Food manufacturers, sellers embrace sustainability

The sustainability trend is likely to continue, as younger Gen Z and Millennial consumers are more likely than older consumers to purchase plant-based and environmentally-friendly food options.
The sustainability trend is likely to continue, as younger Gen Z and Millennial consumers are more likely than older consumers to purchase plant-based and environmentally-friendly food options. (Photo by Pexels)

Sustainability is a growing concern for consumers whose purchasing decisions are increasingly influenced by the environmental impacts of manufacturers and products. Accordingly, food and beverage makers and distributors have responded by offering more organic, natural and plant-based options, in addition to revamping packaging and pledging to reduce carbon emissions.

While taste and price continue to dominate food and beverage choices, roughly 40% of Americans value sustainability in food and beverages highly and say it impacts purchasing decisions which, according to the International Food Information Council’s (IFIC) 2022 Food and Health Survey, is up from 27% just two years ago. The survey also notes that consumers pay attention to food labels and seek information about everything from recycled packaging to local sourcing and other sustainability measures. Food and beverage makers and grocers have taken notice and are following suit with their own moves.

“Sustainability has been a long-time focus for our company and is embedded in all aspects of our business,” said Tracy Van Auker, public relations manager for Wegmans

Farmers, food processors and manufacturers and grocers have responded to consumer demands for more sustainable and plant-based food options. Nearly every food processor and seller, from major firms like Walmart and Coca-Cola to regional stores like Tops Friendly Markets and Price Chopper, have carved out portions of their websites to display sustainability initiatives and tout reductions in energy use or shifts to renewable energy.

The sustainability trend is likely to continue, as younger Gen Z and Millennial consumers are more likely than older consumers to purchase plant-based and environmentally-friendly food options.

“We continuously strive to offer the best-in-class assortment of plant-based products in our stores and have been serving the growing demand in this area for decades by bringing in new, unique and innovative items that customers may not find anywhere else,” Van Auker said, noting Wegmans recently introduced a new line of Wegmans plant-based burgers and grounds, a pea protein-based meat alternative that can substitute for ground beef in any recipe, including on the grill.

Bonduelle, a French multinational food producer and processor with several facilities in Western New York, has mission is “to inspire the transition toward a plant-based diet to contribute to people’s well-being and planet health,” according to said Émilie Jobin Poirier, corporate social responsibility manager at the firm. Jobin Poirier said by producing only plant-based foods, the firm is providing consumers with options that lower the carbon footprint of their diets.

Emilie Jobin Poirier

“Animal-based foods are much more resource intensive than plant-based foods and we think it is imperative to use most of our land to feed humans,” Jobin Poirier said.

Responding to the growing demand for plant-based foods is far from the only sustainability-oriented move Bonduelle and other food producers have made in recent years, however.

“Sustainability has always been an integral part of how Bonduelle makes business decisions,” said Jobin Poirier, adding that sustainability is entrenched in the way the firm grows crops, processes vegetables and manages relationships with stakeholders.

Jobin Poirier said it is important to Bonduelle to work with supplies who share similar values. Bonduelle sources mostly through local farms and seeks to establish long-lasting relationships with growers in each region, Jobin Poirier said, both to advance sustainability and deliver high quality products to consumers.

Wegmans also aims to source products and produce locally and has partnered with farms near its stores to supply fresh local produce. One long-time initiative at the company is the Wegmans Organic Farm & Orchard, which was launched in Canandaigua in 2007 and has trialed more than 100 different organic crops over the past 15 years.

Wegmans aims to innovate and support its partners by testing new varieties at the farm and taking successful crops to partner farms near stores that, in the peak growing season, supply most vegetables in Wegmans stores. Wegmans also sources sustainably-grown flowers at the Organic Farm & Orchard that are used to create the Grower’s Choice bouquets sold in 33 stores in New York and Massachusetts.

Providing plant-based, sustainable and local products to customers is a major part of curbing the environmental impact of food production and distribution, but firms like Wegmans and Bonduelle are also eyeing improved packaging and energy reduction.

Jobin Poirier said Bonduelle continuously measure and improve energy efficiency, water usage and waste management at each of its facilities, noting the firm has annual targets it strives to meet in each of those areas. Bonduelle frequently improves and adjusts packaging to minimize its environmental impact.

Van Auker said Wegmans is concentrating on four major initiatives it believes will have the greatest positive environmental impacts which, in addition to sourcing near stores, include eliminating waste and reducing plastic packaging as well as the company’s carbon footprint. Van Auker pointed to a bevy of Wegmans announcements made over the past 18 months that further the firm’s goals, including efforts to eliminate the use of foam containers in both egg and seafood distribution and an initiative to shift from diesel-fueled vehicles to electric and other alternatives.

