Grocery Stores Have Room To Grow In The Effort To Being Sustainable
With the tangible effects of global warming, consumers are more concerned with sustainability than ever before. While businesses like grocery stores, with the 2030 Paris Agreement deadline looming over their heads, should be making greater strides toward net-zero emissions.
Yet a recent study found while customers were willing to spend more for eco-friendly products and more likely to shop at sustainability-centered grocery stores, only 6% of people said they felt stores were doing all they could.
Not surprisingly, 54% of those surveyed were concerned about greenwashing tactics, claiming grocery stores say a lot more than they do. Customers want to see companies taking the genuine initiative to make changes within their stores. They’re no longer falling for distractive tactics like tree planting and volunteer efforts. While important for community building, those methods aren’t improving the big picture.
Consumer-Driven Ideas for Sustainable Practices
With the power of their wallets to back up their desires, customers can demand a certain degree of change from the companies serving them. Improvements in sustainable practices should be focused internally to fix severely outdated processes.
- Create Systems to Keep Food Waste from Landfills
Each year, businesses around the globe collectively lose $940 billion from food waste. If all that waste were a country, only the US and China would surpass its greenhouse emissions. Grocery stores are a major contributor to those statistics, so what can they do to reverse their unsustainable practices?
Offer Buying in Bulk
Buying in bulk has two separate meanings. One way of buying in bulk is to shop at stores offering discounts for purchasing high quantities of a particular product. This method can be helpful for large families and organizations, but for small families, it may lead to more waste.
The other type of buying in bulk is when stores have containers filled with a product outside of its packaging. When customers want to purchase that good, they measure out exactly how much they would like. Buying only what you need and will use prevents unnecessary food waste from pre-packaged foods.
Sell Discounted Food
A lot of food waste happens on grocery store shelves. Once a product moves too close to or past its sell-by date, the business throws it out. To reduce waste, they need a system to identify goods nearing expiration and then mark them down for quick sale. This process would make the store more money than throwing the food away, and it would keep more from sitting in a landfill. Alternatively, stores could donate products to shelters or food banks.
Set Up In-Store Composting
Composting should be a last-ditch effort to keep food waste out of landfills. Rather than trash expired food, in-store composting would create valuable fertilizer to help grow more produce.
Opening their compost program to the community would allow food waste that has already left the store to be reclaimed from landfills. Customers who don’t garden and don’t have a use for compost would probably appreciate a way to make an impact without the hassle of owning their own system.
- Improve Energy Efficiency
The financial costs of energy in stores can’t hold a candle to the environmental impact. Each year the average grocery business emits 1,900 tons of carbon dioxide from the electricity and natural gas needed for operations — that’s equal to the emissions of 360 cars.
Install Solar Panels
Installing solar panels could not only allow stores to be more sustainable, but it could also help save them money in the long run. Solar panels allow establishments to produce their own energy, removing their dependence on fossil fuels.
Use Renewable Energy
Since grocery stores use a lot of energy, installing solar panels may not provide enough. Rather than turn to typical energy companies for the remainder, businesses could coordinate with clean energy providers who gather power from multiple sources like wind and solar farms.
Team Up With Other Businesses
Another method of conserving energy that’s been gaining in popularity is partnering with other businesses to offer customers everything they need in one trip. Grocery stores could team up with clothing retailers, restaurants, service providers and other fun or necessary companies. By providing a one-stop experience with a grocery-anchored shopping center, customers will waste less gas and time traveling back and forth, making multiple trips to different locations.
- Reduce Packaging Waste
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, plastic and packaging make up approximately 30% of US waste, and only 9% is ever recycled. While much of the plastic packaging problem falls on individual brands, grocery stores have the final say in their product lines and the goods they stock.
Eliminate Plastic Packaging
Grocery stores have more control over the packaging used in their house brand products. By switching to biodegradable options and skipping excess packaging where possible, they can significantly reduce plastic waste.
Charge for Single-Use Bags
Many stores now offer reusable grocery bags for purchase at checkout, but far fewer are making them the norm. Plastic bags produce fewer upfront carbon emissions than their reusable counterparts, but many people only use them once and forget to recycle them properly. Once in the landfill, they don’t biodegrade either, allowing microplastics to leach into our water supply. To significantly impact the plastic bag problem, stores could charge for single-use bags, give a discount for reusable bags or require reusable bags.
Provide Reusable Packaging
Grocery stores could provide more ways for customers to avoid single-use packaging. Allowing or offering reusable produce bags would drastically reduce the amount of plastic used. Also, food like berries and nuts come in unnecessary bulky plastic packaging. Grocery businesses could offer reusable, biodegradable options for goods like those.
Offer In-Store Recycling
A primary reason for plastic in landfills is consumers who don’t know how to recycle properly or live in small areas with limited recycling capabilities. Offering on-site recycling drop-offs for packaging would help customers do their part. For the biggest impact, grocery stores should accept recycling with any numbered labels. Many recycling centers only accept ones and twos, while a lot of grocery packaging is designated a five.
Roadblocks to Progress
With customers and global organizations demanding progress, why haven’t more grocery stores shifted to sustainable and eco-friendly systems?
- Sustainability Is a Complex Issue
Sustainable practices aren’t as cut and dry as many consumers would like them to be. Even stores wanting to enact real change tend to struggle. For example, plastic bags are problematic for the environment since they leech microplastics and blow in the wind, getting trapped where they shouldn’t. However, plastic bags have fewer initial emissions than any other bag material — cotton bags need to be reused 131 times to recoup their negative environmental impact.
- Grocery Stores Aren’t Measuring Progress
Many grocery stores are part of a larger chain. To enact lasting change, these companies need to designate a position to oversee sustainability efforts and put them into practice across all stores. When it’s left to middle management at the store level, everyone assumes someone else will take the responsibility.
- Customers Love Convenience
Even though customers say they want grocery stores to make more effort to change their ways and becoming more sustainable, most of them aren’t willing to give up the convenience of prepackaged foods, disposable bags and just throwing all waste in the garbage. For stores to make a significant change, customers need to be willing to do their part.
Consumer Behavior Is Important
The best motivation for grocery stores to improve is to put your money where your mouth is. When possible, shop with stores that prioritize sustainability and are, at the least, trying to enact change internally. Also, avoid doing business with companies using greenwashing tactics and evade environmentally-friendly advancements.
While grocery stores begin to improve, changes you make at home can help make a difference. Switch to reusable shopping bags, do all of your shopping at once to waste less gas, have more meatless meals and buy local goods. One person’s impact is small, but as part of community, country and world efforts, those little things add up to significant outcomes.