Achieving the ambitious sustainability and decarbonization goals so many large companies have set is a daunting task. Despite the fact that embracing renewable energy and energy efficiency can deliver significant operational and financial benefits, many of the actions required represent complex and disruptive changes to how large corporations function.
Perhaps no industry faces a more complex task in achieving its sustainability objectives than food retail. Indeed, like other companies, food retailers have to look at ways to integrate more clean energy and use advanced controls and technologies that lower energy use. But they also have to consider issues other industries simply don’t. “I see it as a very expansive issue, touching many parts of what they do on a daily basis,” said Katrina Krites, director of strategic marketing, cold chain, for Emerson Commercial & Residential Solutions. “Food waste, energy usage and logistics are just a few areas that have an impact on retailer sustainability.”
All this complexity ultimately means a new, more holistic approach to sustainability. In two earlier stories in this series, we examined specific aspects of how food retailers can make progress toward decarbonization objectives while improving their operations and financial performance. These showed that ideally, food retailers should regard economic and operationally advantageous decarbonization efforts holistically, too. That could include leveraging the benefits of increasingly viable solutions like on-site renewables, microgrids and electric transportation.
It’s an approach that can benefit from the guidance and assistance of a partner with expertise and experience not only in food retail but also in advanced building-control technologies as well as utility programs and incentives. For example, the economics of energy efficiency and renewable energy investments that drive sustainability can improve dramatically when food retailers take full advantage of utility demand response programs and other incentives.
But seizing those opportunities takes time, resources and expertise. “Retailers wear many hats to keep up with the latest technology across the supply chain, their stores and customer-facing technologies,” Krites said. “Becoming an expert and knowing about new technologies in all areas to reduce carbon emissions is difficult. Partners bring to light ideas to help look broader.”
What a holistic approach to sustainability looks like
Food retailers need to think about sustainability in a more holistic manner. In the past, many companies have considered sustainability an initiative that is distinct and separate from their business units and operations.
“Sustainability can’t just be a hobby. It has to be driven from the top parts of your organization, ingrained in your management processes and ingrained in who you are as a company in order to make the impact we are looking to make,” Krites said.
It also helps to have a realistic and detailed road map guiding the actions needed to achieve sustainability targets. One example of what a holistic approach looks like in practice comes from Emerson, which works closely with food retailers to achieve their sustainability goals. In 2020, Emerson outlined its environmental sustainability strategy, which includes three pillars that provide a framework that food retailers and other companies can follow. They are:
- Greening Of. The focus of this pillar is internal to Emerson and how the company can improve its own environmental sustainability performance. In particular, Emerson pledged to reduce water and energy consumption at its own facilities and significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
- Greening By. As a partner to food retailers, Emerson helps identify and implement the technologies and incentives that help companies achieve their sustainability objectives. “It’s about leveraging our know-how to make an impact in partnership with our customers,” Krites said. “This includes areas such as electrification and energy efficiency, implementing low GWP (global warming potential) refrigerants and food waste reduction.”
- Greening With. No single company can be responsible for achieving society’s decarbonization and sustainability objectives. But progress toward those goals both at the company and societal levels can be accelerated by increased collaboration. Emerson approaches collaboration by participating in industry forums, partnering with academic institutions to speed sustainable innovation, and working with governments and policymakers around the globe to support policies and regulations that promote progress toward sustainability.
Another key benefit that comes from embracing a more holistic approach to sustainability flows from thinking about investments in a broader and more long-term manner. This is especially true for food retailers, whose existing goals and incentives can sometimes create a roadblock to achieving sustainability goals. For example, it’s common for those charged with building a new store to focus almost exclusively on constructing it at the lowest possible cost.
A longer-term view, though, will consider how a slightly higher upfront investment in building controls and other technologies delivers financial and sustainability investments over the long term. “They can spend a little more on the front end and have a better solution in the long term with less maintenance and capabilities that are more advanced and drive better sustainability. This is how you can approach sustainability more comprehensively,” Krites said.
That’s why working with a partner experienced in everything from building controls to utility programs and incentives can be particularly helpful in progressing towards decarbonization objectives. This allows food retailers to focus on what they do best while still reaping benefits that might otherwise require an investment of time and resources few companies have. That outside perspective and expertise can also be helpful in developing strategies that connect the operations of stores with a food retailer’s sustainability and decarbonization goals. “We know that power costs are changing and the needs of stores in different markets are changing,” Krites said. “As you consider including renewables or creating a microgrid or other steps, working with Emerson can help develop, optimize and evolve your strategies.”