Information sharing and resources to help member companies make their businesses more sustainable feature prominently in the Food Marketing Institute’s sustainability platform. At the recent FMI/GMA Sustainability Summit in Washington DC, FMI senior director of sustainability and industry relations Jeanne von Zastrow spoke with Ben Cooper about the organisation’s approach and aims.

When Jeanne von Zastrow, who has overall responsibility for sustainability at the Food Marketing Institute (FMI), speaks of sustainability falling “under the industry relations pillar” at the US retail trade association it seems essentially a detail of organisational scene-setting.

However, as she expands on the FMI’s sustainability mission it becomes clear that this speaks to the essence of the strategy ( 

Industry relations, she explains, means “industry collaboration”.

Partnership, information sharing and in particular giving member companies practical help in making their businesses more sustainable are arguably defining characteristics of the FMI sustainability strategy, which is driven by the organisation’s Sustainability Executive Committee. The committee was formed in 2006 and comprises representation from 23 companies.

The committee’s monthly conference call reflects an ethos geared towards information pooling. Von Zastrow explains it includes committee members engaging in “speed-sharing” where members have an opportunity to “talk about one thing that is either keeping them up at night or something they’ve done that they’re really proud of”. The committee meets in person twice a year. 

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The three primary focus areas of the strategy for 2012 and 2013 outlined by von Zastrow – making the business case for sustainability, reducing food waste and increasing recycling rates – also reflect the emphasis on shared learning and the provision of practical resources.

Von Zastrow believes giving sustainability champions assistance in making the business case for sustainable business initiatives is vital. In many cases, there is still “a lack of deep understanding” from senior and middle management about sustainability and “what value it creates for the company”, she says.

There was a strong feeling among sustainability specialists within FMI companies, von Zastrow adds, that more assistance with making the business case would be helpful “so they can get the resources and the support that they need to move forward faster”.

Facilitating discussions with senior executives is key. “If we don’t do a good job with that we can’t move forward with sustainability in the areas that we need to.”
A case to point, she continues, is sustainable sourcing, another one of the FMI’s “key initiatives”. Engaging buyers and category managers is vital if the industry is to “get traction” on sustainable sourcing. “If we can’t make the business case, it’s pretty tough to engage people on sustainable sourcing.”

In May, the FMI launched a Sustainable Seafood Toolkit, a free resource aimed at helping retailers develop sustainable seafood procurement policies. The FMI is now working on developing a “business case” toolkit which von Zastrow says will also be a free resource.

Making the business case for sustainability was also a key topic at the recent Sustainability Summit, a conference hosted jointly by the FMI and the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA).

The Sustainability Summit itself has been a key plank in the FMI sustainability strategy since its inception in 2006. Indeed, while it is now a joint effort between retailers and suppliers, for the first three years it was solely an FMI initiative. Once again, the emphasis at these conferences has been on information sharing, showcasing best practice and providing support to member companies seeking sustainable business solutions.

Von Zastrow suggests the constant development of the conference over the six years, and in particular the “dramatic” leap she believes was made this year in terms of the calibre of the attendees and dialogue, speaks to the “maturing” of the sustainability mission in the industry since 2006.

The other two primary areas of focus for 2012 and 2013 – food waste and recycling – were also both extensively discussed at the conference.

Von Zastrow says the FMI “jumped” at the chance to support a recycling campaign launched by Keeping America Beautiful, the Ad Council and Earth 911, after the coalition came to address a meeting of the FMI Sustainability Executive Committee.
“We need to be part of the development of that common, consistent messaging because no one knows how to talk to customers better than retailers,” she says.

While variation between different icons and messages creates confusion for consumers, consistent messaging could lead to real progress on recycling rates which are significantly lower in the US than in Europe. “If we’re all doing something consistent and concise in communication we could actually really move the needle.”

The FMI has also engaged with external partners in seeking to reduce food waste, joining with the GMA and the National Restaurant Association to form the Food Waste Reduction Alliance. With the industry “so passionate and so committed to” this issue, von Zastrow is extremely bullish about the prospects for this alliance. Food waste is “the lowest of low-hanging fruit” among sustainability challenges, she says. “I mean we can make a difference without even trying and wait until you see us try.”

As part of this initiative, a survey was conducted among all members of the participating organisations. Around 24% of the FMI membership by volume participated in the survey, according to von Zastrow, which she believes represents “quite a good response”. However, she concedes that fewer of the smaller retailers responded. “The big companies participated; a lot of the smaller companies didn’t.”

Around 50% of the 1,500 food retailers belonging to the Food Marketing Institute have ten stores or fewer, which clearly creates resourcing challenges when it comes to such initiatives. “If you have ten stores or 20 stores, you don’t have a sustainability person, you’re probably not tracking as well as a big company that has got a lot of metrics in place,” says von Zastrow. “So it is going to be harder for you to get the numbers and it’s going to be hard for you to find someone to do the work.” In all the surveys that FMI does, von Zastrow adds, it is more difficult for the smaller companies to participate.

This speaks to a critical challenge an organisation such as the FMI faces and one that its sustainability strategy certainly appears to address. Namely, facilitating the engagement of smaller operators. To begin with, the Sustainability Executive Committee comprises a cross-section of the membership, including local, regional, national and global companies.

Moreover, the emphasis on shared learning and toolkits is aimed at helping smaller companies, which lack the resources available to the likes of Wal-Mart and Delhaize, to address sustainability challenges.

Von Zastrow believes this to be an “absolutely critical” element in the FMI sustainability mission. Developing the necessary tools and resources is “imperative”, she says, and is “what our smaller members desperately need and want”.

It is often said that sustainability challenges will only be solved through collaboration and partnership and the FMI’s strategy certainly appears to embody that idea. As well as embracing cooperation with external stakeholders, the FMI’s approach illustrates how trade associations can provide a network for companies to exchange ideas around sustainability and in particular offer practical advice and useful information to facilitate the engagement of smaller operators.