Monday, September 24, 2012

the Soap on the Supers

Beauty emerges as a judgment of great ecosystemic resilience and diversity, as is seen in the poster icon for vibrancy: coral reefs, many of which are now threatened.

In the last post, WholeFoods Market was rated by RewardintheCognitiveniche (RCN) as tops for stewardship by a food market in the Santa Barbara/Goleta area. In this third and last of a series, which has been rating local supermarkets for stewardship  (post 1, post 2) using the quality of online reporting as a proxy for that concept, we learn from the best of the best what seems to be working best, goals and plans for the future, and attractive innovations. Online reporting of ecological performance is possibly the most important interactive form of communication between producer-stakeholders and consumer-stakeholders. Both hold high stakes in a vibrant ecological future, not one more than the other. Neither can exist independently. The quality of life for both would be immeasurably diminished should the environment continue to be degraded. Yet many would ask why bother with on-line reporting.

RCN argues that easily accessed online reporting of a company's mission and vision, its environmental policies and practices, and its stated commitment to community can be used as a reliable indicator of a company's stewardship ethic, or their sense of right and wrong, good and bad, true and false. Ecological stewardship is an ethic, not  a state-of-being-process such as ecological sustainability.   Sustainability as a concept means the keeping on of a given state.

 Because RCN thinks that quality of life requires continuous interaction between consumers and producers for wide-open sharing of values, responsibilities and privileges, the online publication of a company's stewardship ethic is key to our vision of a vibrant future. Publication of an ethic upfront, grabby, and freely accessible to all, without subscription fees, is the gatekeeper to this rating process.

The bottom line for this post is the presence of sufficient information that is easily accessed and free to all  to allow a concerned consumer to choose to support one supermarket over another, strictly from the perspective of ecological sustainability, by buying products there rather than elsewhere. Both criteria for evaluating stewardship and for evaluating  sustainability reports are offered in this post.

Stewardship and Sustainability

Throughout history, stewards have operated according to the ethic of noblesse oblige. The landed nobility felt their position entailed not only rights but responsibilities, and failure to assume such responsibilities was wrong and shameful. In 2012 those occupying the top spot in the cognitive niche are in an important way the nobility of our time. In developed countries, one of the major proofs of success is ownership of land, company, and home. Being so landed entails responsibilities. Until recently, producers felt entitled to secrecy and for the most part, kept consumers in the dark about what they were really doing in their operations, how products were made, ingredients sourced, and waste disposed of, as well as what their actual goals and plans were. We are either already privileged and responsible or if, in the case of developing countries, wherein being landed signals success, entering into the stewardship ethic.

Though overlapping, stewardship and sustainability are different concepts.The definition of sustainability used here is unusual, because it is qualitative and always modified by the adjective ecological and framed by the underlying concept of ecological aesthetics. Aesthetics is always about the best elements linked in the best ways for the best outcomes. What emerges over time from all the groundwork is the aesthetic. The truism is that the cream rises to the top, and this is probably true of all major aesthetics. Ecological adds the dimension of what has been tried over evolutionary time and found good and true for survival of species.

Sustainability ratings are very different from those of stewardship, which first and foremost opens the doors to full partnership between producers and consumers. If the only stewards are the producers--those who make wine, those who make toothpaste-- then the equation if lopsided. The values are different. Performance would be evaluated by different criteria. But producers cannot exist without consumers. Consumers have a right to know whatever they need to know to make good decisions about every product or service based on criteria of sustainability. This is the work of online reporting.

Rating the sustainability of a market or company involves operational criteria such as powering  plants with  renewable energy, emitting less and less fossil-based CO2 or toxic emissions, controlling delivery processes for emissions and other wasteful processes, delivering high quality effluent water quality, zero manufacturing waste or from the product perspective, sourcing all products according to sustainability guidelines, meaning selling only sustainable seafood, using 100% renewable or recycled materials for all products and packaging, and not least, marketing only top quality products, and so on.

Ecological sustainability means taking good care of whatever affects the best possible quality of life for all who inhabit the global ecosystem, implicating millions of species. This particular definition is both ethical and qualitative and ignores profit and economic growth. It celebrates beauty and the evolutionary processes through which a judgment of "Beautiful!" may emerge. This definition of ecological sustainability is framed by evolutionary aesthetics; it envelopes the preservation of biodiversity, conservation and/or restoration of natural and species' resources; the protection and restoration of  habitat; and an educative component, requiring re-evaluating both consumption and production, which have run away from all logical control and seem hell-bent on global degradation.

