Wholesaler Marketing Toolkit: Sustainability Reporting

Originally printed in the November 2023 issue of Produce Business.

While the trends in sustainability are ever-changing, one thing remains true: Sustainability as a concept in our industry is here to stay.

A bounty of sustainably grown and packaged products fills grocery shelves and online ordering portals. As wholesalers, we find retail customers keen on traceability, while consumers seek transparency from our products and manufacturing practices. Companies compelled to participate in these initiatives can find success in leveraging external self-reporting as an effective marketing tool.

Sustainability reporting integrates a variety of data, such as landfill diversion, recycled content of products or packaging, a company’s carbon footprint, organic certifications, emissions, water or energy usage and more. These reports also typically include measurable future goals.

No matter where you are on the journey, telling your story through data is key.

No matter where you are on the sustainability journey, telling your story through data is key.

The first step in reporting is recognizing and outlining your company’s baseline sustainability efforts. Begin with questions, such as:

  • What areas of focus are most important to us and where are we now?
  • What can we do better and where would we like to be in the future?
  • What can we measure accurately?
  • Is there anything we cannot measure?
  • What sustainability attributes matter most to our customers?

Data gathering through a self-guided sustainability audit will establish your numerical benchmarks.

Calculating these figures may seem daunting, but often data can be drilled down from your own internal systems or reports — and can sometimes be as straightforward as gathering and totaling invoices.

Landfill diversion is a good example where trash, recycling, composting or anaerobic digestion companies typically invoice and charge by weight. These results make for simple calculations of pounds recycled, food material diverted, or total landfill contribution versus diversion.

But other related inputs, like donations or animal farms, may not be invoiced by weight, nor reported directly to you. These can require more effort in calculating, whether by proactively tracking by your company, or estimating. I’m reminded of the saying, “You can’t manage what you don’t measure.”

Once measured, you have a benchmark to strategize future objectives. Your initial benchmark measurements are critical to your process and progress. Goals are often based on percentages, weights, timelines or KPIs (Key Performance Indicators). Define which specifics are important to your company, and then set attainable goals and timelines.

Some examples could be to increase the percentage of recycled material in packaging by 10% by 2024, to minimize landfill contribution and reach 50% diversion by 2025, or as simple as putting recycling containers in every room of your building by the end of the year. No company achieves these goals in a matter of days, but your yearly, 5- and 10-year goals can outline a path to success and shape relationships with your customers.

Quantifying progress clearly plays a large part in the reporting and marketing of your results. The reporting process includes deciding how often to measure, how often to report and whom you will report to.

It is common to monitor and measure throughout the year (monthly, quarterly, or biannually) to both create data points and make adjustments if progress is not met throughout the year. Year-end reports include results with charts and graphs, percentages, and total weights or measurements.

For marketing purposes, these visuals and figures work well in printed or online materials, social media, your website, PR, sales conversations or other customer-facing approaches.

Using a data-driven approach yields marketing success. It is important to find the balance in recognizing and reporting your company’s objectives, while not overselling them. Reporting on specific, measured data points gives transparency and authenticity. Third-party certifications can also play a positive role in certifying the accuracy of your data and your accomplishments.

The ultimate success of using sustainability reporting as a marketing tool is in driving sales. From a sales standpoint, there is a unique opportunity. Due to increasing transparency industrywide, it is easier than ever to match your sustainability goals or successes with those of your customers in retail and food service.

Your sales team should know, or ask, what your customers’ sustainability goals are and be able to speak to your own accomplishments. Training your sales team on your data is particularly important.

Having multiple channels where your customers can learn about your sustainability efforts gives you the greatest chance of delivering your message. Deriving data, reporting on your activities, and informing your customers and consumers of these activities, has ultimately become a new way to drive sales.

Helen Pappas is the director of marketing and sustainability at Pete Pappas and Sons. She is a fourth-generation member of this family-owned fresh produce grower and distributor. Helen has been on the Produce Business 40 Under 40, led her company to a Maryland Sustainability Leadership Award and is a chair of the IFPA Food Waste Working Group.