While environmentalism has been around since the 1960s or ‘70s, and arguably before then, the green movement became a lot more urgent with the 2006 documentary “An Inconvenient Truth” and the efforts of former Vice President Al Gore. While even experts argue about global warming, no one can argue that business took notice of the need to save the Earth, parlaying the effort into good corporate PR, the marketing of products and even some operational cost savings.
Walmart’s been a driving force, first requiring its suppliers to complete a packaging scorecard in 2008 and, in July of this year, announcing a similar effort for overall sustainability (the first supplier deadline for which was Oct. 1). Walmart does a good job of defining the multifaceted effort, dividing its new initiative into four general areas: energy and climate; material efficiency; natural resources; and people and community.
Excess packaging is an obvious target, but there are similar concerns for greenhouse gas emissions, water usage, energy reduction, even the fair (but not too rapid) economic development of third-world nations. Obviously those concerns go beyond “reduce, reuse, recycle.”
All of those concerns are starting to coalesce under term such as “ethical” manufacturing or in corporate responsibility reports. While the movement may have slowed somewhat during the recession, it looks poised to come back strong with a pickup in the economy.
Many food & beverage companies have executives with “sustainable development” or “corporate responsibility” in their titles. And consumers, at least in surveys, keep saying they will choose an “ethical” product over another … it just depends on whether their priorities are global warming, fair trade or minimal ingredients … and if their discretionary spending comes back.
One Trade Association, One Stamp
Consumers want foods & beverages grown, processed and packaged in an environmentally friendly manner; that are genuinely nutritional; that do not contain anything harmful, neither questionable ingredients nor contaminants resulting from shoddy manufacturing practices.
Imagine giving them a “score” that weighs and represents all three. That’s the dream of Winston Riley, who has started the Ecological Food Manufacturers Assn., “the only food and beverage trade association devoted to the full spectrum of ecological and ethical issues,” he says. “EFMA will serve an important role in the development and promotion of foods and beverages that are safe, nutritious and ecological.”
The quest is somewhat quixotic, but Riley has started from ground zero before. As a corporate chef, in 1996 he started the Research Chefs Assn., to bring identity and respect to those chefs who toiled in the world of food manufacturing, not in Zagat Survey restaurants.
“EFMA’s mission statement is twofold: To help companies learn to produce foods that are healthy for the consumer, healthy for the planet and healthy for the manufacturer’s bottom line, and to provide marketing support for its members,” Riley says.
Riley is a firm believer that food processors can be both responsible and profitable. When he visited our offices months ago to solicit our support, he was carrying a copy of “Stirring It Up: How to Make Money and Save the World,” by Gary Hirshberg, CEO of Stonyfield Farm (read Editor's Plate: Save the Planet, Save Some Money)
Hirshberg was building a successful and ethical yogurt company in Londonderry, N.H., even before Groupe Danone bought an 85 percent interest. The capital infusion has only allowed him to invest more in ecologically responsible manufacturing, travel the world delivering his message and directly affect the operations of a $21 billion global company. In the book and in speeches, Hirshberg tells of environmental projects at Stonyfield that also had quantifiable paybacks.
Riley’s initial goal is to create a forum where food & beverage manufacturers can reach consensus on ethical manufacturing issues, ideally spanning that wide spectrum of ecology, nutrition and safety. He wants to involve consumer groups in the process for buy-in and proof of the sincerity of the food processors’ actions.
Secondarily, he hopes his association can foster the development of more ecological manufacturing with best practices, good research and marketing support. His ultimate goal is a singular seal, ideally a singular score, on each package that represents the food & beverage processor’s commitment on all those points.
“This seal on the package will represent the industry’s only consistent measure of a good’s ecological worthiness,” he says. It could/should be a powerful decision-making force for shoppers.