SAN FRANCISCO — The industry must take corporate responsibility for educating consumers about the value of sustainability, and it must also face up to its social responsibilities for raising the standard of living for the overseas labor that makes products, panelists said here at the second Sustainability Summit sponsored by Food Marketing Institute last week.
Marie David, director of corporate strategy and sustainability for Wal-Mart Stores, Bentonville, Ark., said her company realized years ago the importance of empowering customers in the aisles to get involved in issues of sustainability. “What's more sustainable than that?” she asked.
Bob Garrity, vice president of environmental sustainability for Giant Eagle, Pittsburgh, said consumers need help making the right decisions, “though they don't always have all the information they need right now.”
For example, when the United Nations adopted seafood sustainability standards, “most customers didn't know about it, so we provided information on large in-store displays. That's what we as retailers must do — work with the information that's available or work with other groups to educate consumers.”
Harriet Hentges, vice president, corporate responsibility and sustainability, for Ahold USA, Quincy, Mass., said she agreed. “What we can do is proactively promote products that are more healthy and sustainable.
“People shop every week, so we have to seize those moments when we have them and find ways to deliver that message ourselves.”
However, Gene Kahn, global sustainability officer for General Mills, Minneapolis, said he wonders if consumers really care. “The challenge is, will people care enough or will they even utilize the information? We must be careful we don't exaggerate the openness of consumers to look for sustainability aspects in food.
“It must become a relevant concern, but right now it's more common in niche businesses. People don't want to look at it deeply in making food purchases, so it's a real challenge.”
Garrity said it's worth the effort. “There's a whole list of things we need to deal with, but we can't let the enormity of the job stop us from doing something. Small things can make a big difference.”
Education can start with store employees, Judah Schiller, executive vice president and co-founder of marketing firm Saatchi and Saatchi S, based in San Francisco, said. “That's an area ripe for explosion,” he noted.
“When I go into a store and ask employees what products offer sustainability, I almost never get a response that involves private label, so there's an opportunity there for retailers to teach their associates to be better communicators.”
Kahn said the industry needs to make sure “that sustainability of people is part of our corporate social responsibility, and we need to integrate discussions of that aspect of our businesses.
“But when we find out the supply chain is involved with exploitation of labor and that any changes will push the cost of goods up, what do we do?”
According to David, “These are social issues we must deal with. There's not enough conversation about social sustainability, but if we treat people right where the process starts, it will show up in the quality of the goods produced.”
Kahn offered a similar view. “We can focus on one area [of sustainability] at a time but understand that sustainability is not a single attribute but a whole design issue, and none of this really matters if sustainability doesn't help people in Mozambique earning $1 a day.”
Asked if consumers would be willing to pay more for products if they understood the relationship between the costs of production and the sustainability of the finished product, Garrity replied, “There's a certain segment of people willing to pay more for products that serve the principles they believe in, but not everyone understands those principles.
“Price is clearly one element that drives sales, so I'm not sure there would be a big leap forward if we enlightened consumers [about the cost of goods].”