Nominations for the 2019 National Co+op Grocers Climate Collaborative Awards are open now through November 30. In anticipation of next year's awards, 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 second interview is with Melissa Elkins, Sustainability Coordinator for Community Food Co-op, winner of the 2018 Outstanding Company Award (View our previous interview with Lotus Foods here).
Community Food Co-op won an Outstanding Company award for its efforts around renewable energy, improving efficiency, reducing waste and fostering resilient, regenerative farming communities.
Q: Congratulations on your award for climate leadership! As a retailer on the journey to reducing your climate impacts, what advice would you give companies who hope to have a similar positive impact?
A: Thank you! I would say that every action, no matter how small, puts you on the road to successfully implementing policies and practices within your business. We are lucky to have a sustainability coordinator on staff, but you don’t need one to make measurable differences.
Purchasing renewable energy credits (RECs) is a great place to start, even if you don’t purchase 100% offsets from the get-go (although that’s a great goal).
As a grocery store, our biggest success so far was to implement increasingly stringent best practices involving refrigeration, which has saved us thousands of dollars in repairs, several more thousands in product that wasn’t lost due to regular maintenance, and a drastic reduction in the need for additional refrigerants during the year.
But any type of company can take advantage of programs, like audits through your power and gas companies to help determine if you have leaks or have the potential to upgrade to a more efficient appliances and machinery. While the costs might be greater up front, there may be incentives available through your energy provider to purchase upgrades that will save you money in the long run.
And you can also start small; for retailers, maybe start offering a small discount to customers that use alternative transportation or bring their own bags, cups, etc. For any company, think about incentives for your staff; look for ways to subsidize bus passes or to offer a reward for staff who are dedicated to a cleaner environment.
Q: That’s all great advice, thanks. Has there been an experience leading this work that stands out to you, or an aspect that makes you particularly proud?
A: Our local farming community is very important to us and that’s where a lot of our impact can be felt, and to that end we are always looking for ways to support local farms and farmers.
Our Farm Fund has always been our most beneficial food and farming program. Recently, we started working with the Northwest Agricultural Business Center (NABC) to provide peripheral support for some of their local programs and with Community to Community (C2C) to create purchasing agreements and a retail relationship with Cooperativa Tierra y Libertad, a newly formed local berry cooperative. Our hope is that this worker-owned cooperative will serve as a model for future minority-owned cooperatives throughout our region (and country), and we are hoping to help facilitate the creation of an educational track with several other organizations so others can repeat this process in their communities.
We believe this work is a perfect fit with our vision and values, as well as with the seven Rochdale cooperative principles, and our customers were enthusiastic about purchasing the first crop of organic blueberries from Cooperativa Tierra y Libertad in our stores this summer.
Q: How did your co-op start prioritizing climate action and what specific first steps did it take?
A: As a cooperative, it has always been important for us to be conscious of our footprint and to find ways to mitigate it.
We were the first retail business in our community to start commercially composting on a large scale as soon as our local composting facility opened. Our sanitary service provider had to create a completely new system to pick up the tons of waste we were diverting from the landfill.
We’ve always had a relationship with our local food bank, and we expanded that relationship to create a program in the ’90s called Food To Bank On that provides grants to local farms to grow fresh local produce for our food banks.
Q: Wow, that sounds great and very unique. Can you tell us a little bit about 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?
A: Being a local leader in climate action has allowed us to mentor several other businesses on sustainability reporting and tracking. By sharing our successes and failures with others we can create a stronger support system for local enterprises that seek to show measurable support for environmental initiatives. Cooperatives shouldn’t be about only helping other cooperatives; a good number of us exist as unofficial community hubs that really can influence change in our communities if we partner with other like-minded businesses, in essence creating our own local coalition that gives everyone a better chance at success.
We are incredibly fortunate to live in a community that has always supported our cooperative. We were founded by people who cared where their food came from and were concerned about the environment, and we’ve been able to maintain and strengthen those values for almost 50 years. Our staff and our shoppers continue to inspire us, and we are incredibly lucky for the opportunity to support an organization whose bottom line was never focused on profits at any cost.
This article is the second in an eight-part series of interviews conducted by The Climate Collaborative.