(June 19, UPDATED 9:55 a.m.) MINNEAPOLIS — Many consumers still wonder what sustainability is, and Wegmans Food Markets Inc. is getting the conversations started about making sure shoppers get the right answers, one company executive said June 16.

If consumers struggle with grasping sustainability, Jeanne Colleluori, communications specialist in the consumer affairs department of Rochester, N.Y.-based Wegmans, said it is not easy for retailers either. She spoke at a June 17 perishables workshop at the Food Marketing Institute’s Sustainability Summit.

A member of FMI’s sustainability task force, she acknowledged she came away from the first meeting of that group about a year ago “completely overwhelmed” with the challenges of executing and explaining traceability.

“I walked out thinking — ‘Oh my gosh, how I am going to do this?”

She said all retailers just starting to align themselves with the goals of sustainability need not approach it with the idea of getting it all done at once.

“I want to say to you right now, take a deep breath.” she said. “Try not to get overwhelmed.”

For starters, she suggested chains ask employees where opportunities for creating efficiencies and reducing waste exist.

She noted the privately owned Wegmans chain, now with 71 stores in New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, New Jersey, and Maryland, defines sustainability in this way: “Business practices and strategies that promote the long-term well-being of the environment, people and our company.”

“Wegmans is working to make sustainability a factor in everything we do every day,” she said. “Will we ever get there? No.”

She said sustainability is a never-ending process, and no company will ever be 100% sustainable, but she said the company is committed to work every day to try to get there.

Wegmans hired Jason Wadsworth, a sustainability specialist, to help the chain understand the process and help Wegmans set goals for the future.

Colleluori said consumers frequently ask the store what sustainability is and then what they can do to make a difference.

A few of the ways Wegmans advises customers on “making a difference” involve tips on recycling, the benefits of setting the cruise control at 65 miles per hour and the merits of energy efficient lighting.

Opportunity

Sustainability is a process of continuous improvement and opportunity, Colleluori said.

So far, one message relating to sustainability in the fresh produce department is expressed through the chain’s commitment to locally grown produce.

Wegmans used about 800 growers, often receiving product that was harvested in the morning and delivered to the store later in the afternoon. One store may work with 20 growers, while another store may work 100 growers, she said.

The benefit to growers is participating in the program is that they get early orders, a systemized billing and on-time payments.

In a recent survey about why customers buy local produce, Colleluori said the top three reasons are quality, taste and the desire to support local growers.

The company takes oversized pictures and short descriptions of growers into the displays of homegrown produce at the stores, she said.

“It adds that personal touch, and now, with the price of gas, people enjoy the fact they are going to be able to get something that is just grown down the road.”

As for organic produce, Colleluori said Wegmans prefers to source directly from growers whenever possible.

“If it is a local grower, that is even better.”

She said Wegmans integrates organic produce into the displays of conventional produce.

“It makes it easier for the customer to compare,” Colleluori said.

Packaging and store signage is used to help define organic and identify which products are organic, she said.

Wegmans also has an experimental organic research farm with 20 acres of production. The farm is designed to help the chain understand the challenges organic growers face so Wegmans can help them do a better job.

“We want to understand which varieties taste better in the Northeast,” she said.

Produce harvested from the farm supplies some of the needs for one or two stores.

Packaging and transportation

For produce packaging, she said the chain, whenever possible, is trying to switch packaging with labels of “recyclable 1” and “recyclable 2” for easier sorting by consumers.

She said store managers have been asked to take note of ways they can reduce packaging waste, which led one to suggest the company stop using wax containers for one deli item. In just one year’s time, that suggestion helped keep 1 million pounds of waste out the landfills.

“It has turned an expense into revenue.”

As far as transportation, she said the chain is exploring more rail options.

“We recently brought shipments of apples from California all the way across the country by rail to Albany, N.Y.,” she said. “It won’t work for everything, but it may work for some things.”

Another way some stores are reducing waste is the use of a local composting company for waste from deli, floral and produce.

“Composting fees are generally much lower than landfill fees,” she said.

Wegmans donates food every day to America’s Second Harvest, which distributes foods to nonprofit agencies, including 16.8 million pounds of fresh food to the group in 2007.

Another way the company has created efficiency is turning off lights in stores. One store experimented by progressively turning off more and more lights in the store and found that the first customers to notice were in the grocery department because they needed light to read labels.

“There were no comments from the perishable side at all,” she said.

In just that one store, 490 lights were turned off. Over the course of a year, that one store will save enough energy from turning off lights to power 23 homes, Colleluori said.

Wegmans talks sustainability in FMI workshop
Jeanne Colleluori, communications specialist in the consumer affairs department of Rochester, N.Y.-based Wegmans, speaks June 17 about the retailer's sustainability efforts. She defines sustainability as “business practices and strategies that promote the long-term well-being of the environment, people and our company.”