The Wedge is a single-store, natural foods co-op, the largest in the US. The group numbers 14,500 active consumers. Their sales in 2010 totalled $30.5 million (€23 million).
The grocery store has been distributing food in the same wedge-shaped neighbourhood of Minneapolis for 36 years, making it a couple of years older than the vintage organic food producer Stonyfield Farms.
When the Wedge Community Co-op joined the new Food Trade Sustainability Leadership Association (FTSLA) less than three years ago, it pledged, as all members must, to issue annual reports. The FTSLA emerged from a business incubator program at the University of Oregon’s Centre for Resource Innovations.
FTSLA’s indicators of sustainable food trade cover 11 action areas: organic sourcing; sustainable distribution; energy use; climate change mitigation; water conservation; waste minimisation; packaging reduction; fair labour practices; animal care; consumer education; and governance practices. The Wedge co-op devotes one page, or a bit more, to each performance area, including relevant metrics presented in a simple fashion.
For instance, the lone measure for distribution and sourcing is “regionally produced product."
It equals 34% of annual sales. (In the US Midwest, local is a relative term. For the co-op it means a five-state territory that would stretch from London to Prague.)
Take climate change as one other illustration of the co-op’s utilitarian approach to reporting. After a succinct explanation (six short paragraphs) of its commitments, the co-op measures its direct and indirect emissions, and includes data on four other normalised greenhouse gas emissions, such as annual emissions from workforce commuting.
Small photos are sprinkled throughout. The style is in the family album genre — fuzzy store fronts, food growing in situ, and a few head shots.
Each topic starts on a fresh page. Toss in background information about operations, a cover, and you come up with a 26-page sustainability report mentioning just about everything of any consequence to stakeholders.Communication:
The report is a relic of the early 1990s before the Global Reporting Initiative was even conceived. The report is refreshing in its innocence, like a work of naïve art. The co-op lays out the facts as straight as a Minnesota corn row. Many sustainability disclosures now substitute sophistication for directness and candour.
In the future the co-op will have to add more information and layers of complexity to the narratives. It plans to go beyond the retail store to account for its warehouse operations and the 97-acre urban farm it runs. Goals will be developed based on the first set of metrics, and sustainability information will be posted on the co-op’s web site. Difficult questions will have to be addressed about subjects like the sustainability of the seafood, the legitimacy of food miles, prices, and regulatory affairs.
The challenge for the Wedge, and the reason for other reporters to stay tuned in, is how to raise the level of analysis without adding extraneous information or sacrificing clarity and frankness.Credibility:
The strength of the report rests on FTSLA’s well-chosen framework of key performance areas. It forces members to audit their material issues and raises the bar across the organic food industry. The membership review committee of FTSLA reviews the self audit, but only to see the level of commitment to reporting, transparency and continual improvement. FTSLA recognises that the reports will “vary significantly based on size of the organisation and resource capacity.”
The board of the Wedge has yet to decide the frequency of the self-audits. A measure of honesty comes from the listing of certifications and labels the Wedge displays on products and in the store. The food departments are certified by the Midwest Organic Service Association.Recommendations:
1. Awareness of the evolving state of the art is indispensable. But try to limit exposure to snazzy reports based on the GRI framework.
2. Summarise any relevant issues the board of directors votes on during its eight scheduled meetings throughout the year.
3. From time to time, re-evaluate the basic premises of sustainable food trade.
William D’Alessandro is president of Victor House News Co., an independent agency reporting on law and the environment for trade publications and executive newsletters. He also edits Crosslands Bulletin http://www.crosslandsbulletin.com
covering strategic corporate environmental management and sustainability issues.