Pundit Interviews

Pundit Letters





Perishable Pundit
P.O. Box 810425
Boca Raton FL 33481

Ph: 561-994-1118
Fax: 561-994-1610


email:
info@PerishablePundit.com

a

Produce Business

Deli Business

American Food & Ag Exporter

Cheese Connoisseur



Sustainability Goes Beyond Best Practices

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, March 20, 2008

We’ve focused heavily on issues surrounding sustainability, including running pieces such as these:

Michael Pollan’s Sustainability Arguments Unsustainable In Context Of Economics

A Call For An Industrywide Sustainability and Social Responsibility Initiative:

Sustainability Being Steamrolled — Does A Sustainable Vision Encompass only Organics

Pundit’s Mailbag — Organic Icon DiMatteo Weighs In On Sustainability Standard

Pundit’s Mailbag — SCS Takes Exception To Analysis of Sustainability Standard

An important contributor to this industry discussion has been Tim York of Markon Cooperative. A sometimes lonely voice in the wilderness, Tim has been pushing the industry toward the development of the industry standards for sustainability, with the goal of keeping costs out of the system by avoiding a situation whereby each buyer needs to conduct its own sustainability audit.

Now Tim makes another important contribution, this time speaking jointly with Jeff Dlott of SureHarvest:

We’ve appreciated your continued dialogue on sustainability and would like to weigh in with additional thoughts.

Sustainability is more than just consumer perceptions about organic. It’s about changing business operations and performance with regard to our impact on society, the environment and economics.

Our industry can be part of (and help drive) the dialogue on what sustainability can and should be, or be forced to play catch-up. The race is accelerating for companies worldwide seeking sustainable approaches and green products to meet growing consumer demand. We can deny that it’s going on or debate definitions until we’re blue in the face; meanwhile companies like Wal-Mart and Safeway are moving ahead with initiatives that balance the needs of people, planet, and profits, expecting suppliers to follow.

As Tim York suggested in his earlier letter to the Pundit — if we let this phenomenon play out on its own — with no common definition or measure — we’re likely to see the same kind of proliferation of standards for sustainability that we see in food safety. It only makes sense to get engaged with this trend early on and lead the process of defining credible sustainability standards and measurement tools that make sense to all stakeholders. This can mean a common set of foundational sustainable metrics — specific, measurable, and verifiable, that can be used to align business goals with performance outcomes — tailored by commodity as needed.

Best practices are important but they are a means to an end. Best practices programs are well suited for educational purposes — but they miss the mark as an approach for establishing standards by focusing on practices and not measuring performance outcomes. Best practices alone don’t align fundamental business process improvements that better position companies to be more economically competitive and achieve desired environmental and social performance goals.

Emphasizing sustainability outcomes creates a playing field for companies to innovate and develop their own internal business processes to drive improved performance that can, and should, be a competitive differentiator. Sustainability standards built around best practices stifles innovation and misdirects businesses away from the true end game — improved performance.

The California Sustainable Winegrowing Program is ahead of most when it comes to sustainable practices, and an example for the produce industry to monitor. Made up of more than 1,200 wine grower and vintner enterprises, the program is looking at quantitative performance measures including water use, energy use, water quality, air quality and greenhouse gases. The goal is to enhance competitiveness and sustainability of individual companies and the California wine sector as a whole.

A pilot program was created more than one year ago between Markon Cooperative and SureHarvest, the company that developed the program for the wine industry, with several California grower-shippers is showing interesting and promising results. It’s looking at well beyond one business practice and focusing on an entire operation.

We’re identifying industry benchmarks for the likes of water use, pesticide use, energy use and others, and measuring the growers against these standards. What we’re learning is that in some respects, the growers are ahead of the game; in others, improvements need to be made. The promising side of this is that other players in the industry — growers, packers, shippers, etc. — are also likely ahead of the game and also need to make improvements.

Is it the ends to a means? Not yet. It’s a learning process, and adjustments need to be made.

