A growing number of supermarkets are committing to green building, but how sustainable are the products inside? As major food retailers progress towards making their stores more sustainable, it's easy to forget about the great strides that still need to be made in the sustainability of the food itself.
Hannaford's newest store, which opened July 25th in Augusta, Maine, is the first supermarket in the world to be Platinum-certified by the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED). Their use of geo-thermal heating and cooling, solar power, and recycled and locally-sourced materials is part of a movement helping to create a more sustainable world, and they deserve recognition for their commitment to reducing their environmental footprint.
As this eco-friendly building opens its doors, many other supermarkets are following suit. The Whole Foods in Sarasota, Florida has been LEED certified with a Silver rating, and Food Lion just broke ground on a store in Columbia, South Carolina that is on track to LEED certification. As the green building and retail food industries forge new partnerships, this progress highlights a growing void: the lack of a common set of guidelines to transparently access the sustainability of the wide range of ecological, health, and social impacts involved with food production and distribution.
True, we have the Certified Organic label, which has made advances in restricting the use of toxic chemical pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers on our food. But the Organic certification system fails to recognize the wider ecological impact of a product. "Saying the product is organic is not enough anymore," says UC Berkeley Industrial Ecologist and GoodGuide founder Dara O'Rourke. "In 2009, you need to know, okay, it's organic - but is it healthy? Was it produced locally? How far did it get shipped?"
Much of the organic food that is bought every day in the U.S. actually comes from China. Newsweek reported last year that while there are 21 separate agencies that claim to certify organic farms in China, only one of them is considered legitimate outside of the country. Consider this with the fact that it’s estimated that roughly half of the organic garlic we import is coming from China. It’s hard to imagine all that garlic is certified by the recognized agency, and all this is complicated by the fact that our government doesn’t keep track of the country and farm of origin of organic food imports. In fact, we only inspect a little over 1% of all food imports. A few years ago, Wal-Mart had to pull a bunch of Chinese produce labeled organic from its Chinese stores after they tested it and found out it was loaded with pesticides.
Ironically, even in the US, as the organic label becomes more in demand, organic farms have been further industrialized to produce higher yields, and we begin to see more Certified Organic products with questionable ecological impacts. So with the rise of "industrial organics", comes a whole new crop of organic food mass-produced by companies with unproven ecological accountability and questionable workers' rights practices.
Organizations like Fair Trade and TransFair USA have been established to ensure fair wages and treatment for farmers and are working towards making more of the food they supply organic. But both these systems lack a comprehensive view of the product - from its origins to its packaging and disposal, and thus fail to recognize the depth and breadth of the product's impacts. Moreover, the Fair Trade label is only applied to certain industries that are especially susceptible to worker exploitation, more often than not in developing nations. For the rest of the food supply, there is no established method of accessing and certifying a truly sustainable supply chain.
It seems to me that we need to recognize and confront the health and social impacts associated with our food supply while giving equal attention to the ecological impacts. Right now, the best we as consumers can do to gain insight into the broad range of consequences associated with a given product is to do the research ourselves.
Fortunately, there are rating systems that can help consumers assess the various impacts of products. GoodGuide is a rating system designed by O'Rourke that rates products in three categories: social, health, and environmental, and organizes them according to users' preferences in each area. As O'Rourke states in Ecological Awareness, GoodGuide provides "the most comprehensive, and credible information in the world to shoppers right at the moment when they're making a decision about a product or company." GoodGuide has recently added food to their ratings, and though the information is incomplete, it's a step toward a comprehensive system.
There is a growing portion of consumers willing to pay more for healthy and sustainable food. As these changes are recognized by the large food retail companies, they begin to adapt their own practices to match the evolving buying habits of their customer base. With the help of a comprehensive certification system, supermarkets could select their products based on verified information instead of unregulated claims. And as large food retailers develop relationships with sustainable food producers, their support drives down prices of sustainable food and makes it economically feasible for more of the customer base. As the price of sustainable options drops closer to that of unverified products, we begin to reach an important watershed, where companies who do not adapt will be left behind as consumers favor the sustainable product that is now affordable as well.
In Great Britain, the shifting marketplace, driven by the desire for more data on carbon impacts, is helping to push the sustainable movement towards this important watershed mark. Sir Terry Leahy, CEO of Tesco, Great Britain's largest supermarket chain, has implemented a store-wide rating system that tracks the carbon emissions associated with all 70,000 of their products. This embrace of transparent practices is spreading within Britain to the point where, according to Daniel Goleman in Ecological Intelligence, "the British government has undertaken an initiative to create a uniform measure for evaluating the carbon footprint of not just foods but a wide variety of consumer goods." (p. 114)
In developing this initiative, called the Carbon Trust, the British Government has taken an important step toward developing a comprehensive rating system that, with the cooperation of other governments and companies around the world, could develop into a LEED-style certification system. The comprehensive nature of the LEED system is what makes it so effective, and the food industry would be wise to take a cue from the green building industry and put more energy into developing an integrative product certification system.