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Interview: Jessy Servi, Outpost Natural Foods Co-Op

By Nick Aster

Embedding sustainability into any organization is often easier said than done. But when the organization has been founded on principals that are in keeping with sustainability, it's an easier conversation to have.  The co-op model is a business structure that by its nature supports the long-term thinking that is key to sustainability. I was curious to know more about how it works and how it's related to the triple bottom line.

Jessy Servi, sustainability manager for Milwaukee's Outpost Natural Foods, the fourth largest consumer food cooperative in the U.S., answered a few questions about her company, how it works and how the co-op model has helped make sustainability a reality.

TriplePundit: Jessy, tell me a little about who Outpost is?

Jessy Servi: We're a community owned cooperative -- a natural and organic grocery store owned by more than 22,000 members of our community. We've been around since 1970 and now have four store locations, a market cafe, and [a] wholesale and catering division. For example, you can find our house-made foods at area hospitals.

3p: What's Outpost's definition of sustainability?

JS: We exist so that our owners have a healthy, diverse and sustainable community. We were founded on the foundation of Earth care and people care. Today, our vision and definition for sustainability is much the same; Outpost will conduct business in a way that meets not only the needs of the present generation but also of future generations. We embrace the challenge to move our operations and actions toward sustainable models and to understand and manage the impact we make on this Earth and in our community, both environmentally and socially.

Outpost believes in the triple bottom line, and our business is structured accordingly. Each year, we publish a sustainability report that tracks our ecological and social footprints. This process allows us to determine material metrics, set goals for future improvement and allows us to share our story with the community.

As a culture, and as an organization, we believe in a continuous growth path; our vision is to thrive financially, socially and environmentally -- setting a positive example for our community and for other cooperatives.

 3p: What are some of the main things you do as an organization to be more sustainable?

JS: Outpost is strongly committed to renewable energy. Since 1999 we have invested in renewables, and we currently offset 100 percent of our store energy use through our partner REpower Now, a program that supports independent renewable energy generators in our state.

We also compost all of our food waste. In fiscal year 2014 we composted over 141 tons of food waste, which avoided 124 metric tons a month of [carbon dioxide equivalent] emissions. This compost gets sent to a local compost facility where it is sold back to the community as soil. In fact, we used that soil to plant 15 raised bed gardens at our newest Mequon store location, where we planted food that supplied our onsite café and central kitchen. You can’t get any more local that that!

Honestly, Outpost has a holistic view of sustainability and as a member of the Sustainable Food Trade Association, we measure impacts in the following 11 key reporting areas: organics, distribution and sourcing, energy use, climate change and air emissions, water use and quality, solid waste reduction, packaging and marketing materials, labor, animal care, sustainability education (internal and external), as well as governance and community engagement.

Additionally we are committed as a whole organization to sustainable solutions as a core strategic theme to reach our 2022 goals. Read our sustainability report for more information here: www.outpost.coop/about/sustainability (Our FY14 report should be out beginning of April)

3p: How does the co-op model work for Outpost?

JS: Co-ops are founded on the belief that we can achieve greater results by working together than we can by working alone. We are a consumer co-op: a business that is voluntarily owned and controlled by the people who use it. 

We’ve come a long way from being the small radical co-op that was started in 1970. However, some things remain the same: like our commitment to being a locally-owned grocer with strong commitment wholesome natural foods, our commitment to diverse neighborhoods and our commitment to sustaining this Earth we all call home! Being a co-op grounds us in the local community and helps us live our vision and values as an organization.

3p: Do you feel that being a co-op makes it easier to be a sustainable company? How?

JS: Yes, because 'concern for community' is one of the seven international principles that govern cooperatives around the world, and it's only natural that the community includes environment and sustainability. It's about what we do today that will impact and improve our community tomorrow. We still live out the values of our founding members, and sustainability was one of our core values.  Back in 1970 our original owners planted seeds for a democratically-run, value-driven business that provided the natural and organic products they were looking for. Today our co-op is supported by over 22,000 owners who are united by the same core beliefs and come to Outpost because they want wholesome food from a sustainable business that walks its talk.

3p: Community outreach and education is a big part of what Outpost does. Can you tell me a little more about what you do in that regard and why?

JS: At Outpost, we envision an ideal world where our community has access to organically- and locally-produced goods, is educated about choices that impact the environment and supports a locally-based economy. For more than 44 years, we have worked to help build our community through sponsorships, food donations and grassroots partnerships. We do this with a variety of programs, partnerships, events and classes as a way to support the community and help work toward our vision.

One example is our Community Partners program where each year four locally-based nonprofit organizations apply to [be] given the opportunity to build greater community awareness of the group and also raise funds for their efforts. (See Community & Education sections of our sustainability report)

3p: Mainstream grocers are finally starting to get on board with sustainability. How are you staying ahead of the curve?

JS: As a cooperative we are able to get direct feedback from our owners about their needs and expectations. This allows us to be able to meet their needs in an efficient and effective way. Since sustainability has been a part of Outpost’s core since the beginning, the community trusts us to be transparent, as we always have been. Telling our story, listening to our owners, providing what they want and always being open to change is how we continue to be a staple in our community.

Jessy Servi is the Sustainability Manager for Outpost Natural Foods, the fourth largest consumer food cooperative in the US.  Leveraging a diverse background in design, education, business, project management, and permaculture, Jessy brings ecological and social awareness to the business arena, promoting a triple bottom line strategy.  Jessy is responsible for tracking and monitoring sustainability in the key areas of: organics, distribution & sourcing, energy, climate change, water, waste, packaging, labor, animal care, consumer education, and governance & community engagement. Jessy is passionate about designing creative and high-performing cultures to be thoughtful stewards, making sound business decisions with respect for future generations.  She manages green teams at all Outpost locations and is responsible for both internal and external communication of sustainability at Outpost. She earned her MBA from Alverno College with a focus on sustainable business management and works developing sustainable urban agriculture leaders in Milwaukee.  She is also an advisor for the Wisconsin Sustainable Business Council and a 2014 fellow in the New Leaders Council.

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Nick Aster is the founder of TriplePundit. Prior to launching 3p, Nick worked for Mother Jones magazine, successfully re-launching the magazine's online presence. He worked for TreeHugger.com, managing the technical side of the publication for 3 years, and has also been an active consultant for individuals and companies entering the world of micro-publishing. He also worked for Gawker Media and Moreover Technologies in the early days of blogging. Nick holds an MBA in sustainable management from the Presidio School of Management and graduated with a BA in History from Washington University in St. Louis.

Read more stories by Nick Aster