Before I even read a word of the Food Marketing Institute’s (FMI) sustainability guide for grocery stores, titled Sustainability on the Shelves: A Sourcing Guide for Category Managers & Buyers, I had my suspicions it would be a load of greenwashing. It didn’t help when I noticed on the title page that the guide, prepared by Five Winds International and Ecos US, is sponsored by the United Soybean Board. The Board’s website has an article posted titled, “It Is Time to Let Both Farmers and Consumers Benefit from the Flexibility of GM Technology.” The Board also has a paper titled, “The Benefits of Biotechnology” extols the benefits of “agricultural biotechnology.”
As I began to read the introduction, I read something in the disclaimer that seemed to confirm my suspicions: “This Guide DOES NOT recommend that buyers and category managers source more sustainable products.” The disclaimer goes on to state that the decision to source more sustainable products “should be based on individual retailer’s sustainability priorities and procurement strategies.” The guide, the disclaimer also stated, is for buyers and category managers that “already identified sustainability priorities and wishes to integrate them into their purchasing decisions.” In other words, the guide is for those who want to source more sustainable products.
The disclaimer makes more sense when considering the guide’s stated purpose: “provide a basic overview of sustainability in the food retail sector and a framework to help food retail buyers and category managers respond to both their company’s and customers’ demand for more sustainable products in specific retail categories.”
More sustainable products are already in grocery stores, and are something shoppers want, as FMI’s 2010 U.S. Grocery Shopper Trends report shows. Over half (53 percent) of shoppers said their store offers locally-grown or produced products, and they buy local products for freshness (77 percent), to support the local economy (73 percent), and the satisfaction of knowing the product’s source (46 percent)
A webinar training session accompanies the guide. The guide itself addresses issues in four categories: grocery (cereal, boxed goods, canned goods), general merchandise (home cleaning, personal care), fresh (meat, dairy, produce), beverage (bottled water, soda, alcohol, non-perishable juice, coffee, tea) and seafood (fresh or frozen). The goal of both the guide and the webinar, as stated in the guide, is to:
- Provide good working understanding of sustainability in the food retail sector
- Identify key sustainability issues specific to each product category
- Have questions and tools to help understand and verify sustainability claims, recognize “greenwashing”, and select more sustainable products
Despite my initial suspicions, I found the guide to be a good starting point for its intended targets, retail buyers and category managers who already care about sustainability. Grocery stores, and retailers in general, are, as the guide puts it, “a pivot point for corporate sustainability.” Retailers can influence both their suppliers and customers.