At the bottom of this post are major concerns for sustainability report evaluation. But first, below is a list of stewardship evaluation criteria using online reporting as proxy for stewardship.

Core Values for Online Reporting 

1. Free and open access of information to all. No subscription or membership fees required to choose products and services based on good and sufficient information.

2. Clear Goals and Values Statement within 2 clicks. Plan to achieve goals. Checklist/benchmarks to evaluate progress.  Enough information to create a company profile and compare it with another company's profile as a basis for informed decision-making: choosing to support one market rather than another.

3. Compliance with the GRI guidelines of transparency, comprehensiveness, relevance, truthfulness, timeliness, certifiability, interactivity with stakeholders, quantitative values for most categories, reference communities made explicit, all categories relevant to these communities. Metrics that can be compared both within the company and with other companies, such as tons of waste sent to landfills. Reference communities, relevant contexts for all metrics. Frequent re-evaluation and re-prioritization.

4. Innovation, leadership, creation of new value. How that new value may impact the local community and possibly the global ecosystem.

Models We can Learn From 

 Two models are offered here: both models are exemplary of online reporting, Proctor and Gamble presents sustainability information in an informative and unusual way, but is not local to the Santa Barbara area, and WholeFoods is exemplary for stewardship as well as its sustainability practices. Both reflect local and global connections. Both are committed to engaging communities in their sustainability programs. WholeFoods is a leader in linking market consumption with market education of sustainable seafood.

Proctor and Gamble: Sustainability is one of four main menu choices on the PG homepage, you can't miss it. With one click you reach a comprehensive set of sustainability information options, including an overview, a link to environmental sustainability as remarkably different from the triple bottom line version, a report card, sustainability goals, and more.

 P&G uses a life cycle analysis, highly favored by the author of this website They study consumer behavior and seem to make few assumptions without major research. "At P&G, every sustainability innovation begins with a deep understanding of consumers."  P&G is focused on mainstream consumers, because they would seem to have the biggest impact speaking in terms of volume. They also appear to be following the trend from neuromarketers: because sustainability is a top priority item in the menu, we can assume the menu reflects major interests and values. Companies that claim to be committed to sustainability but fail to feature that concept on their landing page are not up on their neural marketing research.

Although environmental reporting may be considered a young genre, two-thirds of the world's leading companies now report formally on sustainability. Fewer companies report online, yet for all 21st century communicators, the Internet is unquestionably the premier medium for all communication. For reasons that include image, competition, corporate responsibility, pressure from stockholders, investment considerations, standardization across enterprise and industry sectors, and a sense of stewardship that may transcend company lines, business is now committed to report sustainability. The triple bottom line of economics, social equity, and environment is also beginning to be replaced by the elusive line of ecological well-being, implying evolvability.

Evaluating Sustainability

The top concerns for supermarkets and ecological sustainability are the following, in alphabetical order:
1. climate change caused by greenhouse gas emissions
2. community engagement
3. distribution/delivery vehicles
4. education/engagement of the community
5. energy use (refrigeration, lighting, air conditioning) and offsets
6. (direct and indirect) greenhouse gas emissions (causing pollution, health problems, acid rain, etc in addition to climate change)
7. innovations
8. packaging, reusable bags for groceries, supply chain control over wasteful packaging
9. plans for future ecological sustainability
10. product sourcing and products' footprints
11. recycling habits, composting, community food banks
12. sustainability of products: seafood, fruit and vegetables, packaged and processed foods
sustainable seafood, marine systems, agriculture, and animal culture
13. water use,water footprint
14. waste

Some of the companies not rated tops for stewardship are, nonetheless, high performers for sustainability practices, and companies such as Costco have taken unusual advantage of their worldwide plants to install solar arrays and skylights to reduce fossil fuel spending. Ralphs (Kroger chain) has a warm and people friendly section on green living as well as impressive performance. For example, nineteen of their 39 manufacturing plants sent“zero waste” to landfill, and  energy consumption was reduced in all Kroger stores by 31% since 2000. Vons (Safeway) was recognized by Greenpeace as the most sustainable seafood grocer for two consecutive years (though I do not observe in my local SB Vons any attempt to educate consumers regarding seafood sustainability.) Price aside, all shrimp, which is the seafood I buy most frequently after salmon, seem to be equal--from the sustainability perspective-- at the Von's seafood counter, whether wild, farm-raised, from wherever, and however harvested. This is a missed opportunity to educate consumers about seafood sustainability, such as can be found at the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch shrimp guide , where specific guidelines are given for shrimp from different areas.

