Sustainability, a buzzword in the produce industry for years, seems to be going mainstream as more consumers, including millennials, call for eco-friendly practices and products at every turn. Meanwhile, the produce industry continues to ratchet up its resource-efficient programs.
When it comes to sustainability, “the big thing is the packaging,” said Rob Spinelli, sales manager for Anthony Vineyards, Coachella, Calif.
Everyone seems to want packaging that is recyclable and uses less plastic, he said.
“We’re doing everything possible to make sure everything that we are using is recyclable or has been made from recyclable plastic,” Spinelli said. That includes clamshell containers, bags and cardboard boxes.
“We’re always looking to check out different packaging and options that are out there,” he said. “We’re using suppliers that are committed to that, as well.”
However, sometimes working with certain packaging options, such as biodegradable grape bags, just isn’t practical.
“If you have a lot of heat, like we have in the desert or in Bakersfield, they don’t last long,” Spinelli said. “We have to see what works best in real life.”
The company also has installed solar panels.
Divine Flavor LLC, Nogales, Ariz., compares sustainability to social responsibility, said Carlos Bon, vice president of sales,
“We are seeing a lot of the similarities of how the industry is treating sustainability to how social responsibility started off, and we are treating it almost identical,” he said.
Social responsibility always has been part of the company’s DNA, he said.
“This greatly helped us prepare for the requirements the industry gave growers,” he said. “We expect the same for sustainability — applying the same love and care to not only the people, but also nature and the environment.”
Divine Flavor’s farms have sophisticated water-drip irrigation systems in place, Bon said, and install more solar panels each year in an effort to save energy and reduce carbon emissions.
“Our farms have the best social programs, and this is a huge part of being sustainable,” Bon said. “We understand big changes must start happening, which is why our company is investing more and more each year.”
Sustainability may be popular because of its altruistic objectives such as preserving the environment and saving the earth, but it also offers an immediate and practical reward for growers, said Jesus Gonzalez, general manager at Crown Jewels Produce Co. LLC, Fresno, Calif.
“Growers are working toward doing things that are sustainable because of the money they will save long term,” he said.
Louie Galvan, managing partner at Fruit Royale Inc., Delano, Calif., agreed.
“The sustainability on the production side is a cost-saver more than anything,” he said, as the cost of producing a box of grapes keeps skyrocketing.
The cost of pallets alone has tripled, he said.
“The more that we can minimize those costs, the better off not only the earth is, but we are,” Galvan said.
Fruit Royale is doing a lot to conserve water, looking into compostable bags, using recycled materials in boxes and using solar energy whenever possible, he said.
“We’re just trying to take advantage of as many opportunities as we’ve got to minimize costs on all fronts.”
So far, retailers have not demanded that their suppliers implement sustainable practices, Gonzalez said, “but it seems like they expect it.”
“We try to get it to them before they ask for something.”
Retailers haven’t made any specific demands regarding sustainability on Anthony Vineyards, either, Spinelli said. But they have asked about suppliers’ programs and outlook for the next five years.
“They’re always making sure they’re working with somebody who is going in the same direction as they are,” he said.
Galvan at Fruit Royale said he has not heard retailers insist on sustainable practices, “but the shots are being felt and heard across the bow.”
“They want to talk about the environment, they want to talk about (carbon) footprint and you have to be part of the conversation,” he said. “We know that we need to come up with a plan and implement it. It’s a big deal.”