Safeway’s Unsung Green Heroes

Safeway’s vast CSR and sustainability efforts touch everyone throughout the company, and Best Practices are spread across all divisions and operations. While some areas may seem peripheral to the produce industry, most have challenges directly or indirectly affecting produce initiatives. In terms of the produce industry, Safeway’s team is bustling with unsung green heroes.
Jeff Brown, CIH, Director Environmental Affairs, explains the sheer scale of sustain-ability programs underway:

• The total amount of recycled cardboard, including all Safeway stores, supply plants and distribution centers, which collects it from the stores, amounted to 300,000 tons last year. That includes dry and non-wax cardboard received, basically from the packaging of products, the shipping packaging, cartons, etc.

• Waxed cardboard is used to collect compostable produce, floral and deli items that aren’t sold at stores. The total amount of material collected and composted last year was 110,000 tons.

• The plastics recycling number hit around 13,300 tons.

• Overall, Safeway recycled nearly 520,000 tons of materials.

Safeway’s progressive posturing puts the retailer ahead of the curve, which could be critical, especially in California as new regulations and stricter standards come down the pike. “It’s starting in California, but it will spread to other parts of the country,” says Brown. For example, Green Chemistry, modeled after European systems that look at chemical composition of products and the hazards of those chemicals in any product, such as those for cleaning, is certainly on the near horizon in California,” he says. “It’s nice to be ahead of the curve in some of these things. We certainly are plugged in and get advance notice of impending rules.”


Making something more safe or reducing water is certainly a valued sustainability measure at Safeway. At the same time, solutions to problems are not always so clear-cut. The EPA started to phase out refrigerants that were causing damage to the ozone layer, so Safeway phased those out at a fairly rapid rate in many areas. Available replacements were HFCs [refrigerant comprised of Hydrogen, Fluorine and Carbon], which seemed a good choice at the time, Brown explains. “Now you have to also consider that HFCs may have been slightly less efficient so you have to use more electricity to do the same refrigeration; in that sense it increases the amount of global warming. In the new global warming regimes, we’re going to have to deal with that,” Brown continues.

Bio-diesel conversion for all the trucks was another expensive venture. “We went out ahead of the curve and converted to bio-diesel,” says Brown. “There’s nothing inherently wrong with bio-diesel, but the underground tanks to hold it were not certified to hold it. The process in California to get them certified is lengthy and bureaucratic, so here we are with bio-diesel and basically nowhere to put it,” Brown explains.

Getting the bio-diesel fuel wasn’t all that easy either, according to Joe Pettus, senior vice president, fuel and energy. The fuel itself wasn’t consistent, and getting it to Safeway’s specifications and quality was very difficult. Pettus admits that Safeway had to back off on the use of bio-diesel trucks because the bio-diesel industry is still not cohesive enough yet to supply such a big customer.

Safeway is a big grocery company, but also a big energy company; Energy is Safe-way’s second largest cash expense, other than personnel, explains Pettus. “We are one of, if not the largest commercial consumer of electricity in the state of California, so we have a huge energy load; we air-condition 24/7 and what we don’t air condition, we refrigerate, and what we don’t refrigerate, we freeze, and if we’re going to freeze it, we heat it,” he exclaims.

“We went out and bought our own natural gas, went to the power plants and said, just turn it into electricity; I’ll buy the gas, you turn it into electricity — we’ve become our own utility, so it saves us a lot of money,” he says, describing somewhat of a coup, extending the strategy to Canada and any state in the United States that allows it. “We’re basically either acquiring our own energy directly, or manufacturing it, or both.” One big advantage, “If I make too much electricity, I can sell it to someone else, but basically, it allows me to move it from the plant to the stores and to buy electricity in some states and move it to others,” he says, describing the process, which it has been doing well over four years now. “So it saves money and we’ve invested some of that money back into our green activities.”

Safeway also has about 20 acres of solar panels in California. “Now, a lot of people have solar panels, but for Safeway, the electrons that are produced on the roof go into our store, which gives us that green ability,” says Pettus. Most others who implement solar sell it back to the power company, he notes.

Globally, Safeway is organized around sustainability in its CSR initiatives and then there are four pillars within that. Team Planet and Team Product are two of those pillars dear to Mike Vincent, director, supply chain sustainability, supply chain and strategic sourcing. “My core expertise is packaging, so some people might think I’m part of the problem, but I like to think I’m part of the solution,” he says, committed to the traditional mindset of the 3 Rs —reduce, reuse, recycle.

“We were always taught to be cognizant of the end-of-life story, so we used to call it cradle-to-grave. Now it’s cradle-to-cradle, so we’re trying to close the loop,” he says. “Our perishables group is dynamic and we’re get-ting some traction with our local sourcing initiative,” Vincent adds. He also speaks highly of Traci Adams, vice president of floral, who really bit onto a goal of zero waste in that department.

“The first time she brought up the concept of zero waste, I went, ‘Uh, I’m an engineer. I don’t know if that’s physically possible or feasible’ and I got very nervous.” Traci remained undeterred, describing her vision as a lofty goal to work toward. “We set that as a shining light,” and a spirited team was formed to make it happen.

Inundated by suppliers with various claims of green packaging and environmental sustainability, Vincent helped sort through the claims. “I’m a realist…so I kind of have one eye closed on all these claims and you have to provide it to me,” he says, conducting his own intensive product testing, for example, to find containers with natural composting properties, and working closely with universities, including the Cal Poly consortium, doing groundbreaking research in the field.

Safeway is also a member of Stanford’s socially and environmentally responsible supply chain forum (SER), “which is more about practices within the supply chain and optimizing our logistics to minimize our footprint on the environment,” says Vincent.

The economics of business often leads to the most sustainable application, according to Vincent. Everyone has sustainability objectives. Managers in our areas present at least four sustainability projects annually, and buyers and analysts at least two, he says, adding, “We’re embedding sustainability into their goals this year.” But the other piece can’t be underplayed; to be sustain-able, it needs to be a sustainable business practice. In other words, the economics have to support it. “What we do is build a business case — what the objective is, what the consumer impact is, what the carbon benefits are, and what the economic pay-backs are. If it costs more, consumers are gong to need to be willing to pay more or it’s going to have to offset some kind of processing cost or freight efficiencies or something that it pays out for itself.”