OPN Connect Newsletter 329 · July 20, 2023

Retailers and Suppliers Dialogue about Emerging Sustainability Survey Trend

Two major organic produce suppliers and the largest grocery retailer in the US described the experience of complying with consumer-driven sustainability audits—a growing demand from transparency-focused customers—as part of “The Value of Sustainability Compliance” educational session held during Organic Produce Summit 2023 last week in Monterey, California.

OPS 2023 "The Value of Sustainability Compliance" ed session panel

OPS 2024 Retailer Reg square

“There is an expectation that companies are doing things responsibly,” said Dana Brennan, vice president of external affairs and corporate responsibility at Grimmway Farms. “We have a story to tell.”

Moderator Kieran Ficken McNeice, director of sustainability programs at Measure to Improve, described a shift in the quality of data being collected. Before, buyer surveys requested general information about sustainability practices. However, consumers are now looking for real, transparent data, said McNeice.

Moderator Kieran Ficken McNeice, Director of Sustainability Programs, Measure to Improve

Vitalis February 2024

Brennan’s team, which includes a new department formed to address the emerging demand for sustainability data, fields “varying levels” of surveys, questionnaires, and other requests that range from detailed data audits to a simple checklist. More than 60 pages of requests can accumulate from the top 10 retailers alone. Brennan said the answers to one recent request could potentially lie within 15 different departments.

“There is an expectation that companies are doing things responsibly. ... We have a story to tell.” - Dana Brennan

Walmart’s Director of Global Food Sourcing Roland Harmon offered the retailer’s perspective on these surveys, aimed to better serve “our collective customer.” Harmon said Walmart ranks as a leader in this kind of data collection, using these audits as part of Walmart’s way “to engage suppliers in climate action,” according to the company’s website.

In 2017, Walmart launched Project Gigaton with a goal of avoiding adding one billion metric tons of greenhouse gasses to the global supply chain by 2030. This comprehensive sustainability survey focuses on six areas of improvement for suppliers, including reducing waste and energy with strategies like innovative packaging and responsible raw material and transportation choices. A commitment by companies to regenerate their natural environments is also prioritized.

Fox Packaging January February 2024

Panelist Roland Harmon, Director of Global Food Sourcing, Walmart

“[Audits] help us understand where we stand in relation to our goals and understand where our suppliers are in their [sustainability] journey,” Harmon said. “We cannot tackle these broader systemic issues alone.” Data provided by suppliers in response to buyer surveys are not shared with other suppliers or used as leverage, he said.

Taylor Farms’ Director of Organic Integrity and Compliance Jim McKeon described consumer questions on topics ranging from energy use, food safety, irrigation practices, and even diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) standards appearing on sustainability questionnaires received by Taylor Farms.

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“[Audits] help us understand where we stand in relation to our goals and understand where our suppliers are in their [sustainability] journey. We cannot tackle these broader systemic issues alone.” - Roland Harmon

“It is a lift to get that data," McKeon said. "But we’re also seeing it as an opportunity. It’s a broad set of data being requested from a bunch of different channels because the customer is more in tune with where their food is coming from.” explained McKeon.

McKeon said strategies are closely analyzed to determine how to collect the most accurate and consistent data pulled from a field test or a database, especially through unpredictable growing seasons. At this time, sustainability metrics remain mostly undefined. “We’re in the space right now where we're trying to define and measure improvement,” McKeon said.