As the frontline for sustainability messaging to consumers, retailers will continue to move the bar for expectations for other members of the supply chain.

As it does with many initiatives, Wal-Mart Stores Inc., Bentonville, Ark., is likely to set the pace for the industry when it comes to sustainability and the supply chain, observers say.

The firm’s Sustainability Index will grade suppliers based on their emissions, energy use, packaging and other factors.

In an effort to be inclusive, the chain has tried to involve other major players such as Kroger and Safeway in the development of the index.

If successful, the end result may spawn a standard that applies to products sold in retail not just in the U.S., but perhaps other parts of the world.

“Everyone needs to know that measuring is going to become more and more important,” said J.D. Grubb, director of procurement for C.H. Robinson Co., Eden Prairie, Minn.

“They need to learn how to develop a lifecycle analysis of their products. The first step is to eliminate negative impacts.”

Integrally involved in the index is Ron McCormick, formerly vice president/divisional merchandise manager of produce and floral at the firm, who has moved to a new position overseeing sustainability and locally grown initiatives.

Wal-Mart also stands out for its packaging scorecard, which includes elements such as the recyclability of a package.

“Other than Wal-Mart, no other retailers have gone into such detail,” said Kim Flores, spokeswoman for Seald Sweet International, Vero Beach, Fla.

“They’ve put more emphasis on sustainability than any other customer out there.”

Having completed the second year of its program for sourcing local produce, Wegmans Food Markets Inc., Rochester, N.Y., has 540 local growers that help provide commodity items in summer to mid-fall, said Dave Corsi, vice president of produce and floral operations.

The retailer considers the use of local growers as key to its sustainability focus, because it reduces food miles associated with the produce, Corsi said, adding that the practice has cut down on the amount of greenhouse product imported from Holland.

“Now, there’s a lot of great greenhouse produce available in our region, so we use that in our two distribution centers,” he said.

C.H. Robinson has taken the notion of local sourcing to a national level so it can satisfy the needs of larger customers, said Bud Floyd, vice president of produce marketing.

“We’ve taken the concept of sustainability and developed programs that customers can identify with, such as regional sourcing programs, which consists of both existing growers and legacy farmers, or those that had quit growing produce and are coming back to it,” Floyd said, adding that it’s particularly taken off in the southeastern states, including Mississippi.

“That trend ties into the heartstrings of consumer appeal for local produce, as well as food miles,” he said.

The effort attempts to bring consumer demand to growers, so they can get committed pricing and volume before putting product in ground, said Jim Lemke, senior vice president of sourcing for C.H. Robinson.

“By bringing customers to the forefront, it helps fill the void for some smaller and medium-sized producers that don’t have customer engagement already in place,” Lemke said.

Because Duda Farm Fresh Foods, Oviedo, Fla., has growing operations in 13 states, it also has been able to take advantage of the local produce phenomenon.

Customers including Wal-Mart and Publix’s GreenWise use Duda as an example in retail point-of-purchase displays that explain the source of the produce, said Nichole Towell, marketing development manager.

Marketing sustainability

These days, grower-shippers not only have to sell retailers on the quality of their produce, but also in the way it was grown, harvested, packed and delivered.

Duda has marketed its sustainability efforts to retailers by letting customers know what happens in each portion of the operation, which is laid out on its Web site, Towell said.

When communicating about its sustainability program to retailers, greenhouse grower Village Farms International, Eatontown, N.J., uses a set of talking points, said Helen Aquino, marketing manager.

The company touts its policies on water conservation and land preservation, which play a role in what the company calls “The Barefoot Plan.”

The plan, which is laid out on its Web site, has five aspects, each of which has an icon that is being integrated into packaging, Aquino said.

The company has learned to simplify the sustainability messaging on its packaging, she said.

“It’s a Catch-22. Consumers want to think their produce is grown on 40 acres with a mule by mom and pop. We have found that being technical turns consumers off, so now we’re trying to be as simple as possible,” she said.

At its own facilities, Wal-Mart started a solar pilot program in May 2007. Since then it has added solar at several distribution centers and has a goal of adding solar installations at up to 20 facilities through 2010.

Recently, it completed the solar installations at three California locations, with the panels projected to provide 20% to 30% of each facility’s electricity needs, according to the company.

Fresh & Easy, Riverside, Calif., is considering adding rooftop solar to its store locations, but that is in the preliminary stages, said spokesman Brendan Wonnacott.

The chain already has a massive rooftop solar array at its Riverside distribution center. The 500,000 square feet array – one of the largest in the nation — provides nearly 25% of all electricity used at the facility.

ShopRite supermarkets, which is owned by Wakefern Food Corp., in January unveiled a 1,024-panel solar power system at its retail store in Garwood, N.J.

In the club store arena, Sam’s Club is testing solar at five locations, including a 546 kilowatt system at its Glendora, Calif., store, according to a news release.