The message of 'organic', 'environmentally-friendly', 'sustainable', 'local', and other similar themes are now well-established in the produce industry. There is also the paradox, however, of increasing use of plastics in packaging. Many argue that packaging produce reduces food waste and enables greater use of more product. Some though, feel that the message of being environmentally sustainable is just used to appease a market that is increasingly aware of waste and where it ends up.
Paul Manfre of TopKatz believes that retailers that have banned single use plastic bags while at the same time turning a blind eye to all the other plastics are missing the mark. "Recently, I learned that Kroger will be eliminating single use plastic bags in the future, which I think that is a great thing," he noted. "However, why does no one say anything about all the other plastic? What are we going to do with all the plastic in which all our produce is packaged? You know the 10 packages of containers, bags, totes that are used the fill up that one single use plastic bag?"
Making the customer feel better
According to Manfre, the reality is that plastic packaging offers a powerful marketing tool for companies to sell their product and therefore, such plastic will not be removed any time soon. "Even though we like to use 'sustainable', 'organic', 'farm to table', etc, companies use these sayings to make the consumer feel better and to help promote more sales," he said. "They are telling people what they want to hear. The problem is that not only is the plastic still going to waste, but it also adds to the cost of produce for the consumer. It seems the stores care more about the packaging than the produce. If they really want to help farms and the environment, they have to change the way they buy, package and sell produce, not just say it."
In essence, there is the belief that companies will promote their environmental agenda to attract certain markets without getting too deep and truly making an impact when it comes to reducing plastic use. The message behind 'organic' as well as 'sustainable agriculture' can be used to a similar end. As Manfre observed, "Organic? Show the public the list of chemicals you are allowed to use? Local? Someone has a warehouse in a state and it becomes local. Sustainable? Buy cheap and sell high is not sustainable to farmers."
Taking advantage of the natural rhythm of the seasons
When it comes to sustainable agriculture, there is a suggestion that taking advantage of the natural rhythm of the seasons can be used to drive movement and subsequently, profits.
Most people are well aware of how the different seasons can produce an abundance - or conversely, a shortage - of produce items. Of course, with the increased integration of imported produce, much of this has leveled out in recent decades. There are however, still natural events that bring on produce more quickly as well as create shortages at times. According to Manfre, not only can this can be easily dealt with, but it can be used as an advantage. He also says that consumer demand presents both a challenge as well as an opportunity.
"Retailers are driven by consumer demand," he explained. "If consumers educate themselves on the natural ebbs and flows of the produce business, they can also drive how the retailers sell produce. When an item is in abundance, there should be more encouragement to sell cheaper to the consumer in order to move that product more swiftly. This benefits the consumer, as they are getting a cheaper product, the retailer because they are moving product while still making a profit, and also the grower who will also get money and won't be left stuck with an abundance of produce. This is a truly sustainable model for agriculture. Volume takes care of everything. More turnover equals less waste."
Stores should invest in people
Aside from packaging on produce, another aspect that retailers are using to attract a different market is the online shopping option. This certainly adds an appeal for many groups of people. However, with still the vast majority of people visiting the store and purchasing produce there, focus should remain on making the produce section as attractive as can be.
"Stores are spending a lot of money on online shopping, while seemingly neglecting the in-store experience," Manfre observed. "You go into many supermarkets and see empty boxes, tired fruit and vegetables and a sea of plastic which is not very appealing to the consumer. Stores need to concentrate on making the produce aisle colorful and attractive, making sure displays are full and vibrant. And if the in-store offerings are good, more people will be willing to shop online from that particular store because they feel they can trust it and can be sure of a good quality product."
Manfre continued by saying part of this is to invest in passionate Produce Managers that can potentially drive sales through education and motivation. "There is a place for both technology and the traditional art of selling produce," he said. "Hiring a good Produce Manager will lead to a better fresh produce display, customers will be better educated and will feel motivated to buy, and staff can be taught and develop a passion for the produce they are presenting. In the long term, a good Produce Manager will move produce and improve the bottom line."
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