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The Packer: Suppliers Hope for a Single Tool to Measure Sustainability

Tom Karst


Buyer demands to measure the sustainability of fruit and vegetable suppliers may be motivated to create more efficiencies, but suppliers hope to minimize costs that come with those efficiencies.

“We would love to see that in the end there would be a single survey or data collection that all potato growers could use so we don’t have a proliferation of growers having to do different things for different customers,” said John Keeling, executive vice president and CEO of the Washington, D.C.-based National Potato Council.

Keeling said while documenting sustainability is useful and valuable, it also involves costs.

“Getting the most consistent data out the system but doing it in the lowest-cost way has got to be a part of the whole equation for everybody,” he said.

Wal-Mart began to evaluate their suppliers a number of years ago on a number of different criteria, including sustainability, said John Rice, vice president of Rice Fruit Co., Gardners, Pa.

“The thing that we have found is that Wal-Mart has been pretty reasonable in terms of their expectations,” Rice said. “They haven’t given us a big list of do’s and don’t’s, but they want to know that we are making efforts in the area of conservation, sustainability, reducing carbon footprint and other goals.”

Rice said other retailers, including Whole Foods and Costco, also have announced recent initiatives in sustainability.

“It is something that in general my growers aren’t very happy about when they get news of these initiatives because it means a lot more work for them,” Rice said.

Already, Rice believes there are too many standards in measuring sustainability and it is hard for growers to know what they should be doing.

“Considering my family has been in the growing business on the same farms in Adams County, Pennsylvania, for eight generations, a company that was founded forty or fifty years ago that is asking us about sustainability seems to be like putting the shoe on the wrong foot, but I will comply as we are able to do just like we have done in all areas,” he said.

Kathy Means, vice president of industry relations at the Newark, Del.-based Produce Marketing Association, said expectations about sustainability have been rising in the past few years, resulting in audits and surveys.

“We need to be good at telling our story and recognize where activities we have always done are actually sustainability,” she said.

In addition, growers need one way of measuring sustainability, and that has been the main goal of the Stewardship Index for Specialty Crops, she said.

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