Specialty grocery stores such as Ellwood Thompson’s Local Market and Whole Foods Market have as part of their mission to minimize their impact on the environment and natural resources.
“We are worried about the planet. We care about the generations to come, our children and grandchildren,” said Rick Hood, owner of Ellwood Thompson’s, which has operated at Ellwood Avenue and Thompson Street near Carytown since 1993.
“So we don’t want to use chemicals, participate in any kind of food processing or support food processing or the selling of any food that is not sustainable over time. Transporting food all over the world — that is not sustainable,” Hood said.
“Our customers care about it,” said Hood, who also is one of the leaders of Real Local RVA, a group dedicated to growing the local food scene in the Richmond area.
Traditional grocery stores have jumped on the sustainability bandwagon.
They are buying beef, pork, chicken, eggs and other products from suppliers that promise their products are grass-fed, crate-free and cage-free. Grocery stores are recycling more paper, plastic and food waste, outfitting their stores with refrigeration systems that spew fewer emissions that could harm the ozone, and asking suppliers how they treat the workers who farm, pick and catch the food the stores are purchasing.
Kroger, for instance, is pledging that by 2025, all of its eggs — 100 percent — will be from cage-free suppliers. Right now, about 18 percent of the grocer’s egg sales are cage-free eggs, which cost more than regular eggs.
Some other grocery chain-specific examples include:
- Publix encourages its pharmacy customers to return pharmacy vials for recycling and several years ago reduced the amount of material in its plastic reusable wine bags.
- 34 Aldi stores across the county have received an EPA GreenChill platinum certification for use of an environmentally sustainable refrigeration system. The Aldi store at 11100 Iron Bridge Road in Chester is one of the certified stores.
- Food Lion in 2017 recycled 117,630 tons of cardboard and office paper and 4,141 tons of plastic bags, film and shrink wrap, according to a company report released on Earth Day.
- Wegmans a couple of years ago began packaging its rotisserie chickens in resealable plastic bags instead of two-pieced domed containers, reducing plastics by 75 percent, according to a company official.
- Lidl has recycling centers at its stores where customers can drop off plastics bags, aluminum cans and plastic bottles and, like many of the other grocery chains, says its fresh and frozen fish is either certified sustainable or responsibly farmed.
- Walmart in its 2017 “Global Responsibility Report” describes goals of reducing emissions by 18 percent by 2025. The retailers said it plans to install more efficient lighting in stores and parking lots, power 50 percent of its operations with renewable energy and upgrade refrigeration, heating and cooling systems.
The verdict is still out on whether these initiatives are giving traditional grocery stores an edge in the highly competitive grocery business, said local branding and strategy consultant Bob Kelley, a former executive of Ukrop’s Super Markets.
“For Ellwood Thompson’s, it drives business to them. They do it right. They are committed to it,” he said.
“In terms of the other traditional brands, Kroger, Wegmans, etc., it probably drives some business, but in certain areas. It goes back to what percent of the customer base gives a rip,” Kelley said.
That number is hard to know, though polls suggest millennials do care.
A 2015 Nielsen global online study found that three out of four millennials polled responded that they were willing to pay extra for sustainable offerings. About 51 percent of baby boomers were willing to pay extra.
The definition of sustainable is growing as more grocers embrace the movement, the Food Marketing Institute’s Andy Harig said in a December blog post.
“When we talk today about sustainable supply chains, it doesn’t just cover the environmental and energy issues at the core of FMI’s early work on the topic, but also areas like human/labor rights, sustainable sourcing, animal welfare, and food waste,” said Harig, senior director of tax, trade and sustainability at the Food Marketing Institute, which advocates on behalf of the food retail industry.
There are not a lot of measures of how grocery chains compare against one another on sustainability, but one often-cited report from Greenpeace rates grocery chains on their seafood sourcing practices. Greenpeace’s most recent “Carting Away the Oceans” report is from 2015. An updated report is due out in the next couple of months, said David Pinsky, senior oceans campaigner for Greenpeace USA.
“We launched the first edition in 2008. Since that time, we’ve seen significant improvement among many of the nation’s largest retailers. There is obviously a lot more room for improvement.”
In the 2015 report, Whole Foods, Wegmans, Hy-Vee and Safeway topped the list for their sustainable seafood practices, followed by Target, Aldi and Trader Joe’s.
Pinksy at Greenpeace said consumers have an opportunity to have an impact when they choose where to shop.
“They have purchasing power and they have that ability to ask questions, whether it’s seafood or another product they are purchasing. I encourage them to have conversations with folks behind the counter, at the registers, or managers, to ask is this product sustainable, how are the workers treated, and what is that retailer doing to make improvement,” he said. “That goes a long way.”