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May 23, 2008

Pundit's Mailbag - Sustainability Needs To Be Embraced By Industry

Jim Prevor's Perishable Pundit
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We’ve been focusing extensively on  Sustainability and Social Responsibility, and a recent in-depth interview brought this thoughtful response:

The Perishable Pundit article/Q&A about sustainability with Jeff Dlott, entitled Sustainability Expert Provides Insights To A Similar Industry, was very interesting.  This is an issue that creates a lot of controversy at the moment. But this is likely due to the fact that it insinuates the necessity for change, innovation and proactive decisions.

Before continuing, I want to fully disclose that our FreshSense farmers have been working with Protected Harvest (now part of SureHarvest) for the past four years to develop and implement a certification program for stone fruit and citrus. They recognized the importance of sustainability and embraced the restrictions and requirements such certification would mean for their farming operations -- because it is the right thing to do.

Mr. Dlott was at the forefront of the sustainability movement when most people were still arguing about the definition and viability of organics. He understood a measurable impact on our environment, and society must include a full-system approach that addresses all growing practices and the long-term sustainability of the farmer and the retailer as opposed to only looking at chemical usage.

Everything we do on a farm has an impact on our future, and we need to consider that impact as we make our farming decisions.  Accordingly, as our industry tackles the issue of sustainability, information about what sustainability is really about and how our industry can address this in a proactive manner without totally confusing or frustrating our consumers is vital.

As we have found in our four-year effort to convert our farming operations to fully sustainable practices and now take this to the marketplace, this is not an easy process.  As one of our salespeople recently noted, this is the only thing he has ever tried to sell to the retail trade that everyone loves but only a few are willing to try because they don’t understand how to present it to consumers or if it will confuse consumers. 

We have found that many people believe consumers don’t understand the concept of “sustainability” and must be fully educated about it before they will act.  Others feel it can only be marketed to consumers as a third alternative -- conventional, organic and sustainable. And, there are some who think sustainable produce must compete with organic produce.  In reality, this is just about providing consumers with what they want -- a quality product that has been grown in a conscientious, eco-friendly manner. 

A plum certified as being grown under a sustainable program does not need to be positioned to compete with an organic plum.  There is a small percentage of consumers who have both the financial means and the philosophical beliefs necessary to buy organic products. If it is part of a retailer’s strategy to serve this consumer, there is no reason not to do so while also offering other consumers a product grown under sustainable practices.

Produce certified under a sustainable program can and will be appreciated by the vast majority of consumers who want to buy products grown in an environmentally and socially proactive manner but can’t or won’t pay 50% to 75% more to do so.

Moreover, it is naive of us “produce experts” to think most consumers need or even want to fully understand an official definition for “sustainable.”  According to consumer research conducted by The Hartmann Group, 54% of consumers already claimed some understanding of “sustainability” as of last year, while most of us in the produce industry were arguing about the definition of the term. 

Moreover, the 2006 Cone Millennial Cause Study found 89% of their respondents (age 13 to 25 -- the trendsetters) were likely to switch from one brand to another if the second brand were associated with a good cause. Consumers are often much smarter than we are when it comes to knowing what they want...

At some point, we need to realize a definition in the Webster dictionary or an official definition agreed upon by PMA, United Fresh, Western Growers and others has nothing to do with consumer acceptance.  Frankly, consumers want to feel good about what they are buying, and they want the knowledge that the peach or potato they are buying has been certified to meet strict environmental and social standards.

This provides consumers with the confidence they desire.  Obviously, there must be substance behind the claim, or our consumers will be quick to revolt.  This is why leaders such as SureHarvest/Protected Harvest will play such an important role in the future of produce.

It is time for our industry to embrace this issue and provide our consumers with what they are telling us they want.

-- Blair R. Richardson
FreshSense, LLC
Parlier, California

What makes sustainability distinctive from initiatives such as organics is that sustainability, properly considered, is not a mission in itself; it is a framework through which many missions can be achieved.

Being organic no more makes a company sustainable than growing conventionally makes it sustainable.

In fact, if it turns out, for example, that the dilemma of the next century is an urgent need to produce more food, then the organic community’s decision to reject, say, GMOs may turn out to be highly unsustainable.

If you turn to a product such as hamburger meat where, as we discussed here, Wegmans happily sells loads of irradiated burgers. If the beef industry can’t stop people from dying as a result of to E. coli 0157:H7 contamination, well, it may be highly unsustainable to reject irradiation.

It is, of course, understandable that growers who have invested in sustainability certifications might like to use that as a marketing tool. Sometimes it can work.

Yet a lot of our work with consumers has indicated that although consumers are quick to punish producers and retailers for ethical or environmental lapses, they are slow to reward companies for doing what consumers think they should be doing anyway.

The various retail initiatives focused on sustainability seem to be moving in this direction as well. It is not that some vendors get a gold seal for sustainable packaging, but, rather, that the retailer insists that all vendors work consciously to reduce unneeded packaging.

When we look at what FreshSense is doing, we think it is terrific that they are working with Jeff Dlott and Sure Harvest/Protected Harvest, and we wish Blair and FreshSense the best with its new Zeal brand, subtitled Fruit for a Healthy Future.

Yet we think its FlavorFirst Quality Management Program and especially its new program, “The Great Taste Guarantee,” in which it promises to “buy back” from the consumer any piece of Ripe ‘N Ready fruit that isn’t “great tasting” also speaks to sustainability.

For at its heart, sustainability is supposed to ensure that an organization or an industry can sustain itself into the future

The Great Taste Guarantee is a way to say that FreshSense and its Ripe ‘N Ready brand can’t sustain itself if it disappoints the consumer. We would argue the same is true of the broader trade.

Lately we’ve been running a series of pieces focusing on issues of flavor. These pieces include:

Lousy Fruit Undermines Consumption

Pundit’s Mailbag — More On Lousy Fruit: Where’s The Management?

Ripening Workshop Set For May 20

Pundit’s Mailbag — Ripening Lessons From The Trenches

Pundit’s Mailbag – Flavor Consistency

Yet it would be a terrible mistake for the industry to look at issues such as flavor and think they are in some separate silo from sustainability. Just as food safety isn’t separate and producing enough to feed the world isn’t separate.

There are a lot of people who would like to push the industry into their own parochial definition of sustainability. We would argue for a more inclusive vision, one built on continuous improvement.

Blair is, of course, correct to point to the consumer as our loadstar. And he is absolutely right when he points out consumers don’t walk through shopping aisles carrying their Webster’s to define all terms.

What will make consumers feel good about what they are buying varies, by consumer, by life phase, by economic cycle and much more. So sometimes it may be a brand with an overt appeal to environmentalism and sometimes it is a brand with a promise of taste and satisfaction. Both are ways of delighting consumers and both are aspects of sustainability.

Many thanks to Blair Richardson and FreshSense for helping us to think through such a complex issue.