FMI Sustainability Summit: Only 5,000 Days to Get It Right

Sustain-Summit-Logo-PNGImage Source: Food Marketing Institute

Last week, I presented at a Sustainability Summit for the Food Marketing Institute, an industry trade group representing 3/4 all the food sold in the United States.

Joel Makower, founder of, delivered the keynote address with a bold call to action:  We have just 5,000 days to prevent irreversible global catastrophe. (Actually, since his first article about the topic, we are down to 4,844 days.)

After the conference, I am optimistically concerned. I am concerned that we have big environmental and social challenges to confront.  And I am optimistic we can do it.

A key theme of the conference was climate change.  I presented “Carbon Footprint 101,” a whitepaper I co-authored, which outlines a 5-step process for retailers to calculate a corporate carbon footprint.  A co-presenter from Verisae explained how to turn carbon liabilities into carbon assets through reduction efforts.

Then we got a tricky question from the audience:  “Our consumers want more easy-prep frozen foods.  That takes more refrigeration, more complex logistics, and it is increasing our carbon footprint.  What can we do about it?”

It is a fair question:  What do you do when consumer trends are the “problem”? After all, you want to keep the customer happy.

While I mentioned the importance of setting a baseline year, metrics, and incremental reductions, I felt my answer overall was inadequate (so I want to give it another shot).

The conference illuminated two key solutions:  Technology and behavior change.

The Technological Solution

Here is the most impressive technological success story from the conference:  When Coca-Cola conducted its emissions inventory, they surprisingly found their largest source was vending machines (not trucking).  So, Coke developed a new machine that reduces refrigerant emissions by over 99% and uses 35% less electricity.

While incremental reductions of 2% per year are commendable, they translate to just a 27% decrease by the end of Joel’s 5,000 days. That isn’t going to get us there.

Food retailers need these leap-frog technologies, and they need to be the ones to issue the challenge to equipment manufacturers.  When engineers are put to the test, they do great things.  They even got us to the moon.

For technological solutions from refrigerants to packaging, it comes down to one fundamental question:  “Could we keep doing X forever?”  If yes, continue.  If not, start over and try again.

The Behavioral Solution

Behavioral change comes down to one thing retailers do best:  Advertise (and sell) your solution to their problem. If consumers want convenience, drive them into the store with “quick and easy” cooking classes, recipes, and strategically displayed ingredients.

Or revive the grocery list.  A UCLA study found convenience foods do not save time over dinners prepared from scratch.  The author of the study explained, “When you don’t make a list, you don’t know what ingredients may be called for.  So you grab food kits off the shelf.”  And of course, to make a time-saving, price-comparing grocery list, the iPhone already has an app for that

Or use in-store promotions to educate.  As part a Personal Sustainability Project, Walmart associates walked through the aisles dressed as laundry detergent containers to promote high-efficiency detergents.  And it worked.

Consumer behavior is not inevitable—it can be shaped.

So here is another scenario:  A retailer only has 5,000 4,844 days of cash left in the bank.  Consumers are trending towards products with zero margin.  In order to survive, the business must convince consumers to buy higher margin goods or else it is kaput.  How can the business survive?

When presented that way, the answer to “What can we do about it?” is much more obvious.

Matthew Holtry is a full-time Consultant for PRIZIM Inc. and a seasonal Journalist for Triple Pundit. His previous experience includes greenhouse gas & energy consulting, eco-business journalism, and various IT roles. He recently received his MBA from Penn State University, where he also served as the President of Penn State Net Impact. He was a former AmeriCorps Team Leader with Outward Bound, has driven cross-country twice, visited 19 countries, and now resides in Washington, DC.

2 responses

  1. The “behavioral solution” is paramount – RecycleBank, for example, is an outstanding example of how the right incentives educate and reinforce new behaviors.

    I have a friend who is now recycling 3x more (including things outside the kitchen that she never knew were recyclable) and the whole family is now developing a healthy new habit.

    For grocery purchases, the program – launching early next year – will reward “conscious” choices in store, such as a better mix of fresh, organic, sustainable vs. loading up on highly processed frozen meals.

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