Zzest Market and Café is that it features specialty imports balanced out with local goods."My goal is to find the small producer in the U.S.," Zubay says. "Often a farmer will put [the goods] in their car and bring it over," which cuts down on shipping costs. The passion for local food is growing and more consumers are looking to keep their purchases stateside to cut down on carbon footprint.
  5. Switch to compact fluorescent lamps or other energy-efficient lighting.
    Although refrigeration takes up the bulk of a retailer's energy bills, usually more than half, replacing refrigeration systems can be expensive. Start with the bulbs. Swapping out a store's lighting for energy-efficient bulbs is a quick and inexpensive way to save on energy bills.
  6. Boost the bulk aisle to cut down on packaging.
    Longmont, Colo.-based Simply Bulk's eco-friendly motto is, "Pay for the product, not for the package." The eco-friendly store encourages customers to bring their own containers for the 500 bulk food items, shampoos, soaps and cleaners. But in this case, sustainability goes beyond ditching the package. As one customer is quoted as saying in the retailer's marketing, "It is so convenient to buy what I need and not have to buy a large quantity of something I know I won't be able to use before it gets stale." 

  7. Employ simple water-saving measures.
    For retailers, "water is the new oil," says Sweet. It's the little things that add up when it comes to water conservation. Easy tips to try: Instead of thawing out seafood with running water, plan ahead and put it in a refrigeration case to thaw. When mopping or cleaning, don't let the water run, and turn off faucets while preparing food.
  8. Host an eco-challenge competition for your employees.
    When Price Chopper Supermarkets hosted its eco-challenge to see which store could reduce its energy consumption the most, any kind of reduction would have been a win. "But they exceeded our expectations," explains Sweet. Plus, reminding employees of simple eco-friendly tips, and throwing some prizes into the mix, not only helps during the challenge. Sweet says eco-friendly habits have continued long after the winners were announced. For smaller stores, stage a competition among departments or even individual employees.
  9. Open 24/7 or late into the night? Get night curtains.
    Night curtains, those insulated shades that mount on top of open refrigeration cases, are essential for keeping cooling costs low. The curtains trap the cold air from moving out of the cases when shoppers aren't around.
  10. Keep your store's equipment in tune.
    This may seem like a no brainer, but ensuring that equipment—such as your HVAC, refrigeration and compressors—is operating at manufacturer's specifications can have tremendous cost savings, says Sweet. "Preventative maintenance isn't done as much as it should be [in stores]," he adds.
  11. Leverage sustainability initiatives already in place.
    Chances are, being eco-friendly is second-nature to many natural retailers. From offering compostable containers in the prepared foods section to cleaning with chemical-free products, it's important to let customers know of any sustainability effort no matter how small. Consider posting signage that lets customers know the business cares about the environment.
  12. Don't make sustainability initiatives sound new.
    Northeast regional supermarket chain Wegmans Foods Market suggests being careful when communicating sustainability efforts to customers. Making initiatives sound new could lead customers to view them as temporary. Couch words carefully and focus on the benefits for the customer.
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