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RETAIL VIEW: Wegman's wades into sustainability issue

LA QUINTA, CA -- Wegman's Food Markets Inc., the Rochester, NY-based supermarket chain that is often credited with having one of the better produce operations in the country, has started to wade into the sustainability debate.

Bill Pool, the chain's manager of agricultural production and research, was on a panel exploring the subject at the Western Growers Association convention, here, Nov. 9-12. From his company's perspective, he defined sustainability as the development of business practices and strategies that promise the long- term well being of the planet.

Wegman's has embarked on an in-house plan to be more environmentally friendly, which has led to more energy-efficient lighting, a more fuel- efficient transportation program and the redesigning of the plastic bag that its grocery clerks use to bag groceries.

The lighting effort has resulted in substantial savings of both money and energy. Mr. Pool said that installing energy-efficient lighting in its main warehouse resulted in a $1.2 million saving the first year. About half of that saving came from a one-time rebate from its local energy company, but the other $600,000 or so is in direct saving on the firm's monthly energy bill. This savings will be realized every year and should in fact increase as the cost of energy rises.

The program was so successful that the chain is in the process of changing the lighting systems throughout all its stores and facilities.

The change to a more fuel-efficient truck in its own delivery system will save 100,000 gallons of fuel per year, Mr. Pool said. That will save about $300,000 based on the current oil prices.

The new bags being used are larger and stronger than the old plastic bags. Mr. Pool said that once baggers have been trained to load six or seven items in each bag rather than just two or three - as is the case with the old bags - the company will use 175 million fewer bags each year.

An adjunct to the bagging program is the sale of reusable shopping bags. To date, 1.5 million of those have been sold to the chain's customers. Wegman's also has changed the size of the plastic containers it uses in its own deli departments, creating an additional 25 percent reduction in plastic use.

For many years, Wegman's has made environmental gains through its ongoing cardboard recycling effort. In 2007, Mr. Pool said, 81 million pounds of cardboard were recycled. On another environmental friendly front, the chain has switched the coolant compound it uses in its refrigeration units to one that is more efficient and less toxic.

With regard to its suppliers, Mr. Pool explained that Wegman's is currently in the "listen-and-learn" phase of developing a program to guide its procurement practices. He said that the company's customers are most concerned about the packaging that carries Wegman's produce and other items. Consumers want it to be completely recyclable, which generally means packaging that is rated "1" or "2" on the recyclability scale. Mr. Pool said that Wegman's has asked its produce suppliers "to make a switch to a 1 or a 2, or if you can't, then tell us why."

This embodies the company's sustainability program at this time: ask questions and urge participation. He previously told The Produce News that Wegman's is exploring different ways that the chain can be involved in the effort and is asking the entire supply chain for its cooperation.

During his presentation at the WGA convention, Mr. Pool said that Wegman's sees sustainability "as a journey," adding that it is not a one-size-fits-all standard but rather "all about continued improvement."

In response to a question from the audience, however, Mr. Pool said that the chain's customers are not focused on the idea to the point where consumer demand for sustainable products has been developed.

As he said before, consumers are interested in recyclable packaging, but they are not generally asking for products to be grown in a more sustainable fashion. He does not believe consumers will pay a premium for such products.

Just like food-safety initiatives, Mr. Pool said that consumers expect the products they buy to meet an acceptable standard, without an additional cost. But he added that sustainable efforts often create their own economic benefits, which has been the case at Wegman's.