Stop your scroll — as we social media-focused folks say. Before you move on past another article about sustainability, let’s take a step back for a moment when it comes to that big, scary “S” word.
Although challenging to relinquish, let’s start by setting aside all preconceived notions of what sustainability in the fresh produce industry means to wholesaler distributors by looking at it from a self-centered perspective: I want my company and industry to be viable in five to 30 years, and beyond.
Examining the true definition of sustainable — to prolong — allows us to agree the only way to secure a prosperous business future is to make decisions now focusing on efficiency with an immediate and future ROI. It is not a political issue; it is not even a solely social issue. At the core, sustainability ensures that we are able to continue our livelihoods, feed our families, secure our legacies and provide healthy foods.
I am deeply committed to sustainability, but I do not expect everyone to match my enthusiasm. Rather, I encourage repositioning the concept: We all recognize that navigating a successful business requires making cost-effective choices while also operating to ensure its lucrative longevity, aka sustainability.
Many wholesaler distributors already incorporate practices that “count” toward becoming a sustainable company, they just don’t realize it. For example, utilizing software to track sales and inventory data — combined with seasonal knowledge — reduces unnecessary purchasing, directly impacting profit margins and warehouse efficiency. Minimizing shrink, preventing food loss, and avoiding organic landfill emissions are all vital elements of sustainability in produce, but they’re also just good business.
Wholesaler distributors are natural problem-solvers. Approaching challenges with solution-based ideas that are environmentally-minded is a straightforward approach to incrementally creating sustainable practices. Four easy-to-address examples in wholesale distribution to improve profitability and sustainability simultaneously are warehouse operations, product management, shipping and office materials.
1) Operations. Warehouse operations and training, receiving procedures, and food safety measures are invaluable controls that directly correlate to operational costs. Measuring temperatures of inbound produce at every stage to protect the cold chain, sorting product as soon as possible to remove rot contamination, and updating old, inefficient equipment all contribute to reducing operational costs.
2) Product Management. We wouldn’t have a business without product, but over-purchasing or losing track of inventory dates can mean significant financial losses and a remaining issue of inedible food. Rather than allowing product to become distressed, hoping to find a buyer, then eventually being forced to pay to dump in landfills, forge reliable partnerships to offload product while still edible for human consumption. Alternative markets and local food recovery organizations that pick up cut costs and benefit local communities. If the items are past that stage, many animal feed companies will pick up, or local composting will convert to usable gas.
3) Shipping. Tallying freight costs in our net margins is typically a pain point, but product packaging choices, loading techniques, route efficiency, and consolidation greatly impact costs and emissions. Going one step further, check out your state and local grants for potential access to participate in climate-smart grants and funding for solar technology, electric vehicles, and improvements to your facility’s infrastructure.
4) Office Materials. Even the seemingly inconsequential actions of eliminating office paper waste to help streamline back-end processes, converting to all reusables for employees, and maintaining good recycling habits can lead to a mindset that reduces unnecessary waste while reducing overhead costs.
Wholesaler distributors are touchpoints to growers, packers, shippers and retailers, and we can influence the entire supply chain positively to benefit our industry and consumers. Employing sustainable practices can reduce expenses significantly, but the reality remains that it can also create costs that are not yet distributed equally between the supply chain.
History has proven that the more common something is, the more accessible it becomes. To create a more lucrative and sustainable future in produce, we all must get on board where feasible. That means internal data-tracking, education-sharing, and an open-mindedness when it comes to new and improved operating methods.
There are countless important reasons to participate and even encourage others to join in investing some time, energy and money into sustainable business practices. Minor reasons include ensuring our future environment is hospitable, and protecting the most disadvantaged populations from feeling the worst of the effects of climate change. Those may not be your reasons, and that is OK. When it comes to sustainability, it matters less why you came to the party; everyone will just be glad you’re there.
Sustainability is an environmental movement, but it is also a business concept. The two are not adversarial; in fact, they are inextricably linked. Perhaps sustainability isn’t such a scary word after all.
Stevie Shandler Maier is a fifth-generation member of wholesaler distributor Shapiro-Gilman-Shandler Co., SGS Produce. Her role as business development and sustainability director allows her to honor the company’s legacy while forging new paths for the future through industry involvement and advocacy, focusing on food loss and waste prevention.