Sustainability benchmarks cast light, shadow

10/30/2012 05:58:00 PM
Mike Hornick

Mike HornickJoe Pezzini, chief operating officer of Ocean Mist Farms, discusses the advantages of documenting sustainable growing practices at a Fresh Summit 2012 workshop.ANAHEIM, Calif. — For growers, measuring the benefits and costs of sustainable practices is a process that somehow manages to be both reassuring and threatening — and something that must be addressed by suppliers to Wal-Mart, which plans to roll out a sustainability “scorecard” ranking them in 2013.

The scorecard, similar to an earlier Wal-Mart initiative on packaging, was discussed at a Fresh Summit 2012 workshop, “Capitalize on Your Sustainability Efforts."

Ocean Mist Farms chief operating officer Joe Pezzini checked off a list of breakthroughs allowing growers to trim use of resources. Drip irrigation, for example, cut his company’s water use on leafy greens by 13.2 million gallons annually.

He urged workshop participants to document comparable efforts, create benchmarks to measure progress, and take credit by telling buyers and consumers.

But Mark Gale, president of Charleston Orwig, said growers fear the information will be turned against them.

“As soon as they start sharing it with Wal-Mart or McDonald’s, the next step will be the buyer forcing measurement down on growers in ways they can’t deal with,” he said.

“We’re quite fearful of that as well,” said Pezzini, who said he’s seen a version of Wal-Mart’s scorecard.

“Some of this information we would consider to be proprietary,” Pezzini said.

Ron McCormick, Wal-Mart’s senior director for local sourcing and sustainable agriculture, said the retailer’s plans can benefit growers. He and Pezzini led the workshop moderated by Tim York, president of Markon Cooperative.

“Next year we’re in the midst of rolling out a major program that will hopefully go global,” McCormick said. “It’s a way of scorecarding that allows a buyer responsible for a category to see the performance of suppliers relative to sustainability.”

It will rank all suppliers, he said, and give Wal-Mart buyers total numbers showing progress — or lack of it.

It’s a prospect that troubles some growers. Nevertheless, McCormick said, it will pay off.

“Being able to demonstrate good works is a way of securing business into the future,” he said. “We realize it’s going to be a multi-year process to improve. We will be your customer in three years; you will be our supplier. The investment is not a gamble but a mutual commitment.”

An audience member asked why growers, some who have long histories as suppliers, shouldn’t be taken at face value as protectors of natural resources and the matter dropped.

“The reality is we’re going to be held more and more accountable for the way we produce food,” Pezzini said. “Like the food safety issue, I’d rather be in there creating something than having it handed to me.”

He referred to his work with the California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement.

Tom O’Brien, who represents the Produce Marketing Association in Washington, D.C., said regulators and lawmakers will get around to sustainability metrics — eventually.

“Washington on any issue doesn’t lead, but as it becomes important it gets filtered there,” O’Brien said. “There’s such confusion about what sustainability is, a lot of policymakers don’t want to touch it just yet. But they will.”

Pezzini and McCormick saw at most a limited value to developing certifications for sustainability.



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