Eco-labels are good for the environment, raising social consciousness -- and the bottom line, retailers told SN.
These increasingly visible, ecology-minded tags have made a strong impact on a growing number of operators and "green shoppers" who support the trend.
"I don't see how anyone can argue about the concept of eco-labels," said Dan Sands, produce manager, Murray Hill Thriftway, Portland, Ore., a store that carries produce bearing The Food Alliance eco-label.
"It's good for the earth and the people, and you feel like you're making a little bit of a difference," he said. "And if the wholesale cost is a dime more per pound, we make more money, but that wasn't the primary motivator."
Unlike trendy but unsubstantiated, nature-friendly "buzz" words or slogans on a package, eco-labels represent a way of letting consumers know where their food comes from and how it was grown or raised. These food production policies -- indicating a commitment to clean drinking water, soil conservation, pesticide reduction, farmer support and humane animal treatment, among others -- are generally backed by international, national or regional organizations. Each of these groups, in turn, certifies the fresh market output of certain farms, meat producers and fisheries for compliance with, or support of, that organization's policies.
How can supermarket operators, eager for alternative merchandising opportunities, make eco-labels stick? By keying into their consumers' top concerns regarding environmental, humane and social issues, and stocking products bearing the most appropriate eco-labels for their customer base, SN was told.
For the Murray Hill Thriftway, part of a five-store, independently owned chain, a consumer base actively involved with sustainability issues and protecting the environment made The Food Alliance eco-label a good match. Currently, all 36 independently owned Thriftways in the Portland area stock TFA product.
"We see TFA as an alternative to organics because it's close to organics and less expensive," Sands said, noting that, if produce is TFA-available, he chooses not to carry conventionally grown. He also said that organic fresh market fare had been a money loser for the store in the past. Today, he carries only about a dozen organic items -- "mostly salad stuff." All produce is integrated on the shelves.
But TFA's "social standards are also a big selling point" said Sands. "On a 'feel good' level, it's important that people know the farm workers are not slave labor and that they're getting a living wage."
In addition to distributing TFA pamphlets and amply displaying signage, Sands and his staff emphasize sustainability, lower pesticide use and locally grown when they educate consumers.
"Hearing about 'local' seems to be where customers' eyes light up," Sands said. "We'll point to a photo of the farmer on the sign. It's icing on the cake."
Portland, Ore.-based TFA -- whose affiliate, the Midwest Food Alliance, is based in St. Paul, Minn. -- energetically approaches retailers and feels part of its success stems from knowing the industry, according to program director Scott Exo.
"To make eco-labels work, you must understand the expectations of the retail environment and how that marketplace works," he said. "Some eco-labels have already faltered because they failed to devote resources to the marketing side. They didn't engender the demand to pull their products through the supply chain."
Currently, more than 200 varieties of fresh fruits and vegetables, nuts and grains are produced by farmers certified by TFA. Thirty-five TFA-retail partners actively source and promote these products, according to Exo. Seventy-three producers, including beef ranchers, are in the program, and TFA inspectors are currently in the process of certifying the organization's first dairies. MWFA's program consists of 29 certified farms, including meat producers.
At the Stop & Shop in Hadley, Mass., located in Pioneer Valley, the state's largest agricultural area, what shoppers most appreciate is locally grown produce, according to the store's produce manager, George LaPanne. And CISA -- short for Amherst, Mass.-based Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture -- was an eco-label that fit that need perfectly.
With its bright yellow, green and red "Be A Local Hero, Buy Locally Grown" label, five-year-old, nonprofit CISA has placed local farm products in more than 40 retail locations throughout the valley, including Stop & Shop, Big Y, Foster's, Green Fields and Bread & Circus, according to Michael Abbate, the organization's marketing director. Farmers join CISA by filling out a survey about the water conservation and pesticide aspects of their farm plan. They then receive marketing assistance from the organization, and sell their meat, dairy, maple syrup and honey and, of course, a full range of seasonal produce, directly to supermarkets.
