An eye on the future

Looking ahead, Hy-Vee plans to build on its sustainability and corporate responsibility successes — and to find new ways to leave the world a better place than it found it.

“We want to continue building the One Step program so that we help make an even greater impact on the world around us,” Hy-Vee's Tina Potthoff says. “We’re also continually looking at how we can further reduce the amount of packaging used in our stores, and continuing to enhance our food waste diversion and recycling efforts.”

Environmental impact remains hard to quantify, Stemilt's Brianna Shales say. Take water, as one example. In 2019, Washington fruit growers will have more than enough water from snowpack in the Cascade Mountains. Other years water isn’t nearly as plentiful and must be sourced differently. What Stemilt can control, she says, is a commitment to “continuous improvement,” year after year after year.

“We start something on a trial basis, test it and then scale it,” she says. “Being a heavy producer of organics, a lot of that has transferred over to conventional because it makes business sense and because it supports the environment.”

Making packaging more sustainable is a front-burner issue in today’s food world, Shales says. Fortunately for Stemilt, the vast majority of its apples and pears bound for retail ship in bulk and are not packed in bags, clamshells or other forms of packaging. And for items that do ship packaged — in pouch bags, for example — Stemilt is working hard to find the most recyclable options available.

The company’s cherries, for instance, are marketed in packages. Stemilt and other growers are switching to clamshells that are topped with a “top seal” — a layer of peelable film instead of a traditional clamshell top.

“That reduces the use of plastic by 30 or 40%,” Shales says. “We see top seal as something that will come online heavily with cherries.”

Just like his grandfather before him, West Mathison, Stemilt’s current president, is committed to sustainability and social responsibility, Shales says. For West Mathison, the health of Stemilt’s employees is a top priority.

In 2010, the company opened its first on-site health clinic. In 2015, it evolved into the Stemilt Family Clinic, which provides free health care to employees and their dependents. A doctor and other health providers are on site, and a pharmacy provides free prescriptions.

“For us it’s about having preventable healthcare, helping employees catch issues before they become serious problems,” Shales says. “It’s been a huge benefit.”

In 2018, the clinic was expanded to include smaller clinics spread throughout Stemilt’s orchards. Staffed on a rotating basis, the orchard clinics mean employees don’t have to drive as far as two hours to Wenatchee for free health care.


Reducing carbon footprints

Stemilt is committed to increasing the use of biofuels in the trucks its products go to market in. And Shales says a consolidation of shipping operations — fruits now ship out of one facility in Wenatchee — has reduced the number of times fruit is moved around, and hence the amount of hours spent in trucks.

The company also has invested heavily in electric forklifts, which now make up the majority of its total forklift fleet.

And in 2018 Stemilt added solar panels to its new distribution center. “They don’t produce a ton of electricity, because our energy source in Wenatchee is largely hydropower,” she says. “But it’s our first dive into solar, and it’s something we have the opportunity to expand if we want to in the future.”

When it comes to communicating its policies on sustainability and corporate responsibility, Stemilt does “a lot of storytelling” through its website and digital channels, and looks to increase those programs’ visibility.

“As we have more metrics and success stories to share, I think they’ll become more prevalent. We’re good at telling the story, and I think as consumers gravitate toward learning more about it, I think we’ll get better at it. It will be interesting to see how a lot of companies step up their participation in social responsibility and interesting to see how that continues to evolve.”

As part of its 2020 sustainability goals, Hormel is working to advance water quality in its supply chain. The company is a founding member of the Cedar River Watershed Partnership, a unique public/private/nonprofit collaboration that provides farmers with tools and resources to help them adopt new farm management strategies that improve the soil, water and economic health of their farms and address water quality challenges.

Reducing hunger is another major effort of Our Food Journey, Braaten says. Hormel has worked closely with Convoy of Hope for years to provide food to help them respond to natural disasters.

In addition, Hormel specifically developed a product to help prevent childhood malnutrition in Guatemala called SPAMMY. Each year the company donates more than two million cans of SPAMMY and hosts trips for its employees to go to Guatemala and help out. Three trips are planned this year.

More programs and products like that will be coming from Hormel, Braaten says.

“As a food company, one of our focus areas will always be around hunger,” she says. “We are doing some great work in this area now, but I’m even more excited about what we will accomplish in the future as we continue our journey and work with our partners.”


Setting the bar high on recycling

Fitchburg, Wisconsin-based Placon Corp.’s sustainability program is centered around its use of EcoStar material for its food packaging products.

The material is made from using curbside-collected PET bottles and thermoforms that Placon washes and processes into FDA-approved PET grade flake that is made into thermoformed packaging, says Derek Skogen, Placon’s marketing manager. Placon processes about 120,000 lbs. of recycled PET content per day.

“There’s been a lot of pushback on plastics and the harm they cause the environment, but in some cases plastics such as thermoforms are actually better than paper or pulp products,” Skogen says.

Placon’s “No Waste” goal is undoubtedly ambitious, Skogen says, but the company is committed to it. “In an industry that typically relies on non-renewable resources, particularly oil, to create a quality product, Placon stands out as one of the most sustainable thermoformers in North America,” he says. “Placon is the only thermoformer to have its own in-house recycling facility.”