Companies that have gone down the road to sustainability say there are different paths.

Some corporate sustainability philosophies are driven from the top, and others take form organically, with help from a range of executives working at different layers.

Among companies that have stated sustainability goals, about 60% have environmental groups comprised of employees accountable for the goals, according to the “Vault Guide to Green Programs” study from Vault.

Just over a third of firms assign a corporate sustainability executive to head the environmental group, while another 30% hold accountable a whole corporate sustainability department, according to Vault.

At the root of a good sustainability program is an effort to revamp a corporate culture, with the means to promote it internally, said Bev Oster, president and creative director at Oster & Associates, a marketing agency in San Diego that has focused on sustainability messages for the past several years.

“For many companies it’s a rebranding that helps companies add more potential customers through advertising and public relations. You have to sell it internally first, though,” she said.

SureHarvest, Soquel, Calif., has worked with companies who have sustainability programs at different stages. It has operated in the sustainability sphere since 1999.

“The best corporate programs we’ve seen are driven by senior management,” said Andrew Arnold, senior consultant.

Group approach

C.H. Robinson Co., Eden Prairie, Minn., has a steering committee for sustainability at its corporate office that reaches out to green captains at each of its 230 locations, said Bud Floyd, vice president of produce marketing.

Each business sector has a representative on the dozen-strong committee, which he said meets quarterly.

“When we were getting started, we met on a monthly basis, but now we’re up to speed,” he said, adding that various business units meet about sustainability efforts on an ad hoc basis.

In late 2009, Ag-Mart Produce, Plant City, Fla., formally instituted its 17-member sustainability group, said Kevin Delaney, director of sustainability and productivity.

The desire for a sustainability strategy came from the top of the company, Delaney said.

Village Farms International, Eatontown, N.J., also uses a group approach to sustainability, because it does not have a designated sustainability director, said Helen Aquino, marketing manager.

“Sustainability is a by-product of our methods,” Aquino said. “It’s driven down by a firm belief from our CEO and COO.”

At the firm’s last national sales meeting, sustainability was a big topic, and sales representatives brainstormed on good ways to present the firm’s sustainability message to customers, she said.

While the company has not yet developed a sustainability report, it would consider doing so, she added.

Lone ranger approach

Some companies take their sustainability inspiration directly from the top.

A bit of a pioneer in the area, Brady Matoian, chief executive officer of OK Produce, Fresno, Calif., took the sustainability bull by the horns in the early part of the last decade.

In 2002, the company installed 45,000 square feet of solar on top of its roof — at the time it was one of the biggest arrays in the state, Matoian said.

“Our first move into sustainability was solar, which is inverted since a lot of people start off with doing recycling and then move up to bigger things,” he said.

Now, with a more refined perspective, Matoian is leading the company toward LEED certification of its operation, and it also has a 95% packaging recycling rate.

Everybody approach

At retailer Fresh & Easy, Riverside, Calif., one of the internal core values is to be a good neighbor, which includes aspects of sustainability.

Because of that underlying philosophy, everyone in the company plays a role in sustainability, said spokesman Brendan Wonnacott.

Roberto Munoz, director of neighborhood affairs, oversees corporate social responsibility efforts for the 130-store chain.
“Sustainability is a shared value. It’s written into our job descriptions,” Munoz said.

“A lot of companies bring in a CSR person who is fighting an uphill battle.”

Creating the culture

As a first step toward sustainability at Ag-Mart Produce, a few years ago Delaney went to a conference sponsored by Business For Social Responsibility, and he came back with ideas to put in place.

“You go to something like that and hear about ideas that Fortune 500 companies have had in place for years, that not only help do the right thing but also help save money. That helped spark the fire for us,” he said.

Now the company is looking at sustainability internally and transforming its culture, he said.

“Once you create the internal culture, it starts to expand out to what customers see and hear about. If employees are happy and proud about a program, the good news naturally flows out.”

Sustainability group members represent each of the firm’s six locations, and they hold a monthly teleconference to talk about sustainability issues.

The company is in the process of creating a baseline carbon footprint of its facilities.

The Cedarville, N.J., facility is being used as a guinea pig for the others. Best practices developed there will be rolled out to the rest of the company, he said.