Note: This report is the current edition of The National Provisioner’s ongoing coverage of issues related to sustainability programs.

Global food companies are stepping up to the plate to keep afloat the idea that corporate social responsibility is not just a moral call but definitely is good for business. To that end, sustainability is not merely a 21st century buzzword or a way of window dressing for a company’s annual report.

In a study conducted last year by Chicago-based Information Resources Inc., half of U.S. consumers polled indicated they consider at least one sustainability factor when selecting brands to buy or stores for shopping. Reportedly 22,000 U.S. consumers were asked to determine the impact of four key sustainability features in their product and store selection — organic, eco-friendly products, eco-friendly packaging and fair treatment of employees and suppliers. One-fifth of the respondents were classified as “sustainability driven,” taking at least two sustainability factors into account when making their selections.

The food industry is paying attention. Green initiatives topped the agenda of a poultry processor workshop sponsored by the U.S. Poultry & Egg Association (USPEA) last summer.

Vernon Rowe, corporate environmental manager for Pittsburg, Texas-based Pilgrim’s Pride Corp., confirmed that opinion polls show that going green is becoming a priority for consumers. Overall, the sustainability program is regarded as a commitment that will save money, not as one that will increase costs.

“That’s our charge,” Rowe said, “to figure out how to become more sustainable in the area of packaging, for example, but not drive the cost of products up.”

Poultry industry environmental managers gathered in Nashville recently for the 2009 Environmental Management Seminar, an annual conference also sponsored by USPEA. The agenda covered best practices, new ideas, and current and upcoming regulations impacting poultry environmental management.

David Miller, director of research for the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation and chief science officer of AgraGate Climate Credits Corp. explained the structure of AgraGate, created to deliver carbon credit aggregation services to American farmers, ranchers and private forest owners. AgraGate expanded the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation Carbon Credit Aggregation Program that began in 2003. For more information, visit Notably, President Barack Obama’s budget plans included a cap and trade program to limit emissions of greenhouse gases.

At the same meeting, George Hazard of Red Barn Consulting/Red Barn Trading discussed nutrient trading, allowing communities, private and municipal wastewater-treatment plants to meet target goals of reducing nutrients in wastewater through a similar credit trading program.

Chicago Meat Authority (CMA), a Chicago-based, privately held company specializing in custom beef and pork value-added products, began its “Think Green” initiative last year in March. The initiative incorporates the company’s corporate commitment to environmental responsibility through sustainable practices involving programs to reduce pollution and waste, using appropriate energy resources and materials and protecting the environment the firm impacts with its products and services. Moreover, company officials hope that the workplace focus on protecting the environment will inspire employees to do the same in their home lives.

“It’s about changing culture and hoping these work habits make their way into everyone’s household,” confirms Wayne Bartosiak, CMA’s IT manager. “As one company, we can only do so much. However, others can take notice and together, we can save the planet for our children.”

Bartosiak heads CMA’s employee group of green keepers charged with prioritizing the concept of “thinking green” by becoming proactive environmental stewards. Office employees have begun to cut down on paper waste by using double-sided printing of documents, reprinting on the reverse of previously used paper and file-sharing documents electronically to reduce printing. To reduce electricity use, employees turn off lights when leaving a room and also their computer monitors when away from their desks. Plant employees have stepped up their commitment to recycling cans. Boxes for packaging are Sustainable Forestry Initiative-certified and corrugated boxes are made from recycled materials with approximately 43 percent recovered fibers.

For Hormel Foods’ Lloyd’s Barbeque Co., becoming a better environmental steward means revamping its packaging. The move is backed up by a recent Mintel study in which more than one-third of Americans indicate they almost always or regularly buy green products. The findings remain unchanged from last year, despite the current economic downturn. Moreover, continued growth is forecast at 19 percent for green products overall through 2013.

Lloyd’s is responding to environmental demands and consumer preferences by greening the packaging of its popular BBQ tubs by eliminating the throw-away paper sleeve. Now, all dietary and product information is printed directly on the tub, which saves more than 970 tons of wood or 6,000 trees annually.

The new tub also features “stay cool” handles, which make it easier to remove the heated container from the microwave. The change proved favorable during in-store testing, as consumers found the new packaging on the BBQ tubs to be more contemporary and of higher quality overall.

Not to be left out, the seafood industry has attracted the attention of investment community members seeking to fund companies marketing sustainable seafood. A San Francisco operation, Sea Change Investment Fund reportedly looks into companies with investment potential based on profitability and their offerings of environmental benefits.

Based on U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization estimates, one-quarter of the world’s fisheries face depletion due to exploitation practices. Added to that another half of global waters are being fished at maximum capacity.

Sustainability: historical perspective

Variously coined “green movement” and “environmental revolution,” sustainability in all its guises is an age-old phenomenon that has periodically gained new momentum over time.

Consider that air pollution was blamed on animal manure, dust and wood smoke among other contaminants long before the industrial revolution. Henry David Thoreau, the 19th century American philosopher and conservationist, promoted the conservation of and respect for nature including the federal preservation of virgin forests in his book “Maine Woods.”

Experts says global ecosystems have deteriorated dramatically during the past 50 years or so in connection with the rapidly growing demands for food, fresh water, timber, fiber and fuel.

To be sure, facing a depletion of the earth’s natural capital is forcing global attention on matters of sustainability.

Sustainability: what the world needs now

Sustaining the environment is fast becoming a mandatory model for business progress among all sectors that seek to reduce landfill waste and do the right thing for the environment to put money in their company coffers.

A study commissioned by the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) found that successful companies define sustainability as a top strategic priority while taking a structured and methodical approach to practices. The 2007 study, titled “Sustainability: Balancing Opportunity and Risk in the Consumer Products Industry,” was conducted by Deloitte Consulting LLP.

“This study tells us that sustainability is not just about ‘going green’ — it involves competing in a different world with constantly evolving issues and expectations,” noted Stephen Silbert, GMA senior vice president of industry affairs. “GMA will continue to develop the compendium of retailer practices to foster and enhance collaboration between manufacturers and retailers on sustainability initiatives. Such cooperation is mutually beneficial and, more importantly, helps companies meet consumer demands.”

Last year, Perrysburg, Ohio-based Owens-Illinois Inc. (O-I) appointed a 20-year veteran, Jay Scripter — who has general management, operations, Lean Six Sigma and engineering experience in both the chemicals and building materials sectors — to serve as its vice president of sustainability.

“We believe that sustainability is a key value driver for competitive advantage in our future,” Rich Crawford, O-I president of global glass operations said at the time. “This role will have a powerful influence on O-I competitiveness, the image of glass and the competitive position of the glass industry as a whole.”

Scripter’s job includes focusing on building O-I’s capabilities in the key disciplines of sustainability and to develop the strategies, management processes and key initiatives designed to position glass as “the most sustainable” packaging material. He also has oversight concerning key opportunities involving energy, environmental compliance, safety, recycling and related issues.

In 2007, Michael Dell, chairman and founder of the computer company by the same name, implored the electronics industry to join a tree-planting movement to compensate for the environmental impact of energy consumed by their devices.

Meanwhile, the same year under the Bush administration, the U.S. House of Representatives embarked on a “Green the Capitol” initiative, including a series of strategies such as purchasing electricity generated from renewable sources, installing energy-efficient lighting, reducing the use of coal at the Capitol power plant and switching to hybrid or alternative fuel vehicles.

“Global warming and climate change are formidable issues that the entire world is confronting, and the United States Congress must lead by example,” noted Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).