And that’s the beauty of looking at sustainability in terms of what’s specific, verifiable and measurable. We can make continuous improvements along the way and demonstrate to stakeholders — consumers being at the top of the food chain — actual results and progress. It’s greater than best practices — it’s moving beyond talk to accountability.

Tim York
Markon Cooperative

Jeff Dlott
SureHarvest

This is an important letter because there are different ways that the industry can pursue sustainability. The “best practices” model tends to be negative and heavily focused on environmental issues — “let’s do less of the terrible stuff we do to the environment” — and usually it includes an apocalyptic vision — “if we don’t act today, woe and gloom shall confront the world.”

Yet, properly considered, sustainability in a business context should be about a positive approach to the world, a process by which businesses harvest the collective wisdom and enthusiasm of stakeholders to help an organization — or an industry — achieve its vision and its mission while developing and sustaining the environmental, social and economic resources that will be necessary for success in the future.

Key points:

Sustainability is more than just consumer perceptions about organic. It’s about changing business operations and performance with regard to our impact on society, the environment and economics.

You have to give credit to many individuals involved in the organic movement for stressing the ancient admonition of the importance of sustainability in agriculture. But the connection between organic agriculture and sustainability is thin. Today the certification “organic” is really a marketing strategy; so things such as irradiation or GMO’s are prevented from being certified as organic because, in a kind of circular reasoning, consumers who want organic don’t want their food irradiated or grown from a seed spliced with a gene.

If we presume that the organic leaders know their market, this strategy makes perfect sense but it tells us nothing about what is more sustainable, just what will satisfy consumers searching for product certified as organic.

Best practices are important but they are a means to an end. Best practices programs are well suited for educational purposes — but they miss the mark as an approach for establishing standards by focusing on practices and not measuring performance outcomes.

There are two basic approaches for creating an operational program of sustainability in an organization. One approach tends to be top-down and typically focuses on various initiatives that derive from benchmarking against best practices. The alternative is a more bottom-up approach that focuses on involving stakeholders, especially employees.

The goal is to integrate a sustainability “consciousness” in an organization and bias the organization’s existing management system in a sustainable direction. It is this second approach that is much more likely to produce stakeholder buy-in and continuous improvement.

What we’re learning is that in some respects, the growers are ahead of the game; in others, improvements need to be made.

There is no organization on earth known to accurately say that it has reached a state of sustainable development. Sustainability is a journey of continuous improvement; you never actually get there.

We can make continuous improvements along the way and demonstrate to stakeholders — consumers being at the top of the food chain — actual results and progress. It’s greater than best practices — it’s moving beyond talk to accountability.

Accountability is crucial, and much modern thought on sustainable development is integrated with quality management principles and business excellence programs. Part of a sustainability program involves individual organizations and the broader industry making promises. These promises may involve many things, such as compliance with laws, regulations or voluntary codes; they may involve a commitment to avoid impacts on certain individuals or groups, and they always include a pledge of continuous improvement.

Any sustainability program must include acceptable procedures for both evaluating compliance with these commitments as well as a procedure for corrective action when things are not as promised.

Typically called “Monitoring, Measuring and Evaluating,” these activities let us know if progress is being made.

Then we go off on two paths. Compliance systems — such as laws — offer a strictly compliant or non-complaint option. The penalty can be jail or a fine. Conformance systems — for example ISO 14001 which deals with environmental matters — require that we correct the wrong and then improve from there.

One reason retailers in the UK seized on sustainability as a business initiative is they were certain that legislation was coming down the road — particularly related to carbon output. They wisely saw the benefit of getting ahead of the curve so the issues could be dealt with via conformance rather than compliance systems.

Many thanks to both Tim and Jeff for helping the industry to advance its thinking on this important subject.

© 2017 Perishable Pundit | Subscribe | Print | Search | Archives | Feedback | Info | Sponsorship | About Jim | Request Speaking Engagement | Contact Us