Everybody seems to be going green, but some are doing it better than others.

Companies that rush into sustainable practices without fully researching them, or ones that know they haven’t quite got it but are pushing it anyway, are in danger of the repercussions of ‘green-washing.’

“When you make claims that don’t really stand up or that are shallow, you’re not really making a difference,” said Kathy Means, vice president of government relations and public relations for the Newark, Del.-based Produce Marketing Association. “One thing we know is that consumers don’t put up with that. Once they know you’re green-washing, you’re out.”

Means pinpointed social networking sites as a main mode of communication for eco-savvy consumers who can pick out a green-washer.

“You don’t have to look at the government as the No. 1 enforcer,” Means said. “Consumers will watch you.”

Being in a hurry to jump on the sustainability bandwagon, and acting without thinking through it, can be the downfall of some sustainability initiatives.

“I’m a consumer as well, and sometimes I look skeptically at what’s coming out from companies that have maybe rushed into having a sustainability message,” said Mark Nicholson, vice president of business development for Geneva, N.Y.-based Red Jacket Orchards.

Gregory Sagan, senior vice president of sales and marketing for Modern Mushroom Farms Inc., Avondale, Pa., said his company continues to prepare for sustainability as a movement that is here to stay.

“We believe that sustainability is here to stay,” Sagan said. “It is a way of life. So far, all of the initiatives continue to expand and build upon themselves.”

Sagan couldn’t pinpoint a specific practice that is becoming permanent, but said that sustainability is the future.

“It is about balancing environmental factors with economic viability,” Sagan said. “That will mean different things to each company and each person.”

"It's easy to get into this black-and-white thing that if it's local it's more sustainable, but that's not necessarily the case."

- Kathy Means

To keep clean in the consumers’ eyes, companies need to back up their claims, Means said.

“A lot of it is just documenting,” said Brian Knott, president of Louisville, Ky.-based Grow Farms. “A lot are already doing it, they just need to be documenting it and showing what they’re doing.”

But it’s not always as easy as choosing to implement sustainable practices and being transparent about it. Companies need to know what they’re doing and how to measure it.

One group, the Stewardship Index for Specialty Crops, is looking at creating metrics for measuring the effects of sustainable practices and products.

“There are some black-and-white, but mostly there are tradeoffs,” Means said. “That’s why we’re supporting the Stewardship Index for Specialty Crops.”

The purpose of the index is to create a way to measure the effects of sustainable practices and products so that companies can evaluate for themselves and decide what works for them. The best analogy from people involved: They’re trying to help everyone use the same yardstick.

“We also don’t want to squelch innovation,” Means said. “We don’t want to say everyone should do it this way.”

The group working on the index is made up of members all along the supply chain, most notable with retail partners including Wal-Mart and Costco, and distributors including Sysco.

In a report earlier in 2009 on the project, Jeff Dlott, chief executive officer of SureHarvest, a Sacramento, Calif.-based third-party auditor and sustainability consulting company, reported on the interest of top retailers, foodservice companies and product manufacturers in sustainability.

“Let me be clear on this point. There is no conflict between delivering value to shareholders and helping solve bigger societal problems,” H. Lee Scott, Wal-Mart’s former chief executive officer, said in Dlott’s report.

Dlott’s update on the project included a synopsis that the group is working on metrics for water, soil, biodiversity, chemical inputs, education, animal welfare, air, waste and energy.

By 2010, the group’s goal is to be able to measure the environmental impacts in the supply chain.

Also involved in this project are the National Potato Council, United Fresh Produce Association, Western Growers and Wegmans. The group is set to meet at the end of July, and plans to begin piloting some of the metrics, said Barbara Meister, a spokesperson for SureHarvest.

So what’s a company to do?

Motivation to go green is coming from many places these days, including retail and foodservice customers for produce companies, as well as from consumers themselves.

Overall, though, the motivation for most companies comes from the desire to do what’s right.

At least, that is, according to research from PMA.

“Research is showing most are doing it because they believe it’s the right thing to do, but many don’t know what ROI is or break-even is for sustainable practices,” Means said.

PMA is trying to help clear up some of the confusion. Part of the association’s Web site dedicated to sustainability includes a “Share your stories” page with examples of initiatives that have worked for other companies.

“There’s no reason to reinvent the wheel if someone’s already figured it out,” Means said.

The route for many companies is to just try and figure out little areas where they can make a difference.

“We’re looking at everything we do in a different way,” said Rachel Leach, marketing manager for Russet Potato Exchange, Bancroft, Wis. “All of our inputs, we’re looking at how they affect our outputs.”

The end result is the most important factor, Dlott said in his presentation. Companies should spend less time on what was done, and more on what its result is.

With produce companies, the trend is toward sustainable practices that also help return on investment, Means said.

Overall, companies need to break through the clutter and get a clear message to consumers, who may misinterpret some factors as sustainable.

“For example, it’s easy to get into this black-and-white thing that if it’s local it’s more sustainable, but that’s not necessarily the case,” Means said. “Because of economies of scale, the big company might be more sustainable.”

The same is true for organics, which are often interpreted by the consumer as sustainably grown, while conventional product can also be grown sustainably.

“You’ve got to be careful when you listen to green advocates who support a movement away from industrial farming,” said Todd Miedema, director of marketing for Miedema Produce Inc., Hudsonville, Mich. “There’s a reason the food budget is the smallest part of the family budget. It’s good to be environmentally friendly, but you’ve got to have your head on straight.”

PMA’s first Fresh Connections event focused on sustainability will be hosted by Means on Sept. 15 in Minneapolis.