Those who are not local to the area may not know this, but the village of Manomet, in Plymouth, is home to an incredible nonprofit sustainability organization named for that very village.
The goal of its founders was to provide a site and opportunity for long-term studies of birds and other aspects of the natural history and ecology of southeastern Massachusetts. In fact, its headquarters has been located in Plymouth since the Manomet Bird Observatory was founded in 1969.
Manomet’s work over the last 50 years, which had originally come from the study of land birds, shorebirds and forests, has expanded over the decades to include a broader understanding of the world around us.
Today, this understanding draws upon the many facets of our world and how they are connected, and Manomet’s mission has expanded to include other areas of environmental sustainability, including its most recent program, Grocery Stewardship Certification.
Manomet’s Grocery Stewardship Certification (GSC) program works with grocery companies of all sizes, from big chains down to one-store operations, according to Catrina Damrell, Manomet’s Grocery Sustainability Program Manager. The program, she said, focuses on sustainability in the buildings, as well as employee actions.
“We look at everything that goes on in the grocery store through a sustainability lens,” she said. “To save energy, we look at lighting and refrigeration display cases. We look at how grocery stores handle waste, including recycling, composting, and food donations. We look at water conservation efforts–everything from the type of hand soap used to the fixtures they have on faucets. And then, we also check the chemicals that they use in the stores to see if they are using human and planet-friendly chemicals. Finally, a big piece of our work focuses on employee engagement to change the behaviors of employees. The goal for them is to begin to think about sustainability in their everyday tasks around the store.”
With its high-intensity energy usage and potential for food waste, the grocery industry has one of the greatest opportunities to reduce resource use and the greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change.
For this reason, Damrell said they work directly with the management of the grocery stores to collect all the data, and then crunch it down in their calculator to give a rough estimate of what their existing sustainability practices are currently saving them – both in resources and money. This gives the stores a benchmark so they can build on their progress and understand how sustainability affects their bottom-line.
Grocery Stores And Climate Change
The grocery industry presents an immense opportunity for sustainability, she added, and to reduce the effects of climate change, both on an industry sector scale and on our societal level.
“In pre-coronavirus times, Americans went to the grocery store twice a week. Grocery stores have some of the largest energy footprints in any retail sector and are a nexus of our food supply chain,” said Damrell. “So, there’s an enormous amount of opportunity for grocery stores to improve. Not to mention, grocery stores use a lot of refrigeration to keep food fresh and safe to eat, which leads to a significant contribution to greenhouse gas emissions on an annual basis.
“The U.S. EPA’s EnergyStar and GreenChill programs, which look at energy and refrigeration use, approximate that one average American grocery store will emit enough greenhouse gases to be equivalent to 1,000 vehicles on the road each year. That’s one thing that is quite eye-opening to think about every time you walk into a grocery store.”
The GSC was originally launched in 2012 at Manomet by a former employee, Peter Cooke. Damrell joined the team a year later. The goal, she said, was to create a simple system that grocery stores could use to monitor and monetize their sustainability impacts. Hannaford Supermarkets enrolled the first stores in the program and Manomet is still working with them today.
Any grocery store that’s interested can join the program, Damrell said. That’s the strength of the program; it works no matter what kind of grocery store you are. Whether the grocery store is a boutique, natural foods chain or if it’s a small rural store in New England or New Mexico, there will be opportunities to save money and resources.
Currently there are more than 1,000 grocery stores in the program, which started out with a pilot of 12 stores in a district at Hannaford – clearly a reflection of its success. Additionally, Manomet’s GSC program is unique because it’s a flexible program, but one that also delivers credibility.
“There are other programs, such as the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED certifications that are really good programs to drive big change at a much higher investment level,” said Damrell. “For grocery stores, that high level of investment doesn’t always make sense because of their narrow profit margins. And so, the GSC recognizes that grocery stores need a program that can meet them where they’re at on their sustainability efforts and provide them with a plan to improve. And, that’s exactly what the GSC does.”
Manomet, in particular, is a perfect home for the GSC, she added, because of how Manomet approaches its partners and focuses on building these kinds of relationships. Manomet wants to empower the managers of these different systems with the tools that they can use.
Grocery store owners or managers might wonder why they should consider a sustainability program such as the GSC. In a nutshell, a grocery store is made up of many different departments and infrastructures, and the flow of materials and people on a daily basis is immense, which makes it pretty complex to manage.
“The GSC provides the staff and management with the sustainability data they need to get a grip on what’s going on in all of these different areas. These managers can then use this data and analysis to help bring together a team on how to both achieve their sustainability goals, as well as their goals around engaging their customers with sustainability,” Damrell said.
As with all such programs, the GSC has had its challenges. One of the most challenging aspects of the program thus far has been getting stores to commit to the program.
“We recognize that the industry has a very small profit margin, by nature, on top of it being a very complex industry to run,” Damrell explained. “There’s a plethora of tasks that every employee at all levels has to address on a daily basis. So, adding sustainability onto that long list can sometimes be a hurdle. But, more and more chains are realizing that sustainability is important for their bottom line and we are seeing more interest from all around the industry. It’s what customers want and it can help stores stand-out in a very competitive industry.”
There have, however, been times of great reward, as well. Damrell said one of the most rewarding aspects of the program has been her interactions with the store managers and the corporate sustainability teams.
“When I’m able to show them how sustainability can help their stores benefit, how their business can benefit from sustainability and also how they can bring it into their own lives outside of work, those interactions have been very meaningful,” she said. “Sustainability is something that everyone – from the grocery bagger to the CEO and, most importantly, the customer – can take part in.”
Currently Manomet’s GSC program is focused primarily in the US, and with one store in Canada. Their thousand-plus grocery stores are located from Maine to California, from New Mexico to Iowa, and everywhere in between across the country. With an eye toward the future, Damrell hopes their program will eventually be an industry-wide standard.
“I would love to see that the Grocery Stewardship Certification program is, essentially, almost a given for every grocery company out there to be part of,” she said. “These next 10 years are a pretty potent timeframe to think about in terms of climate change. And, in this moment, the COVID-19 pandemic has really shown us the important role that grocery stores play in our communities. So, I would love to have as many of the 38,000 grocery stores out there participating and realizing how sustainability can benefit their business.”
For 50 years, Manomet’s community involvement is very in-depth. It works with people locally, as well as nationally, to sustain major systems that support life – fishermen, timberland owners, institutional investors, retailers, natural resource managers, small business owners, and many more. In addition, it’s location in Plymouth has continued to open its land to schoolchildren on a regular basis for educational learning, field trips, science programs and so much more.
“The GSC is housed at Manomet, and we are a Plymouth-based science-driven nonprofit,” said Damrell. “We’ve had a very long history with giving back to the community in Plymouth, and the greater South Shore, through different educational programs like our banding lab. For the grocery program in particular, we’ve been lucky to receive grant funding to focus on rural independent business owners in New England – and that’s been a very rewarding community to get to know! Grocery stores in rural communities are such a vital service and are under more stress than ever before. And so, helping them to save money from their bottom-line through sustainability is helping them ensure a long-term future for those communities.”