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Sustainability Standard Being Steamrolled — Does A Sustainable Vision Encompass Only Organics?

The Imperative For Action (Part 1)

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, March 6, 2008

We’ve been harping on the importance of sustainability and social responsibility as an issue for the fresh produce industry to wrestle with for some time. The issue has now reached a point where attention is not only important, but urgent. As such, we dedicate this entire issue to the controversy now enveloping the industry in relation to sustainability standards.

We have written many pieces, such as Michael Pollan’s Sustainability Arguments Unsustainable In Context Of Economics, and we have given many presentations on sustainability, including a seminar at PMA in Houston where we unveiled the preliminary results of an exclusive research project we’ve been conducting comparing and contrasting consumer attitudes toward sustainability in the United States and the United Kingdom.

Here at the Pundit, we also published an important letter from Tim York of Markon Cooperative asking the industry to take a lead on this issue. The letter was in a piece entitled, A Call For An Industrywide Sustainability and Social Responsibility Initiative:

I read with interest your recent piece on sustainability and appreciate the opportunity to share some thoughts on the challenges our industry faces.

Sustainability — which some define as balancing the needs of society, the environment and economics — is a trend with traction. When Markon thinks about it, we consider not only the evolving demands of our customers (today and into the future), but our responsibility for economic stewardship. If the produce industry dismisses or even moves too slowly toward adequately addressing sustainability, it will do so at its own peril — exposing vulnerabilities in our social policies (e.g. labor), the environment (e.g. water usage) and economic viability.

As consumer awareness about sustainability — with all its various definitions — has increased, food retailers and foodservice buyers have begun to develop sustainability programs. If our experience with food safety is any indication, grower-shippers will at first be asked to describe their activities in specific areas (for example, related to hiring and labor policies, pesticide use, water use, etc.) then eventually be asked to implement a patch-work of programs as additional buyers jump into the fray. Some of these programs will be based on that buyer’s unique definition of sustainability, some based on a competitive differentiation strategy, and others on even shakier ground.

If we let this phenomenon play out on its own, we are likely to see a proliferation of standards rivaling what we saw in food safety — arguably, with even less efficacy in accomplishing the stated goals. Dueling standards for sustainability in the buyer community isn’t sustainable — by any definition of the word — and may do nothing to advance the industry.

There is an alternative, and last year’s progress in food safety provides a model. We saw the collective industry work together, perhaps as never before, and create a common standard for a sound food safety program and independent verification, the California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement.

Inspired by that collective action, we believe a meaningful sustainability program must include specific, measurable and verifiable criteria. True, the task of developing systems to credibly define, measure and monitor sustainability may be too large for most individual foodservice and retail companies. A more practical strategy lies with one or more of the major trade groups investing resources in the development of basic industry metrics. Such metrics would enable us to wring out inefficiencies across the supply chain and meet meaningful goals in sustainability while still affording companies the opportunity to create competitive advantage with “green” products and services.

Our Buyer’s Coalition, in cooperation with the Food Safety Leadership Council participants, and partnership with grower-shipper companies, may be an alternative approach. However, absent a uniting crisis like the one we faced last fall, we may lack the impetus to join forces and set aside our perceived competitive advantages.

Absent some cooperative effort, individual buyers (including Markon), third-party auditors, and others currently working on sustainability will impose their demands on the produce industry. Moreover, we can imagine a scenario in which food safety and sustainability are treated as discrete initiatives when in fact they should be viewed holistically — as complementary steps toward a healthier industry.

Maybe it’s wishful thinking, but I’d rather see us collectively take the initiative now, while it’s still possible to create sustainability metrics that dovetail with food safety best practices — and together move the industry forward ahead of consumer or regulatory scrutiny.

— Tim York
President
Markon Cooperative
Salinas, California

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