Tom Karst, National Editor
Tom Karst, National Editor

Wal-Mart is again affirming its support of its Sustainability Index as a measure to help the chain decide what suppliers to use for fresh produce and other food.

The global chain’s inaugural Sustainable Product Expo drew plenty of press in late April, and Jack Sinclair, executive vice president for the chain’s grocery division, specifically referred to sustainability index scores for produce suppliers. Wal-Mart has been sending out sustainability index surveys for several years.

The list of current and future products covered in the index includes apples, packaged salad, grapes, tomatoes, potatoes, carrots, onions, cucumbers, berries and citrus.

The chain has been working since 2005 to increase food sustainability, and since 2009 Wal-Mart has asked increasing numbers of suppliers to participate in a 20-question Sustainability Index survey. So far, about 20% of Wal-Mart’s food suppliers are covered in the Sustainability Index survey, Sinclair said.

So far, so good.

I’m curious, however, as to just how useful those sustainability survey scores are in setting the list of favored Wal-Mart suppliers. Can we believe the corporate talk that sustainability is vitally important?

One step Wal-Mart said it will take soon is to identify suppliers who are category leaders in sustainability on a consumer website. If that website includes fresh produce suppliers, that is one tangible way to give sustainability high-performers a carrot.

To have real significance, though, there must be a formula used to determine how “sustainability” fits into the overall set of factors important to the chain. Sustainability is important, yes, but how does it rank compared with consistent quality and condition?

Less fertilizer, water and pesticide use is wonderful, true, but how is all that measured next to the f.o.b. price?

How does sustainability compare with social welfare values, or treatment of minorities and women? Or “grown in the USA,” for that matter?

In fact, sustainability is nothing more than another exercise in paperwork unless there is a fixed formula to give it an assigned value in ranking suppliers. Yet, if there is a set value and formula, more documentation and third-party audits will be required.

All this comes in the backdrop of supplier audit fatigue.

In an opinion piece in The Packer April 28, Joel Nelsen of California Citrus Mutual noted that if one retailer cares about sustainability, the next one will care even more.

That’s a great point. With sustainability public relations aspirations rising at Wal-Mart and other retailers, suppliers deserve more consistency in the retail demands for information.

It is not enough to grow and market fine quality produce anymore. So they say, anyway.

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There is no “if” to it — life is a bowl of cherries for Northwest fruit marketers — and the rest of us, beginning in June.

In the midst of a strong apple season, marketers are now looking mere weeks ahead to the start of what appears to be a bountiful cherry season, made all the more alluring because of the short crop of California cherries.

Retailers and consumers can gear up cherry purchases in June, with peak volume in July. One marketer told me that the antiquated notion of the cherry deal being over after July 4 is long gone. Barring a heavy does of unwanted rain, retailers and consumers can plan for good supplies through July.

I’ve been to the Northwest a few times for reporting on apples, pears and cherries, and it is always a pleasure to visit the offices of some of the state’s leading tree fruit marketers.

This year’s trip to Yakima and Wenatchee for cherry reporting was no exception, and I got to see the new office digs for Borton Fruit and also a glimpse at the new headquarters for Stemilt in Wenatchee. Stemilt was making the move to its new office on April 25, the day after I visited.

Beyond these notable upgrades to marketing and sales offices, the amount of infrastructure investment in Washington tree fruit country is ongoing at a pitched pace, from construction of new storage facilities for apples to the constant upgrades of packing line equipment/optical sorters for cherries and apples.

Surely the Northwest tree fruit industry is a crown jewel of the U.S. produce industry, the shiny buckle of the fruit belt.

Blessed with abundant natural resources, the region has experienced persistent growth in domestic and international demand for its products. Adjustments to the variety mix for apples have pleased consumers.

The net result is a string of good years, particularly for the dominant apple industry. Owners and managers have parlayed recent success with investments that promise to keep the region at the top of its game for years to come.

While California struggles with the constraints of drought and Florida’s industry battles citrus greening, there is no one formidable foe for Northwest growers and marketers.

Any commodity and region will bump up limits to growth, and for the Northwest tree fruit industry this could eventually come in the forms of slowing export demand, overly ambitious expansion in acreage or the all too real possibility of damaging crimps in the labor supply.

But for now, and the foreseeable future, the Northwest is showing the rest what it is like to be on top. It is good to be king.

tkarst@thepacker.com

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