The Sustainability Summit, jointly hosted in Washington DC by the Food Marketing Institute (FMI), the representative group for US retailers, and the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA), which represents the country’s food producers, drew to a close this afternoon. 

In what was described as a stroke of “genius” by one delegate, the organisers decided to close the show with a presentation by former White House executive chef Walter Scheib. Highly appropriate given that the conference was taking place in the nation’s capital only a month before a presidential election. 

Scheduling Scheib for the final session, the same delegate suggested, made sure people stayed right until the end. Regaling the crowd with entertaining stories about the dietary preferences of the likes of George W Bush, Scheib certainly sent the conference delegates away with a smile, but this conference did not appear to need a final crowd-pleaser. Judging from the generally positive views being expressed, the organisers appeared to have got it right in many other ways too.

Jeanne von Zastrow, senior director, sustainability and industrial relations at FMI, said the conference had made “a big jump” this year, seeing the “most dramatic change” in terms of calibre of attendee and calibre of dialogue in its six-year history.

“I’m pleased with it because I see the calibre of attendees has significantly improved,” von Zastrow said. “I believe that because the programme was more sophisticated it attracted a much more sophisticated audience. And I can tell that the audience was a lot more sophisticated than it has been in the past because of the questions and dialogue.”

Meanwhile, Michael Hewett, director for environmental and sustainability programmes at Publix Super Markets, added: “I’ve heard many attendees, many of whom I’ve met for the first time, say that they thought that this was one of the best conferences they’ve been to, and that really speaks volumes.” Hewett is a member of the FMI Sustainability Executive Committee and has been a member of the Summit Planning Committee since its inception.

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Speaking also as a retailer attending the conference, Hewett said it was a “great opportunity for collaboration”. Moreover, he added, it had not only been “a great opportunity for the retailers to get together with manufacturers” but “we also have in the room a lot service providers, a lot of suppliers, and that creates a lot of opportunity.”

Hewett said NGOs had also been well represented at the conference. Von Zastrow added that the organisers had “actively pursued” attendance from NGOs and academe. 

So the organisers were clearly pleased, though perhaps one would expect a relatively positive reflection from the people behind the conference. However, von Zastrow, Hewett and the other members of the organising committee would no doubt be buoyed to hear those positive views echoed by attendees. 

The most effusive praise without doubt came from Sylvain Cuperlier, vice president for worldwide corporate responsibility and sustainability at Dole Food Company. Cuperlier said simply: “I think it was a fantastic conference. Actually I would say one of the best conferences I have ever attended.”

Cuperlier said he was impressed with the breadth of subjects being discussed and the opportunity it provided for companies to showcase and share examples of best practice in the sustainability field. He said presentations had provided insight not only into new ways that companies are approaching sustainability challenges, but also changing trends in consumer behaviour in relation to sustainability issues.

Also describing the conference as “fantastic”, Robert ter Kuile, senior director, environmental sustainability, global public policy at PepsiCo, said that bringing manufacturers and retailers together was “critical” and “very beneficial”. 

“It’s great to come to the FMI/GMA conference and be able to meet with fellow colleagues and other companies and corporations, partners that think similarly to PepsiCo, and be able to talk about new ideas and best practices, and form new partnerships too.”

Kai Robertson, director for food, beverage and agriculture practice services at BSR, an organisation comprising 300 member companies which develops sustainable business strategies, said the rhetoric about partnership much in evidence during the conference was “most certainly” reflective of concrete moves towards collaboration. “The term ‘pre-competitive collaboration’ was not a term that was used freely four years ago and it is now, and people understand what it means,” Robertson said.

Ter Kuile said the organisers had done a “fantastic job” in putting the agenda together and getting the right speakers and the right panel experts. The organisers had also done a good job of “making sure that all of the breakout sessions and the panels were a good mix from various different backgrounds, be it manufacturers or retailers or NGOs or the consulting partnerships that we all have.”

Meanwhile, Beth Keck, senior director sustainability at Wal-Mart International, who was a panellist in a breakout session on building sustainable supply chains, said the conference had provided “a lot of very good information”.

Jerry Lynch, vice president, chief sustainability officer at General Mills, who spoke at the conference in a segment on food waste and in particular about the cross-sector Food Waste Reduction Alliance, said of the conference as a whole: “I think it’s great. I have been at the conference for three years in a row, and what I’ve seen over time is that it’s gotten more specific, and it’s very much kept up with the challenges which we all face of creating the most value out of becoming more sustainable.” Lynch also said there had been a good mix of attendees from different sectors.

However, Oxfam’s Peter O’ Driscoll, project director for the multi-stakeholder Equitable Food Initiative, said that while there had been “a really good progression in broadening the stakeholder base” at the conference, it was still not broad enough.

Another contingent at the Summit – and a large one – was made up of suppliers of sustainability-related products and services. Satisfaction from people attending a conference in order to market their products is generally a good proxy for the calibre of attendee, and once again the impression appears to be positive.

Michael Cromer, vice president of operations at renewable energy specialist Dynamic Energy, said the conference represented a “great group of people” from a supplier’s point of view, and it was “worth every penny” for the company to attend. “There are decision makers and some younger staff too who can get us to the right people,” Cromer said. “It’s been good.”