News from the Sustainability Journey

April 10, 2024
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By Sarah Brennan, Board Administrator/Sustainability Coordinator

In honor of Earth Day, it’s time for an update on what the Co-op has been up to on the sustainability front. First off, allow me to introduce myself… I’ve been the Board Administrator since 2016, and last summer, I was given the privilege of an expanded role at our Co-op as the first-ever Sustainability Coordinator.

A concern for sustainability is woven throughout our operations, from what we stock on the shelves to what soap we provide in the bathrooms. It’s my job to keep an eye on the whole picture, but it’s the work of all 160+ Co-op employees to live up to our ideals. Our aspirations are expressed in our Ends Policies, which call on us to be “an enterprise that engages in sustainable and regenerative environmental practices” (End 4) and to provide “access to and education about goods and nutritious food that are ecologically sound and responsibly sourced” (End 2).

I started in my new role by adopting a framework from the Ratio Institute to organize our sustainability efforts. The Ratio Institute is an independent, non-profit organization that works with food retailers and others to accelerate measurable sustainability and viability in the food retail industry. They offer a comprehensive Sustainable Food Retail Certification Program that encompasses seventeen core practice areas, which include sustainability governance, greenhouse gas reduction, renewable energy and energy efficiency, packaging and waste, site design and stormwater management, toxics, water efficiency, and industry and policy engagement, among others.

Last summer, we conducted a self-assessment using their guidelines (we did not pursue certification), and began mapping out key areas to focus on in the coming year. In January, I summarized this assessment and our progress living up to End 4 in a monitoring report to the Board of Directors. By the time you read this, our new GM, Anthony Santorelli, will have updated the Board on our progress in carrying out End 2 as well.

A big focus in the coming year will be reducing our greenhouse gas emissions. Our aspiration here is carbon neutral. We are a long way from that. As is typical for a retail grocer, our primary source of emissions is via leaks in our refrigeration/HVAC system. Our system is charged with the refrigerant R404A, which has a Global Warming Potential (GWP) of 3,922. The GWP of a gas refers to the total contribution to global warming resulting from the emission of one unit of that gas, relative to one unit of the reference gas, carbon dioxide, which is assigned a value of 1.

In fiscal year 2023 (July 2022 – June 2023), our refrigerant leaks alone – as measured by the amount of R404A we used to recharge the system – generated the equivalent of 240 metric tons of carbon dioxide, or the equivalent of 53.3 passenger vehicles driven for one year. We do what we can to stay on top of this with regular preventive maintenance routines and practices, and we purchased a leak detector last year to help identify problems as they occur. But the upshot is that due to corrosion in aging pipes and valves, our system is overdue for an overhaul.

We are applying for funding through USDA’s Rural Energy for America Program (REAP) for a completely new system. REAP offers guaranteed loans and grants for renewable energy systems and energy efficiency improvement, and we are grateful to the Ratio Institute for shepherding us through the intricacies of the grant application process.

Another area of focus is moving towards being as plastic-free as we can reasonably get. We have already eliminated plastic bags in our Produce department, to the delight of many and the chagrin of some; we will be doing so in the Bulk department as well in the coming weeks.

We hope to replace the clear plastic clamshells in our Deli Grab ‘n Go and in our Bulk department with compostable alternatives. This may seem like an easy decision, right? But as it happens, each compostable container costs about 25 cents more than its petroleum-based counterpart, and we’re caught between The Rock of absorbing that cost, and The Hard Place of passing it along to our shoppers. 

On the waste stream front, we already divert 80+% of our waste from the landfill through recycling and composting. Getting closer to 100% is a matter of chasing down many separate opportunities. For instance, in the not-too-distant future, you’ll see an end to single-serve condiment packets in our café in favor of pump dispensers. We recently resumed using reusable plates and cutlery in our Deli, a practice we’d suspended during the pandemic.

Another victim of the pandemic was our ability to recycle pallet wrap through one of our distributors. While we were able to resume this practice last year partially, we are now embarking on a pilot project to determine just how much plastic film we generate. If our projections are accurate, we anticipate being able to resume offering plastic film recycling to our shoppers again—stay tuned! We’ve identified some local businesses to take some of the packing peanuts and bubbles we receive in our Wellness department for use in their own operations—and we’re always looking for more partners to help us with this.

Our policies call for us to repurpose unsellable food by using it in our kitchen when possible, selling it at a discount, giving it to food pantries, making it available as livestock feed, or composting it (in that order). Last year, we formalized the process by which we get food scraps out to livestock farmers; Trouble and Star, pictured below, were most appreciative. We’ve tightened up our collaboration with Foodworks as well—they pick up short-dated product from us each week—and with the collaboration of staff in our Grocery and Produce departments, we anticipate getting more unsellable bread and produce to other area service providers, thus keeping it out of the compost pile.


There’s so much more I could tell you, but for now, I’ll end with the happy news that in March, we launched a staff Green Team. The Team is charged with identifying opportunities, launching new programs, and engaging staff and shareholders to make a positive difference. Green Team members serve as knowledgeable ambassadors who are aware of where we want to go and where we are now, and champion efforts on the floor and throughout our operations.

Let’s just say that the Green Team keeps me on my toes, as I expect you, our devoted Co-op fans, will as well!

Want to learn more or get involved? Shareholders are welcome to have a look at the monitoring reports our Board of Directors use to assess whether we are living up to our Ends Policies. Please share your ideas on a feedback form (available at Customer Service), or through any of the “contact us” links on our website, or by dropping me a line at