"In addition, Safeway was one of only two national retailers to score a green rating, the highest category of ratings that a grocer can score. This marks the first year in the six-year history of the Greenpeace scorecard that any retailer achieved a green rating.The "Carting Away the Oceans" report and scorecard, released May 2, rates retailers' seafood policies, initiatives, product labeling/dissemination of information about products, and practices surrounding the sale of certain unsustainable or "red list" species. Greenpeace, in the introduction to the report, cited Safeway's "thorough and varying combinations of progressive policy development, public support for conservation measures, and the elimination of unsustainable seafood inventory items," as elements that make the company an "undeniable leader within the industry."

Most of the large supermarket chains publish specific metrics in their future plans, such as achieving zero waste in all stores by such and such a date, or becoming carbon neutral, or using x % of renewable energy by 2025, etc. Few have stated plans to make the consumer more informed or a more significant collaborator in their sustainability futures. There is little innovation so far in community engagement.

Our next series if all goes as planned, will focus on the stewardship of local (Santa Babara County) wineries.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Are Supermarkets selling Sustainability short?

Are Supermarkets Selling Sustainability Short?

They are if their image of sustainability is just a veneer. They are if they think the week's specials are more important than the survival of a high quality ecosystem. They are if they are NOT involved in educating consumers.

This 3-part post series focuses on the need for supermarkets not only to become sustainable but to report their practices to consumers, so that each person in his or her role as a consumer can make those informed choices that best support a vibrant global ecosystem along with best quality of life as conceptualized by that consumer. Local grocery markets are rated in this post for their stewardship practices, using easily accessed online reporting on their home website as a proxy for stewardship.  Rationales are at the bottom of this page.

Access to comprehensive, transparent information is key to informed decision-making, the basis for sharing  the privileges and responsibilities of caring for our global ecosystem (stewardship) and fundamental to the conservation and restoration of best quality of life for all living creatures. 

 The rationale for using online reporting as a proxy for stewardship is presented at the bottom of this page, following the list of markets rated.  The ratings below do not necessarily reflect ecological performance, which require distinct criteria from those of stewardship and a proxy indicator such as online reporting.

image from


Santa Barbara & Goleta Markets Rated for Shared-Stewardship

 Proxy Rating

Whole Foods:

 Ralphs/Kroger  75/100
 Vons/Safeway  75/100
 Albertsons/Supervalu  60/100

Chapala Market; Costco, European Deli; Gelsons, Lazy Acres; Oriental Market, Nikka; Santa Cruz Markets; Smart and Final, Trader Joes 0 All of these markets received a “0” for no information regarding sustainability on the landing page of their website

 Highest per Widest per Deepest

 The top scoring market rated by RewardintheCognitiveNiche (RCN) for online reporting, used here as a proxy for global stewardship, is WholeFoods Market, with a score of 80/100. Since the WholeFoods chain tends to operate in a relatively decentralized fashion, just the local Santa Barbara market's online reporting was assessed. Result: the Santa Barbara WholeFoods Market is considered the highest per widest per deepest of all markets rated. This is an optimization value in which highest stands for quality, or beauty, widest stands for the best ecological information accessible to the greatest number of decision-makers (online ecological reporting),  and deepest metaphorically represents actual ecological practices.  The goal is stewardship practices shared equitably between producers and consumers. Stewardship sharing between producers and consumers seems to be the only collaboration that can work fast enough and well enough and just in time, if at all, for the ultimate goal of the preservation/restoration of quality of life (biodiversity quality of life).

The metric used to represent highest per widest per deepest is a number between 0 and 100, something easily understood, readily comparable, and finer tuned than a color chart of green for good and red for avoid (typical of seafood sustainability ratings). If three markets are rated green for seafood sustainability, for example, that rating may not inform a consumer of a specific concern regarding a specific such as marine reserves or recreational catch of spiny lobster, both of which could in fact affect a local consumer and local sustainability concerns.

Whole Foods Market has a grabby sustainability statement upfront and unmissable on the landing page of its website, with a fold-out menu offering information about most of the concerns of most of the environmentalists/ecologists (e.g., energy sources and offsets, waste disposal, chemicals and other pollutants emitted)  commitment to local community simultaneously with awareness of global processes, sustainable seafood,aquaculture, and links to a comprehensive array of  ecological sustainability information on the landing page of its website, all of which reflect a deep and long-viewing leadership commitment to ecological sustainability. All of this information is two clicks from start to specific facts, making accessibility easy and immediate, the sine-qua-non for online users. This site is exemplary for purposes of online reporting, so it receives the highest score for stewardship.

