Not all grocery retailers and the suppliers of the products sold in their fresh perimeter departments agree on the definitions of “sustainability” and “corporate responsibility.”

For some, it means an emphasis on protecting the planet. Others focus on the welfare of their workers and customers, or on causes that address the plights of people who will never even hear of their companies or products.

Many companies address more than one issue. And of most of them, it could be said that, whatever forms their sustainability and corporate responsibility programs take, they’re essential to what it means to be a company and to do business in the 21st century.


Giving back — close to home, and far away

To West Des Moines, Iowa-based retailer Hy-Vee, corporate responsibility means taking the best care it can of the planet, its people and the places where the company has an impact, says Tina Potthoff, Hy-Vee’s vice president of communications.

“We are committed to helping preserve the environment and give back to our communities,” she says. “We’ve always been known for our ‘helpful smiles in every aisle,’ but we want to make sure our focus is much broader than just the aisles in our stores.”

Hy-Vee partners with national, international and local organizations to make a positive difference for those in need, Potthoff says. The retailer’s One Step products, for example, help fund clean water initiatives and nutrition programs around the globe – even in places where people will never see a Hy-Vee store.

Launched in 2012, One Step offers customers a way to partner with Hy-Vee by giving back with every purchase of items they use every day. In addition to the clean water initiatives, One Step supports community gardens, reforestation programs and hunger-fighting efforts.

“We’ve been able to fund the digging of dozens of wells, plant several hundred thousand trees, plant dozens of community gardens and give millions of meals to hungry children around the globe,” Potthoff says.


Out of crisis, commitment

Wenatchee, Washington-based fruit grower-shipper Stemilt Growers’ commitment to sustainability and social responsibility began in 1989, says Brianna Shales, the company’s communications manager.

That was the year the U.S. apple industry was rocked by the Alar scandal. Alar was a powder used to prevent the pre-harvest rotting of apples. Reports that year labeled it a carcinogen and the manufacturer stopped producing it. The apple industry suffered a devastating financial impact as a result.

“Our founder, Tom Mathison, really felt like after that, it was his responsibility to tell his story in terms of how safe and high-quality the fruit he was producing was,” Shales says.

Thus was Stemilt’s Responsible Choice program born. It began with integrated pest management practices that significantly reduced the use of pesticides in Stemilt’s orchards.

“Today it’s evolved into what’s called precision agriculture,” Shales says. “Doing so many things before you decide to intervene with the crop.” What Stemilt pioneered decades ago is now industry standard.

Mathison was also the first Washington fruit grower to invest heavily in organics. In 1989, just one of the company’s grower partners had a small organic deal. “Tom decided to take an orchard that was hundreds of acres and convert it all to organic,” Shales says. “Everyone thought he was absolutely crazy, because the market was not there. But he believed in the cause, and we’ve been growing organically ever since.”

It ended up generating a great return on the land for the grower, Shales says, a textbook case in “doing good” leading to “doing well.”


A concern for humans, animals and the natural world

Austin, Minnesota-based Hormel Foods defines sustainability and corporate responsibility very broadly, says Kelly Braaten, the company’s manager of external relations for corporate responsibility. “We really define it as everything we are doing to make the world a better place,” Braaten says.

Hormel’s program, called Our Food Journey, covers environmental stewardship, animal welfare, diversity and inclusion, employee safety and more. The very length of that list of things Our Food Journey covers indicates, Braaten says, how much the concept has evolved in recent years.

“I think people used to think of environmental stewardship and giving back when they referred to sustainability or corporate responsibility,” she says. “Today, people are referring to so much more when they are using these terms — and that is a beautiful thing.”

As a global branded food company, Hormel strives to produce food as responsibly as possible to feed the world’s growing population, Braaten says. And, she adds, corporate responsibility is becoming increasingly important to the company’s consumers and customers.

Reducing waste is another priority for Hy-Vee. In 2018, both of the chain’s distribution centers received Platinum-Level certification under the TRUE Zero Waste rating system administered by the Green Business Council, Potthoff says. Diverting millions of pounds of solid waste from landfills was among the achievements that led to the designation.

“We already keep more than 25 million pounds of food waste out of landfills each year, and recycle 100 million pounds of cardboard, but we know we can keep expanding those programs,” Potthoff says.

In addition, a Hy-Vee subsidiary, Perishable Distributors of Iowa (PDI), was named the 2017 Iowa Recycler of the Year by the Iowa Recycling Association for its efforts to create comprehensive, scalable solutions to strengthen and expand its waste reduction, reuse, recycling and/or composting practices. PDI also has been awarded the Platinum-Level certification from the Green Business Council.