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How to make a sustainable business

Many companies, natural and not, are moving toward more sustainable practices. But are their baby steps really making a difference or are they just a PR stunt?

Sustainability is a complex issue, especially for businesses. When companies strive to be green, they must examine every aspect of their supply chain. From ingredient sourcing, to manufacturing, from product transportation, to the fuel used by employees to get to work; opportunities for reducing carbon emissions are everywhere.

There are droves of companies (both in the natural foods sector and elsewhere) that make corporate sustainability a central focus of their business plans. Last week, New Hope Natural Media was fortunate enough to host a presentation by Katie Wallace, sustainability specialist at New Belgium Brewing Co. (NBB), a company revered by many as the crème de la crème of environmental stewardship.

Not only do NBB core values and beliefs include “honoring nature at every turn of the business”, but also the nifty folks at New Belgium regard themselves as role models in the industry. Not to mention they pour a pretty bomb stout, too.

But the issue of responsible corporate practices is especially salient in the wake of Chipotle Mexican Grill’s television commercial, “Back to the Start”. While the video was circulating through New Hope staff emails months before it aired during the Grammys, a (Mc)flurry of food companies seem to have taken the commercial as indication consumers truly want to “cultivate a better world”—as Chipotle suggests at the end.

For example, McDonalds, a company notorious for it’s detrimental business practices, recently announced they will “phase out” supplier use of gestation crates—essentially cages that confine sows for the duration of their 115-day pregnancy. Following McDonalds lead, other fast food companies like Wendy’s tout they encourage their suppliers to bypass gestation crates as well.

Along the same track, I recently received a press release about Grenada Co., an organic chocolate company, who will make their first trans-Atlantic mass shipment of chocolate from the island of Grenada (where the chocolate is harvested) to New York, Portsmouth, England, and Amsterdam by a sailing vessel outfitted with a wind- and-sun-powered cooling room. The voyage will be carbon-neutral. If all goes well, more chocolate shipments will be made in this manner, the publicist tells me.

What motivates sustainability?

These developments are certainly a step in the right direction, and it is right to applaud both McDonalds and Grenada Co. for initiating better practices. In no way do I want to undermine the importance of these new enterprises.

But I question whether the motivation for these actions is for the actual good of the planet or for marketing purposes. I suspect the latter.

In Grenada’s case, there is great merit in making a carbon-neutral shipment even once to simply show it can be done—maybe it could provide a roadmap for other companies to follow. And the fact that a for-profit company is taking a financial blow by shipping chocolate in what I presume to be a more expensive manner is commendable. But what if it’s simply a one-time PR stunt? Does that truly prevent more CO2 from entering the atmosphere?

And in McDonalds case, should we really be letting one of the largest fast food restaurants off the hook for making one (albeit significant) change to one aspect of their already-fractured supply chain?

Transforming business practices to completely responsible systems will happen in small increments, but companies must adopt a full-blown transformation of their ethos—as New Belgium Brewery has proved both possible and profitable—in order to truly be sustainable.

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