"The quality of the produce, in most cases, is excellent," LaPanne said. "A lot of the farmers have stands in this area, and there's a lot of competition. Through CISA, we're getting the produce at the same time the farm stands do." He noted that his store's customers look for fresh.
"We get deliveries every day, even on Sundays in some cases," he continued. "We let customers know we deal locally, whenever we can."
And when fresh items come in, LaPanne gets the word out by posting up the "Just Picked" signs.
"Buying local can have a lot of environmental ramifications, including saving on fuel costs to ship products, preserving farmland, increasing wildlife habitation and contributing to the overall quality of life in our area," Abbate said.
As with many organizations that stand behind eco-labels, CISA provides ample "local hero" signage, banners, posters and shelf-talkers that LaPanne places by the appropriate produce. Farmers often come to the store to demo their output, as well, he said.
Dorothy Lane Market, a two-store Dayton, Ohio, operation with another facility under construction, stocks pork, sausage and nitrite- and nitrate-free bacon bearing "Free Farmed" certification backed by Washington-based American Humane Association and administered by Farm Animal Services, a nonprofit division created by AHA. "Free Farmed" assures consumers that the dairy, beef and poultry products they buy come from animals that were treated according to AHA-developed, animal welfare standards, such as having access to fresh water and a healthy diet and freedom from unnecessary fear, stress and disease.
Dorothy Lane's meat and seafood director Jack Gridley recently visited the du Breton farms in Quebec whose pork was the first item to receive "Free Farmed" certification. He attributes the meat's quality to "the environment in which the pigs are raised and the feed they eat, which contains no animal byproducts or antibiotics."
Gridley said he has upped his sales of du Breton product 30% in the past year.
"If any vendors that we deal with make claims, we personally check them out from time to time," Gridley said.
During his visit, what Gridley observed at du Breton's small farms conformed with "Free Farmed" claims. He noted the lack of crowding in the pens -- "the hog bins here have half the number of animals than would be the case in larger commercial operations" -- and attention paid to animal welfare, including hygiene.
"When I entered the barn, I had to remove my watch, shoes and clothing and put on coveralls that were kept there, and sanitize my hands," he said, noting the pigs have everything they need to keep them comfortable, including hardwood chips as bedding, light, controlled temperature and an automated ventilator. With the temperature outside the facility hitting 92 degrees, Gridley was acutely aware that "no odor" permeated the pens.
Gridley makes sure his customer base is aware of the availability of "Free Farmed" product by constant education, especially through a marketing report available through e-mail or direct mailings for customers who spend at least $25 per week at the store.
"I tell customers what these products are about, and here's why we're selling them," he said. The meat counter also displays that eco-label's literature, and the chain's cooking classes often use the pork so attendees can see the difference in quality, he said.
"Clearly consumers are aware of the issues," said Adele Douglass, FAS' director. "A 1999 survey by the Animal Industry Foundation showed that 44% of consumers would pay up to 5% more for humanely raised animals. Consumers want to feel good about the products that they choose for themselves and their families."
Gridley is aware that, over the years, many farmers have been raising animals under highly stringent conditions without the benefit of eco-labels. And, although these producers would rather avoid the extra cost of being certified, it's worth having third-party backing, mainly because some of the newer producers are making claims that cannot always be substantiated, he said.
While eco-labels clearly benefit many -- increased revenues for ethically committed producers and visionary retailers, and more choices for forward-thinking consumers -- these programs have also broadened the role of store managers who are often an integral part of the success of eco-label initiatives.
"It's helped me become a more active produce manager," said Stop & Shop's LaPanne. "We can deal with CISA farmers directly and get firsthand information. I've even referred non-CISA farmers back to that organization so they can join. It gives us more self-worth and makes us feel as if we're not just following instructions." Top management has also taken notice, he added.