Environmental sustainability has become a big part of most companies’ thinking and planning, and those in food and grocery are doing some of the ground-breaking work on this.

Starting with the supermarket chains, everyone’s aware of their bans on the use of single-use plastic bags, but their work on sustainability doesn’t stop there.

NZ Food & Grocery Council companies and retailers Foodstuffs and Woolworths NZ, though their New World, PAK‘nSAVE, Four Square and Countdown stores, have policies covering a range of issues around sustainability in all its forms – social, environmental and economic performance.

Both supermarkets can point to initiatives and targets that include recyclable meat trays, free reusable bags, electric delivery vans and car charging stations, diverting store waste away from landfill, reducing greenhouse gas emissions by way of energy-efficient and natural refrigeration systems, using LED lighting,  freezers that reduce cold air loss, heat reclaim technology, and developing processes and markets for recycling and recovering plastics.

That’s not the full list but it’s impressive and shows how serious they are about the environment.

Food and grocery suppliers also put a lot of time and money into improving both their manufacturing operations and the effect their products have on the environment after they have left their hands.

One recent example of this is the work being done by global company Unilever. What they’re doing is particularly significant because of the size of their product line and their reach.

They have 800-1000 active product lines across 17 categories on the shelves of supermarkets and stores up and down New Zealand. So whatever they do around developing sustainable production methods or product packaging or biodegradability can have a big influence on what doesn’t go into our landfills or waterways.

Behind Unilever’s ambition “to make sustainable living commonplace”, their Sustainable Living Plan lists recent technological breakthroughs that include solving the recyclability of black plastic bottles, developing a waste-free shopping system that uses durable, reusable, and refillable packaging, and introducing at least 25% recycled plastic in bottles of many locally made products.

The plan has three goals: improving health and wellbeing for 1 billion people by 2020; reducing environmental impact by half by reducing greenhouse gases, water use and waste; and enhancing livelihoods for millions of people, including suppliers and employees.

Some of the environmental achievements in the eight years since the plan was formed include: a 44% reduction in water use per tonne of production, a 31% reduction in waste, a 97% reduction in total waste per tonne of production, 56% of agricultural raw materials sustainably sourced, 48% of their portfolio by volume meeting highest nutritional standards, a 52% reduction in CO2 from energy per tonne of production, and a 2% reduction of water associated with consumers’ use of products.

They’re the sort of achievements that any company would be proud of (and they’re not stopping there), but is there anything others can learn from them?

Most companies, particularly small to medium-size ones, don’t have the resources that a giant like Unilever can put into such a big programme of work, so what can they do?

Maybe the key is in not trying to take on too much, rather looking at one or two of the initiatives the big companies have introduced and seeing if they can be adapted. For example, every company uses water for something – can it be used more carefully? Every company uses packaging – are there biodegradable or compostable options available, or alternatives to plastic?  Every company creates waste of some sort – can it be recycled or put to second use?

There’s always something that can be learnt from others, and the food and grocery sector has an opportunity to lead the way. If you’d like to share what your company is doing in relation to sustainability, get in touch. The Food & Grocery Council would like to help share great ideas and best practice through our networks.

(originally published in Supermarket News)