Sustainability: It’s Just Common Sense

Don Harris - Retail Perspective

Originally printed in the May 2023 issue of Produce Business.

Sustainability has become a popular topic across all industries throughout the world. It is the latest fashion, in terms of companies scrambling to convince consumers they are more sustainable than their competition. In the produce industry, however, this is not a new concept — it has been around and in practice for hundreds of years. But upper management shares their lack of knowledge with the rest of the world and seems to be following the notion that sustainability is a trendy, hip method of demonstrating to the consumer that they truly care about the environment. Given this mindset, and the fact that upper management is not aware of the actual workings of the produce industry, it only goes to show once again that “they just don’t get it!”

A large reason for the upswing in concern about sustainability is rooted in generational differences. Present generations did not have the opportunity to educate themselves about food (especially fresh produce) and the methods of growing and producing crops that were available and taught widely in schools to previous generations. It is no wonder they do not understand how our industry has been practicing concepts of sustainability since farming began.

The concept of sustainability is simple, as it applies to agriculture, and it is only natural to protect and defend the land, water and proper farming methods that ensure the continued fertility of the land and ongoing production of fresh produce. Unfortunately, the industry has done a relatively poor job of getting the information out to consumers about this long-standing support and utilization of sustainable agricultural practices.

During my career in this dynamic industry, I had the opportunity to see and experience all sides of food production — from family farming to buying and selling, from warehouse to retail, from transportation to production, and from import to export. In all cases, I witnessed the care and concern demonstrated by each industry member to conserve and protect the valuable land and water resources that make produce production possible.

At the field level, producers (especially family farms) take care of their land, water, etc. religiously, as these natural resources have been the source of their entire existence over hundreds of years. This success has been based on using all methods prolonging and increasing the health of their industry, including crop rotation, proper land use, water conservation, energy efficiency, regulated and controlled use of pesticides and fertilizer (which are very expensive and are used sparingly due to the cost). These farming practices have proven throughout the years to be effective in protecting their assets and promoting the health of the land and environment.

Sustainability is a priority across all facets of the global fresh produce industry.

In the retail channel, there are many ways this sector is contributing to the sustainability of the industry. This includes maximizing transportation by optimizing the load size, limiting the number of pickups, and minimizing the miles traveled. As with the farming and production side, retail also shows a willingness to change and utilize new developments and alternatives, such as electric vehicles, computer and data usage, and advanced communications/tracking.

Warehouse and buying work together to minimize the time in the warehouse to reduce refrigeration costs and energy use. By utilizing temperature zones for families of products, they can maximize the benefits of refrigeration while controlling energy use.

An additional method of promoting sustainability in the warehouse and tracking operation is the assembly of loads for a maximum load, and concentrating on the delivery area to eliminate unnecessary miles. An additional method to better utilize fuel is the capacity of the delivery trucks to pick up product and return it to the warehouse.

Store operations also play a part in this effort by taking maximum care to protect the value of the produce received. This includes proper rotation, culling, precise ordering, temperature control — all designed to reduce waste and limit energy use. Proper care and technology on display, which is enhanced by new and efficient display methods and equipment, can maximize efficiency of energy use and protect the products.

All these actions enhance the sustainability of providing the customer with a wide variety of fresh produce.

As you can see, sustainability is nothing new in the produce industry. The notion of protecting our collective livelihood and future success of the industry is second nature and one that has proven to be successful over time. It will continue to be a priority of everyone in the industry to protect the land and the valuable environment that produces the abundance of fresh produce that we enjoy.

It seems obvious that, in the produce industry, sustainability is inbred in its operations and continues to be a priority through all levels of the operations across the country and the world. The fact that sustainability is so ingrained in the operation of the produce industry, it seems like it would be just common sense that all the operators will continue to lead the world in the practice of sustainability. 

Don Harris is a 41-year veteran of the produce industry, with most of that time spent in retail. He worked in every aspect of the industry, from “field-to-fork” in both the conventional and organic arenas. Harris is presently consulting. Comments can be directed to