Wegmans also introduced a zero-waste initiative, seeking to reuse, recycle or compost 85% of its waste this year, up from 78% in 2021. Food waste is a concern of nearly two-thirds of Americans, according to the IFIC survey, and Wegmans tracks its waste and diverts safe and edible goods to food banks. Wegmans is also seeking other measures to reduce the amount of waste sent to landfills.

Bonduelle has several sustainability initiatives across New York state specifically, including supporting local communities by providing land for community gardens as well as a beekeeping program. Jobin Poirier said all plant waste generated in production processes at New York sites is provided to farmers for animal feed or application to the land rather than being sent to a landfill.

Food manufacturers, processors and distributors also recognize the importance of sharing the message of sustainability with consumers and employees, which can come in the form of company announcements, product labels and packaging and community events and engagement. Van Auker said for Wegmans, which publishes a community impact report each year, it’s very important to share sustainability and corporate social responsibility efforts with employees and customers, in part because it takes everyone working together to make the biggest impact possible.

“Throughout our 106-year history, making a difference in every community we serve has been a big part of who we are, and we continue to strengthen and grow that commitment with a focus on efforts that will make the biggest difference for our customers, our partners and our environment,” Van Auker said, adding at Wegmans, corporate social responsibility and sustainability are “a must, for the simple fact that it’s the right thing to do for our communities, our environment and our company.”

Bonduelle also publishes an annual corporate social responsibility report each year, and strives to share its commitments, results and improvement each year, Jobin Poirier said. The French firm is also part of the United Nations Global Compact, which calls on companies to align strategies, operations and actions with a set of principles on human rights, labor, environment and other areas that advance societal objections.

Matthew Reitz is a Rochester-area freelance writer.

As plastic bag ban approaches, some stores ahead of the curve, others merely react

A nickel can be a powerful thing.

Last summer Wegmans conducted a pilot study at two stores to see how customers would react if single-use plastic grocery bags were removed even before a statewide ban goes into effect March 1 in New York. The pilot introduced Wegmans’ new paper bag policy – they now cost 5 cents each with the fee going to charity.

The pilot results showed that most shoppers –  80 percent in the Corning and Ithaca stores –  will go to some lengths to avoid paying a few pennies for something they’ve received free for many, many years.

Then late last month, the Rochester-based grocery store chain stopped using disposable, plastic grocery bags in all of its New York stores, basically starting the plastic bag ban a month early.

“We knew we had a lot to figure out. We wanted to get ahead of it,” said Jason Wadsworth, manager of packaging and sustainability at Wegmans.

Some other organizations in the state also went the early route, including Goodwill stores and the stores and eateries on the campus of Rochester Institute of Technology.

RIT’s new ban on single-use plastic went into effect in late January, too, with organizers hoping to divert not just filmy plastic bags (325,000 a year) but also plastic straws (413,500 a year) and coffee stirrers (140,000 a year) from local landfills. Paper and wooden alternatives are available upon request.

“This is something we’re definitely excited about to make a bigger impact environmentally,” said Kory Samuels, executive director of RIT Dining.

Some large retailers, though, are showing no such initiative.

A spokesman for New York Walmart stores responded to questions about the ban by saying the company would follow all local laws, but provided no particulars about how it will do that.

Target had some details about what it will be doing in New York stores: paper bags will be available after the ban starts, and it will continue giving a 5-cent-per-bag rebate to customers who bring in reusable bags for their purchases, as it has done for years.

In the Albany and New York City areas, Target’s paper bags will come with a small fee, in compliance with local rules on disposable bags, a spokeswoman said.

Anticipating the ban, Tops Friendly Markets has offered coupons providing a discount on its reusable bags and introduced Totes for Change, a line of durable grocery bags with original art, which provides a portion of profits to benefit charities.  A Tops spokeswoman, Kathy Sautter, said Totes for Change resulted in $30,000 being donated to charity in 2019.

Tops is waiting for March 1, however, before rolling out other changes, such as charging 5 cents for a paper bag (partial proceeds will go to charity) and abandoning single-use plastic grocery bags, Sautter said.

After the ban starts, the state will still allow some exceptions, such as bags for takeout food. So technically, Wegmans and Tops could continue offering plastic bags in their prepared-food areas, but both companies said they won’t do that.

