Why we can’t shop our way to sustainability

Can we shop our way to sustainability in the supermarket aisle?

Eco labels are cluttered, confusing and unreliable.

Organic food gets a tiny slice of the market.

Most shoppers don’t pay much attention to environmental factors. Perhaps understandably so. They’re busy, or  ignorant. Or they don’t care.

Which makes me believe that we can’t count on consumers to bring about a sustainable food system.

So, like it or not, that it’s going to be up to business to fix the food system.

That’s my takeaway from today’s discussions at the Sustainable Food Institute, part of Cooking for Solutions, a great event on food/ag/sustainability organized by the Monterey Bay Aquarium. I’m here for a couple of days of good talk, good food, good wine, shared by reporters, chefs, people in the food business, scientists, activists and a farmer or two.

In several panel discussions–one on eco-labels, another about the popular but nevertheless limited Seafood Watch program run by the aquarium, and also during my own interview with Louise Nicholls, a sustainability executive from the British food and department store Marks & Spencer–it became clear to me that the dizzying complexity of food and agriculture systems, including as they do health, environmental and economic concerns, will make it very difficult to communicate simply to shoppers what’s “good” and what is not, even assuming scientists can reach consensus on that.

Persuading shoppers to then change their habits is even tougher. [click to continue...]

Can one person change a company? Discuss…

I’m giving a speech to the grocery and food manufacturing industry–and I’d like your help.

I’ll be the closing keynote speaker at a Sustainability Summit in December in Arlington, Va., organized by the Food Marketing Institute, a trade association of grocery retailers and wholesalers (Ahold, Kroger, Price Chopper, Publix, Wegman’s, Winn-Dixie,  etc.) and the Grocery Manufacturers Association, a trade association made up of the companies that produce much of what we eat (Campbell Soup, Coca-Cola, Dannon, DelMonte, General Mills, Kraft, H.J. Heinz, Kellogg, Kraft, Nestle, PepsiCo, Unilever and many more).

These folks, needless to say, can have a huge impact on the environment and on our health. So it’s a great opportunity for me.

Because I’ll be the last speaker that people hear before they go home, my plan is to give a talk called “The Power of One.” It’s about how one person can change the world–not by himself or herself, of course. But by mustering the right arguments, and enlisting the right allies, one person can change a company, an industry and eventually change the world. I’ve seen it happen, more than once. In my 2004 book, Faith and Fortune, I devoted a chapter called  “Can One Person Change a Company?” to a woman named Barbara Waugh and her impact on Hewlett Packard which was, then and now, an enormous global company.

Where do you come in? Well, I have some stories in mind of people who have had an impact on corporate America, but I’m eager to hear more. If you know of someone who, with their passion and commitment and smarts and strategic thinking, helped make a company, big or small, more sustainable, please let me know. (Post in the comments below or send an mail to marc.gunther@gmail.com) I’m going to write  about some of those people for this blog and tell their stories in the speech. They need not work in sustainability or corporate social responsibility–in fact, I’m interested in individuals or small groups of people  who broke through silos or made things happen without having institutional responsibility.

And, if you work in the grocery or food business, by all means come to the summit. Ken Powell, the chairman and CEO of General Mills, will give the opening talk–it’s always an encouraging sign when a CEO is willing to give a speech on sustainability. Other speakers include Matt Arnold of Pricewaterhouse Coopers, Gwen Ruta of Environmental Defense, Jason Clay of the World Wildlife Fund, Jon Johnson from the University of Arkansas (who is leading the Sustainability Consortium), writer Andrew Winston, Dave Stangis of Campbell Soup, chef Barton Seaver, Aron Cramer of Business for Social Responsibility–and those are just people I’ve met or interviewed. I’m looking forward to reconnecting with then, as well as meeting new people. As my friend Joel Makower likes to say, networking is great–and not just because it’s only one letter away from being not working!