Sustainability Series: Wakefern Food Corporation

October 05, 2010

For 64 years, the Keasbey, New Jersey-based Wakefern Food Corporation has been a cooperatively owned network of independent retailers.

For 64 years, the Keasbey, New Jersey-based Wakefern Food Corporation has been a cooperatively owned network of independent retailers. With over 2.5 million square feet of grocery and non-food warehousing throughout New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island, Wakefern prides itself on providing its customers with high quality grocery, perishable, and non-foods products at good prices. Wakefern operates its own retail stores under the ShopRite and PriceRite banners. We talked to Karen Meleta, Vice President of Consumer and Corporate Communications for Wakefern, about how small changes can make a huge impact.

How does your business define sustainability?

We generally adhere to the definition set forth by the U.N. In other words, meeting the needs of today without compromising the needs of the future populations. We’re keeping an eye on the future in everything we do.

How are you incorporating sustainable practices into your business?

There are a number of fronts that we are looking at here; everything from reducing the amount of shopping bags in store to making more reusable bags available. We also have a number of initiatives in development. We have historically been active with recycling and taking materials out of the waste stream, and we are looking at opportunities throughout our bakery and deli departments to recycle plastic containers, crates, and pallets. We are also in the early stages for composting, and we are looking at what is the best option for that – if we should do regional composting where available, if we should have digesters in the store, and so on. Additionally, a number of stores this past year are looking for and moving to energy efficient lighting. Re-lighting stores saves significant amounts of energy. Lastly, we are beginning the process of bringing the concept of sustainability to our stores and headquarters, so that people can have awareness about the issue and engage them in the process.

What are your short term and long term goals?

Sustainability is a journey. There is no way to totally change all of your practices in the blink of an eye. We have to take very strategic measures to achieve these goals in all areas of operations. We have to ask how we can conserve energy and water use, and what other opportunities there are for increasing the number of materials we recycle and can take out of the waste stream. We have our own recycling center in Elizabeth, which is helpful in this regard. And we are keeping an eye on sustainable seafood, educating store associates, and providing information for customers to educate them about sustainability initiatives.

Where do you think you’ll have the biggest impact?

We are continuing to encourage the reduction of plastic bags and moving toward reusable bags for all customers. We are making more products available to consumers that are green or more sustainable by design, and we are making sure these products are available as interest in them increases. Any chance we have to talk about it and to educate our consumers in making decisions, we are making a difference. Another thing we are doing is a program called ShopRite Partners in Caring. This is a hunger fighting program that we’ve done for 11 years that helps raise awareness and funds and helps regional food banks close the gap. In the 11 years we’ve been working with the program we’ve donated 24 million dollars. Donating food to food banks also helps decrease landfill waste; ShopRite stores donate a large percentage of food to the New Jersey Food Bank. Corporate social responsibility is another way that we can reach out and give back and improve the quality of life for people in the community.

How do you measure your progress?

We have seen an incredible response from our consumers to reusable bags. In 2007, our reusable bag numbers were at about five million, and today we’re at about 44 million. If we keep pace, we’re looking at 55 million by end of this year. 

Why are sustainable business practices important to the food industry?

When you think about food as a necessity, something that everyone needs, we need to make sure that there are sustainable practices going on within the industry. Looking at the broader view of the industry and looking at food production and agriculture, clearly it’s important that we embrace sustainable practices. We need to ensure that the food supply is here for generations to come. For the food industry as a whole, it is important to do our part and our best to conserve natural resources, understand that they are limited, and give our customers the best shopping experience. This is a win-win for everyone. It’s good for the environment, good for consumers and good for prices. The triple bottom line is people, planet and profit.

Why are sustainable business practices important to the consumer?

To some extent this is a new frontier for consumers, and it is growing at a rapid rate. Consumers are becoming more and more aware of the choices they have and that they can make a difference with their purchasing patterns. When you look at the awareness of organics, sustainability could likely have a similar trajectory in terms of a learning curve for consumers. There is so much under the umbrella of what’s green and what’s not green, so education must become more widespread. This is a way for consumers to make a difference and make an impact in changing behaviors and choices.

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In upcoming issues, we will feature interviews with food companies that are making strides in their sustainability efforts. If you are interested in telling us more about what your company is doing to get involved please contact Allison Bloom