“We removed plastic bags from our store on (Jan. 27) because we didn’t want there to be that confusion” for customers or employees, Wegmans’ Wadsworth said. “We’ll just get them out of the store and use paper for the Instacart orders and our Meals to Go.”

Both grocery stores said they will continue to accept clean plastic bags for recycling after the ban begins.

Interestingly, when Wegmans did its pilot study in New York, it also looked at the issue in Richmond, Va.

“Just about every state that we’ve been in has talked about plastic bags at one point or another,” Wadsworth said. Wegmans picked Richmond stores for the test because “We wanted to get feedback from a store that didn’t have a ban proposed.” Wadsworth said.

In Virginia, a plastic bag ban has not been a frequent topic of news, discussions and even social media posts like it has in New York during most of 2019. But reusable bag use still shot up there when Wegmans conducted its pilot, though not as high as in New York stores. Reusable/no bag reactions went from 20 percent in Richmond before the pilot to the mid- and high-60s during the pilot.

That might have been predicted. According to Wadsworth, a municipal ban in Germantown, Md., resulted in Wegmans shoppers at the store there relying on reusable bags in the high 60s.

When Wegmans stopped using plastic bags in New York stores late January, the event spurred some social media discussions that seemed to be under the assumption that the ban was Wegmans’ idea, rather than Wegmans reacting to a state ban. Some commenters also charged that Wegmans makes money off the sale of paper bags.

“Our communication obviously wasn’t a hundred percent,” Wadsworth said. “This comes with added expense that we are just making part of the cost of doing business. The 5 cents is clearly just a way to get folks to use reusable bags.”

Since before the end of January, Wegmans has expanded and increased the number of reusable bag displays in its stores. The bags start at 99 cents for a basic bag and rising to several dollars for special bags with thermal linings or interior support. Other retailers charge similar amounts.

Wadsworth said the stores are continuing to offer disposable plastic for bulk purchases, loose vegetables and raw meats and seafood, basically to shield foods and reusable bags from cross contamination, and to prevent food waste.

The store must consider whether the plastic is for convenience or “integral in protecting the product,” Wadsworth said. “If we were to change the package or use no package at all – that will increase food waste as a result of no packaging. That’s one of those things where we have to take a sustainability life-cycle approach,” he said.

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Tops files for bankruptcy reorganization; says no change for customers

Tops Friendly Markets filed for bankruptcy reorganization today (Wednesday, Feb. 21) ending speculation that the 170-store chain was planning to do so.

On a new web page devoted to the reorganization, the company said, “Tops stores across the Company’s portfolio in Upstate New York, Northern Pennsylvania and Vermont are continuing to serve customers with no impact to day-to-day operations. The Company fully expects operations to continue as normal during its financial restructuring process.”

In a statement released this morning, Tops CEO Frank Curci, said the company is restructuring its debt, with assurances for $265 million from  financial institutions.

“We believe the financing that we received from our noteholders is a vote of confidence in our business. Our operations are strong and we have an outstanding network of stores and a talented team to support them,” Curci said.  “This will enable us to invest further in our stores, create an even more exceptional shopping experience for our customers and compete more effectively in today’s highly competitive and evolving market.”

Tops has 170 stores in three states, employing more than 14,000 people.

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Tops Friendly Markets reportedly seeks advice on bankruptcy

Tops Friendly Markets is contemplating bankruptcy reorganization in an attempt to get out from under debt incurred from a series of profit skimming steps over the last decade, according to published reports.

The union representing employees at approximately 170 stores, United Food and Commercial Workers Local One, released a statement saying it has been in talks with attorneys counseling them about potential impacts on workers of bankruptcy since January.

“As reported earlier, the company has hired Evercore (a global independent private investment firm) to help them restructure their enormous debt,” said the statement from Frank DeRiso, union president.

The company has changed hands at least twice in the last decade and doubled in size. According to Bloomberg, Morgan Stanley tried to recoup costs of its 2007 takeover by rapidly expanding the chain, founded in Williamsville, Erie County, nearly a century ago. The Great Recession and competition from new players in the grocery industry made it difficult to reap profits from expanding from 71 to 150 stores in six years. Morgan Stanley rewarded shareholders with dividends anyway, borrowing even more money, Bloomberg reported.

Management of the chain bought Tops back from Morgan Stanley and its investors in 2013, but still faced major debt. Since then some stores have closed and others were streamlined, but the chain is still wrangling with debt.

A company spokesperson could not be reached for comment. Tops stores are located in New York, Pennsylvania and Vermont.

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