Sustainability — it’s more than just a nebulous, feel-good marketing term that appeals to a certain consumer demographic — but what exactly does it mean for a fruit or vegetable shipper to be “sustainable?”

On top of that, how does one become sustainable?

Aiming to answer that question for the industry, Monterey, Calif.-based Pro*Act initiated Greener Fields Together, a national supply chain sustainability and local produce program based on Pro*Act’s own practices.

As part of the effort, Pro*Act’s Green Office program incorporates these practices: reduce waste, paper, water and electricity use; purchase office products and equipment that are low-energy, compostable and environmentally friendly; recycle; and reduce travel in favor of teleconferencing.

Results included a 44% reduction in trash disposal and a 45% increase in recycling, with overall waste-to-landfill volume reduced as well. 

Soquel, Calif.-based SureHarvest is another firm that offers a program to help clients incorporate sustainability principles.

The company has codified a strategy it calls SureHarvest’s 5Ps of Sustainability — principles, processes, practices, performance and progress.

The method is designed as a way to align a company’s sustainability goals with measurable progress benchmarks.

SureHarvest provides software for farming and sustainability management, sustainability consulting services and third-party sustainability certification to help its clients implement programs.

Produce handlers have a core of sustainability considerations when they evaluate their packaging and shipping needs.

“Grower-shippers are always looking for ways to deliver economic and environmental value to their retail partners or to processing plants,” said Bob Klimko,  director of marketing for food and beverage for Oconomowoc, Wis.-based plastic pallet provider  Orbis Corp. “They want to reduce waste throughout the supply chain, from the field to warehousing to transportation.”

To help its customers gauge their sustainability efforts, Orbis’ website features its Green Leads to Green interactive sustainability calculator.

The site also has several white papers detailing the environmental benefits of using reusable plastic packaging, as well as links to relevant information from the Environmental Protection Agency, Sustainable Packaging Coalition and Sustainable Packaging Alliance,

“By design, harvesting totes are designed to be used over and over and then fully recycled at the end of their service life,” Klimko said. “Orbis uses a proprietary environmental analysis tool to compare packaging alternatives. It takes into consideration the full life cycle of the tote or pallet. For example, if a grower-shipper uses a reusable field harvesting tote at a rate of 5,000 a year, we could expect to see a 65% reduction in energy usage and a 70% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. In this scenario, there could also be an 88% reduction in solid waste.”

He added, “When we work with our customers, we review their entire application and conduct this analysis for their specific application and provide them with a full customized report.”

Taking a holistic view of the operation is key to successful implementation of a sustainability scheme.

“During implementation, it is important to plan for any equipment that may interface with the totes,” Klimko. “This could include conveyors, in-field equipment, and more. Be sure to test the totes and pallets within the operation to ensure a seamless implementation. Financially, look at the cost-per-trip investment versus the initial investment. Totes and pallets can reduce trip costs considerably and this trip cost continues to reduce during the tote’s service life.”