 The complete list of markets that were rated, including representatives of all major Western US grocery chains, can be found below. All markets received a rating of zero to 100.If there was no mention of environment, sustainability, or green practices on the landing page of a website, the stewardship score is zero, regardless of the sustainability practices of that market. In a nutshell, my claim is that only the most earnest will scroll down a website to discover a sustainability link or plug in a few likely search terms into a local search engine to discover the sustainability credentials of a grocery market. If sustainability isn't being featured as a top issue on a market's landing page, then it is being sold short to consumers. Investors will go the extra mile and track down information affecting corporate image, but the average consumer in search of a bargain for the weekend will not. No one new will be converted to sustainable practices if they are not directly addressed as part of their search for good deals for their family. How this works is addressed in the next post, Who's the Decider?

Some of the markets rated zero are deeply committed to sustainability practices,and some are leaders in specialized areas of sustainability, such as sustainable seafood or carbon neutrality. But what is being rated here is stewardship, or the easy sharing between producers and consumers worldwide of comprehensive information about sustainability commitment and actual practices. Consumers need good information to decide among products, and producers need good information to see what they are addressing in their practices.

The last post in this series breaks down some exemplary sustainability performances by the top rated markets, briefly acknowledges their impressive accomplishments and implies improving stewardship practices through online reporting of their practices.

Below is the list.

The Santa Barbara/Goleta Markets Rated for Stewardship

 60/100: Albertsons (Supervalu):the term "sustainability is on the home page under "About Us". Not obvious or attention-grabbing, but there, if you scroll to the bottom. NOT OBVIOUS! Albertsons and Supervalu are, it turns out with some searching, highly engaged in admirable sustainability projects.If you plug in the term "sustainability" to the site-specific search engine on Supervalu, 71 hits come up, among which is the following, which presents an attractive sustainability image: Home > About SUPERVALU > Sustainability.  This chain is committed to becoming carbon neutral, to zero waste, to sustainable seafood, community projects, zero waste, and more. 60/100  More detail in the next post.

Chapala Market: no home page, so no mention on home page of anything related to sustainability or environment. 0/100

Costco: If one searches hard, Costco will be discovered to be committed to sustainability and engaged in many admirable practices, including using solar power wherever possible. Partnership with consumers in stewardship does not seem to be a top level commitment.So although Costco is recognized worldwide for sustainabilty practices, this particular evaluation rates only communication with consumers through online reporting, which is a proxy for shared stewardship.. No mention on the home page means an automatic 0/100. More detail on sustainability measures on the next post.

European Deli Although this is the go-to market for Russian and Eastern European delicacies, there is no mention of sustainability. So score is 0/100.

Gelsons gets a zero for lack of mention of sustainability on home page: 0/100

Indo-China Market: while outstanding selection of speciality Middle Eastern and Asian foods and kitchenware,no website, so mention of key sustainability terms on home page. 0/100

Lazy Acres: Lazy acres was purchased in 2005 by Bristol Farms, an upscale Southern California grocery chain, which was purchased in 2010 from Supervalu by the private investment firm, Endeavour Capital. While Lazy Acres  has a great choice of gourmet speciality items, organic produce, beef and poultry,  and bin grains and nuts, there is no mention of any of the primary search terms used by RewardintheCognitiveNiche on the home page: sustainability, environmental, or green. So Lazy Acres is rated 0/100.

Oriental Market: no mention of key sustainability terms, no website. 0/100

Nikka:    The go-to market for Japanese products, but no mention of key sustainability terms on home page. 0/100.

75/100  Ralphs:  a subsidiary of Kroger, one of the world's largest retailers, Ralphs has a link to substantial sustainability information on their homepage dropdown menu. 75/100

Santa Cruz Markets:  no mention of key sustainability terms on home page. 0/100.

Smart and Final :  no mention of key sustainability terms on home page. 0/100.

Trader Joe's: no mention on home page of sustainability, green living, environment, etc. 0/100

75/100 Vons (Safeway): Von's sustainability link is located at bottom of page; not salient, but there. 75/100. Vons is a subsidiary of Safeway, which like other major chains, is highly involved into sustainability practices. Safeway received Greenpeace's highest award for sustainable seafood, along with recognition for sustainability practices from numerous organizations. Safeway's annual reporting is informed by the world's gold standard for voluntary sustainability reporting--the Global Reporting initiative, known as the GRI. More detail in the next post.

 80/100 Whole Foods: "Whole Planet — We are committed to helping take care of the world around us, and our active support of organic farming and sustainable agriculture helps protect our planet. And while we assist our global neighbors through our Whole Planet Foundation’s micro-lending operations, we also step out the back door of each of our stores to support food banks, sponsor neighborhood events and donate to local non-profit groups."  

