When food or beverage companies talk about their commitment to the environment, bragging about multiple "sustainability" efforts, some tend to roll their eyes. "Sustainability" is a notoriously fuzzy word, falling in the line with "natural" label claims, getting thrown around so often, and so loosely, that it seems to not mean much of anything.
But that may be changing.
A number of recent sustainability initiatives in the food industry have caught our eye, given their grounding in reality, metric-driven approaches, and devotion to solving genuine problems in the environment (and in business).
Here's a look at some of the more interesting developments of 2014.
1. Dannon changes packaging
When Dannon began switching from polystyrene cups to ones made of bio-based polylactic acid, or PLA. we applauded. But our joy was not just because of PLA.
Loads of companies are switching to bio-based plastics. And the fact that Dannon started the transition with Stonyfield Farms organic yogurt made good branding sense.
Two things made this decision both unusual and refreshing. First, Dannon began the switch without a big PR campaign aimed at convincing the world it was environmentally sensitive. The company further went on to note that part of its reasoning involved recognizing that it needed to find a way to avoid the price fluctuations of petroleum.
2. Retailers move to LNG trucks
Another sustainability move born out of energy costs is the shift from diesel to liquid natural gas (LNG) trucks by retailers.
When Kroger, the biggest supermarket chain in the nation, announced that it would transition its truck fleet to LNGs, starting with 40 heavy duty vehicles to serve stores in Pacific Northwest, it generated a fair amount of media attention.
But Kroger was only the latest in a slew of retailers to make such a move. Cardenas Markets, Fresh & Easy, and Simply Supermarkets have all done the same.
3. Hershey beats deadlines
When corporations announce a sustainability initiative, it's often done with considerable fanfare. But in the weeks and months to follow, the passion for the initiative seems to fade amid other concerns at the company.
Not so at Hershey. The chocolate maker announced an extraordinarily ambitious program back in 2012, complete with a series of not-so-easy-to-reach goals and deadlines -- like to cut water consumption per pound of product by 10% by 2015.
Then, in March of this year, Hershey announced it was way ahead of its plan; water use was down 58%. Other goals -- often using clear-eyed metrics such as recycle rates and zero waste to landfill (ZLF) -- had also been met well ahead of schedule.
4. Mars becomes a wind farmer
If there were a grand prize for "most sustainable chocolate company," Hershey may have won that crown in March when it announced it had exceeded its sustainability goals. But it wouldn't have held the title for long.
In late April, Mars announced it had entered a joint venture to build a wind farm in Texas. It seems that no other food company in recent history has taken such a high-profile step toward sustainability.
5. Saving the palm forests
Just a few years ago the only folks worried about the state of the world's palm forests were a handful of activists and college kids. That all changed in 2014.
Those activists caught the attention of consumers everywhere, and those consumers caught the attention of the corporate world.
Among the food companies pledging to source palm oil only from regions protected from deforestation in recent months are Kellogg, Mars, General Mills, ADM, Safeway, and Delhaize.
6. Wal-Mart tries to save the world
It's almost impossible to overstate the influence that Wal-Mart, the world's largest retailer, has in how the world does business.
So when the company (which is also the world's largest pubic corporation and the world's largest private employer) announced it wanted to host a sustainability conference for the companies it does business with, everyone took notice.
The results were impressive. Eight of the world's largest food and agriculture companies signed a pledge to bring 8 million acres of farmland into sustainable agriculture programs and to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 6 million metric tons.
Major players such as PepsiCo, Cargill, Dairy Farmers of America, and others all signed pledges over the three days of the conference.
When it was over, it was clear just how dramatic the change would be for the planet if Walmart and its suppliers can meet their goals.
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