The Packer's West Coast Expo featured a panel on sustainability on May 10. ( Tom Karst )

PALM DESERT, Calif. — Produce companies who ignore measuring sustainability do so at their increasing peril, panelists said at The Packer’s West Coast Produce Expo.

In a May 10 session moderated by Produce Retailer Editor Ashley Nickle, produce industry leaders talked about how they define sustainability, make it a priority and measure their efforts.

Nickle said according to research firm Nielsen, consumers will spend $150 billion on sustainable products by 2021. She asked panelist what each of their companies is doing to prioritize sustainability. The panel also explored consumer push-back against plastics in packaging and what the future holds for measuring sustainability.

Roland Harmon, Valencia, Calif.-based director of global food sourcing for Walmart, said the retailer started out with “aspirational” goals and since has made them more specific. 

“We said in a statement that we made about 12 years ago, that we wanted to get to a place where we were using 100% renewable energy, we wanted to have zero waste and all of our facilities, and we wanted to source and sell sustainable products — products that would sustain the environment and the resources in the environment,” he said. 

Walmart’s Sustainability Index gives the chain the ability for suppliers to fill in their information and for the retailer see hot spots and challenges.

“It’s just an ongoing dialogue, an ongoing conversation to help measure their performance and (help show) how can Walmart lean in to help them solve some of those challenges.”

Walmart in 2016 put concrete goals around those broader goals, he said.

By 2025, Walmart has set a goal that 50% of its energy will come from renewable sources; today, Harmon said close to 30% of Walmart’s energy comes from renewable sources. The 2025 goal is to have zero waste in the United Kingdom, Canada, Japan and the U.S. Finally, he said Walmart is committed to sourcing 20 commodities — including tomatoes, bananas and grapes — more sustainably.

“It’s an exciting time for me and my office, in working with the suppliers that make the commitment to use less water, increase their yield and reduce greenhouse emissions,” he said.

Walmart has pledged to eliminate all non-recyclable packaging in general merchandise by 2020.“By 2022, we’re planning on having 100% of our packaging in the food and consumable space have the “How to recycle” sticker on it,” he said.

By 2020, Walmart’s goal is to have all 30,000 private-label stock-keeping units in packaging that is recyclable, reusable or industrially compostable.

Reduced operational costs is a real driver behind a lot of the sustainability initiatives that Earthbound Farm, San Juan Batista, Calif., is embracing, said John McKeon, director of organic integrity and compliance. Solar power, wind power, cogeneration and even LED lighting translate into savings for the company. 

He said Earthbound Farm seeks to reduce its environmental impact and be a positive force in the communities it operates.

“Everybody’s starting to track (their) carbon footprint, and other factors for us would include our use of water — how we use it out in our fields and in our processing facilities, and what we can do to reduce that water usage,” he said.

Preventing food waste in the produce supply chain is a key mission for Apeel Sciences, Goletea, Calif., said Gordon Robertson, new chief revenue officer. The company markets a shelf-life extending plant-based solution, applied to fresh produce at the packinghouse.

Robertson said one-third to half the food produced doesn’t make it all the way through the supply chain, and Apeel can also help reduce plastic packaging in fresh produce.

“And so how do we bring that food that we produce through every step of the supply chain, to really make sure that we can deliver that product to the consumer, and the consumer can ultimately have time to eat (the produce)... we’re bringing a solution that touches every point of that,” he said.

Robertson said Apeel helps commodity partners understand the potential for carbon reduction and other sustainability measures with the use of the technology. For Tomra Compac, Marco Azzaretti, senior manager of solutions marketing, said its packinghouse technology of optical sorting, grading and automation yields a more sustainable produce supply chain by minimizing waste and improving pack yields. 

“Some of our priorities from a technology development standpoint are in continuing to increase the smartness of the sensor technology that we use in our equipment, to be able to give packers more tools to manage produce in a way that allows it to maximize its chances of making it all the way through the supply chain and on to the consumer table,” he said.

With tools to measure quality and sugar content, Tomra can help match the right piece of produce to the right channel and ultimately to the right consumer, he said.

“We can continue to drive growing technology from the field, again in a way that maximizes yield, and limits (food waste),” he said.

Dennis Christou, vice president of marketing for Del Monte Fresh Produce N.A., Coral Gables, Fla., said the company has been rethinking its sustainability strategy, and it is one of the top corporate priorities in the next five years.

Steps in the past include planting 11 million trees and providing academic support to more than 3,000 students in producing countries.

“What we did is we try to identify how we could we could implement a sustainability strategy that is aligned with what the expectations are of all our stakeholders,” Christou said. The company is aligning its goals with five United Nations sustainability goals. 

“We intend to publish a sustainability report later this year, and move towards implementation of (those) measurable goals in the next five years,” Christou said.

Nikki Rodoni, CEO and founder Measure to Improve, said the sustainability consulting firm is committed to helping growers, shippers and processors collect report, validate and communicate their sustainability initiatives.

“Because sustainability is really about people, planet and profit,” she said. “It shouldn’t be just to respond to buyer surveys, but it should be to benefit your bottom line in your operation as well,” he said.