Whole foods has a broad sustainability commitment on the home page of the local SB market and makes a clear (and rare) distinction between organic and sustainable. As in the quote above, Wholefoods also engages in local community partnerships. More detail in the next post. 80/100

Rationales for Using Online Reporting as  Proxy for the Awareness, Community, and Sharing Aspects of Stewardship

An estimated 2 billion people in the world now use the Internet, either through computers or cell phones. In the 21st century the Internet is without question the foremost medium for communication to the widest spectrum of population. While possibly not the deepest medium, it certainly is the widest and maybe also the highest.What makes the internet a runaway success is that it allows humans across the planet to almost instantly communicate whatever they wish to communicate, regardless of how any one message impacts others. Online reporting uses this channel to communicate networks of messages about sustainability, which in the long run, may affect everyone and everything and be both bottom line and upper limit. Seek high ground is important to those about to be flooded; run and hide to those about to be decimated. Consider and evaluate messages are for those with the luxury of the time and resources for acquiring the best information possible on which to decide.

Because gathering good information, evaluating it, and comparing the implications for good decision-making can be overwhelmingly resource intensive, rating systems will emerge to reduce the risk of cognitive overload by condensing much of this information without loss of integrity. Neural marketing shows that even the briefest contact with information  triggers neuronal activity and lays a base for conscious awareness and future action. When the home page of a grocery store features sustainability or has a link along with links to weekly specials and coupons the consumer's awareness of sustainability increases, along with that consumer's valuing of the importance of sustainability to everyday life.

Online reporting is a critical practice for ecological sustainability. Online reporting simplifies and can deepen the quality of communication between producers and consumers. Despite its youth, online reporting, possibly as an concomitant to increased Corporate Social Responsibility, has already evolved its own standards of excellence. Criteria for good online reporting, supported by the pioneering work of the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) as well as other institutions such as the ISO 14000,  and other standards for environmental management systems and environmental performance evaluation, respectively: standards include transparency, comprehensiveness, and usability. Increased transparent communication can increase trust between producer and consumer, something which is frequently at risk in many expressions of most media. 

Online reporting increases the likelihood of informed actions with beneficial outcomes. Online reporting and the potential outcome of informed choice can support businesses that accept stewardship as part of their stake in both present and future.

Online reporting of ecologically sustainable food market practices  has the capability of
increasing global ecological awareness of an issue which is formidably complex:: specifically, the awareness of the complex functioning of a vibrant ecosystem, with its subtle and remarkable interrelationships and unpredicted emergencies. Online reporting can illuminate some of the risks of nottrying---decision-by-decision---to do the right thing by the environment. Through online reporting consumers and producers can help each other realize the degree to which they are interdependent. and need to collaborate on securing the best possible future.

 The arguments for using online reporting are presented above, but in brief, online reporting has to potential to affect decision-making processes of at least two billion people, about 25 % of the world's human population.

the Gri:  our Reporting Model

Our major model for online reporting and its importance for the future is the universal gold standard, the GRI, or the Global Reporting Initiative. The Gri is a voluntary reporting of sustainability practices and commitments that has become a huge influence on global corporate sustainability-imaging practices and on people like me, the author of this blog. In 2012, the Gri is the gold standard for online reporting.

 Specific to this rating process is 1) free access to all (no membership fees); 2) one of the three key terms on the landing page of the market's website (environment, sustainability, green living or practices;  3) less than 3 links to enough information to allow an interested consumer to compare sustainability among local markets and make an informed decision; 4) evidence of authentic performance 5) inferability from website that producer is willing to share stewardship with consumers; 6) longview, good plan that is adaptable to change; 7) education of consumers;8) community participation, projects

Reasons after Results

Evaluation of food markets for ecological stewardship turns out to involve many judgment calls. The supermarket stores that represent chains that are top by number of stores and volume of sales are Albertsons, Costco, Ralphs, Vons, WholeFoods, and Gelsons. All realize that sustainability is a key issue and most have communicated performances that make these markets appear admirable. How should we compare sustainable performance across these markets? Given that our purpose is raising awareness and increasing understanding of how ecosystems work most beautifully, we have made a judgment call regarding how and have focused on what we think is key to global ecosystem sustainability: open access to comprehensive information about company ecological practices, so consumers can vote with their dollars. The secret Santa Claus/Magnificent Obsession models of good deeds will not be fast enough or wide enough to save the day.

 The next post addresses the model of neuromarketing as one that might be well used by markets genuinely committed to sustainability and not just the green image of environmental friendliness. It highlights special achievements of some markets as models for all.