ATLANTA — Sustainability can be a hard concept to define and implementing sustainable practices can even seem risky, but in the end it just makes good business sense.
That was the message Oct. 15 at “By the Numbers: The ROI of Sustainability,” a workshop at the Produce Marketing Association’s Fresh Summit 2011.
“All over the world, companies are talking about sustainability — consumers are talking about sustainability,” said session moderator Mary Shelman, director of the agribusiness program at the Boston-based Harvard Business school.
Nikki Rodoni, director of sustainability for Oxnard, Calif.-based Gills Onions LLC, talked about the process Gills developed to convert waste from its fresh peeled onion product into a source of renewable energy and cattle feed (which the company sells). Gills produces about 300,000 pounds of onion waste a day, Rodoni said, and previously ejected it onto fields to dispose of it.
“We spent $450,000 a year on fuel and labor just for that,” Rodoni said.
She said it was sometimes difficult to get support or approval for the energy system from financial backers and government regulators, but that Gills’ owners saw the program as necessary for the company’s continued growth.
The system, which began operating in 2009, has allowed Gills Onions to virtually elminate the waste stream from its onion processing, Rodoni said, and saves about $700,000 a year on energy costs.
Ad Klaassen, secretary general of the Dutch Produce Association, Breda, The Netherlands, talked about a partnership formed in 2009 between the government and private sector companies to use glasshouse growing as a source of energy. He said there are currently 5,000 hectares (12,355 acres) of glasshouse fruit and vegetable production in Holland, and the project’s goal is to make glasshouses energy neutral by 2020.
He said the program is exploring multiple ways to limit overall energy use, use renewable energy and make fossil fuel use more efficient. Those include optimizing the temperature, humidity and CO2 levels in glasshouses, better use of natural and LED lighting, geothermal energy and research into bio energy techniques.
Hugh Mowat, technical manager of fresh produce and flowers for London-based Marks and Spencer PLC, gave an overview of Marks & Spencer’s effort to make the firm the world’s most sustainable retailer.
“It was called Plan A because there was no Plan B,” Mowart explained.
Marks & Spencer’s goal was to implement 100 projects in five years to make the company’s operations more sustainable across the board. Plan A started in 2007 and the company completed enough projects during the program’s first couple of years that Marks & Spencer added 80 more, Mowat said.
Efforts included reducing energy use in store refrigerators and developing food products to help consumers eat more healthfully.
“It’s good for business,” Mowat said. He said Marks & Spencer found it ended up making money as a result of its sustainability efforts.
After the presentations, Shelman led a discussion among panelists and an audience question-and-answer session.
Rodoni, Klaassen and Mowat stressed the importance of long-term thinking and being willing to take risky moves when venturing into sustainability.
“We were responding to industry requests for reporting on our sustainability effort,” Rodoni said. “We look for the good business case (for sustainability efforts) and then report out the environmental benefits.”
One audience member asked how companies should deal with different definitions of or approaches to sustainability.
Mowat said that at one level, differences in standards and methods don’t matter as long as companies start examining their operations.
“I think that’s the most important thing — that people start measuring stuff.”
“I think it’s important not to compare one farming operation to another,” she said.
Instead, compare the company to itself and measure progress toward sustainable practices over time, Rodoni said.