One of the biggest challenges right now for the people and organizations promoting sustainability in American business is preventing the word from sliding into non-meaning, like what has happened, for instance, with "natural." For Jon Johnson, professor in the Sam Walton School of Business at the Univ. of Arkansas and director of the university’s Applied Sustainability Center, sustainability is a comprehensive approach that includes more than programs designed to reduce a company’s environmental impact. "There are social and economic components, too," he says. "But for sustainability to really work, it has to be affordable, and proprietary information has to be protected as well."

Johnson, who will address the Sustainability Summit in Chicago in October, sponsored by MEAT&POULTRY and held in conjunction with the American Meat Institute’s Worldwide Food Expo, notes that the meat and poultry industry is just now becoming familiar with the concept of sustainability as it applies to processing and business organization. "But you’ve got some companies out there that are beginning to take this seriously and that see some real opportunities," he comments.

The need for standards

To some extent, companies are being forced to take sustainability seriously – Wal-Mart, as of July this year, has demanded that all of its suppliers, including meat and poultry suppliers, do. Johnson has a close working relationship with the retailing giant; two years ago, a grant from the Wal-Mart Foundation got the Applied Sustainability Center off the ground, in fact. "While they aren’t the first retailer to emphasize sustainability, they’re certainly the largest. I think the announcement they made this year will be seen in the future as a very important inflection point. They have begun a program that I think will launch of bunch of innovations that generations into the future will see the benefits of," he says.

One of the key components of the Wal-Mart program is the collection and organization of data describing the full life-cycle of every product Wal-Mart sells; the retailer hopes that eventually, such data will be available for all products sold everywhere. The Applied Sustainability Center has joined with the Univ. of Arizona and other institutions to create an academic consortium to help manage the mountains of information Wal-Mart suppliers are expected to provide. "We need a system of metrics to measure the impacts of production. Right now there’s a welter of measuring systems out there," Johnson observes. "We need some standards, however, that will transfer from one product to the next and from one part of the world to the next."

Despite his center’s close relationship with Wal-Mart, Johnson says the center is guided by the approach and philosophy of Gene Kahn, founder of Cascadian Farms, one of the largest producers of certified organic foods in the U.S. and since 2000 part of General Mills’ Small Planet division. Cascadian was formed in 1972 on a single 28-acre farm in Washington state’s Skagit Valley in the Cascade Range, and its first vegetable crops were sold at local farmstands. Kahn went on to create one of the first maps of the environmental impact of production agriculture, and since 2007 has served as Global Sustainability Officer for General Mills. He was one of the founding members of the Organic Certification Standards Board formed by USDA after passage of the Organic Standards Act in 1995.

"Gene’s contention is that it’s critically important to consider the full lifecycle of a product," describes Johnson. "For example, when you compare compact fluorescent light bulbs – CFLs – to standard incandescent bulbs, the CFLs actually have a larger carbon footprint in the manufacturing, but over the life of the bulb the carbon footprint is far smaller than for an incandescent bulb.

That’s how you have to think about sustainability. It’s one thing to reduce the power consumption of a processing plant by, say, 10 percent, but it’s quite another to make a product that needs fewer resources, and uses renewable resources, from start to finish."

The center’s vision is to create a sustainable global consumer goods economy, according to its Web site 
( Its mission statement reads: "We lead organizations in the retail and consumer goods industries toward sustainable practices that support an economy built around people, planet and profit. We accomplish this by solving complex problems, providing expert guidance, brokering problems and solutions, and by sponsoring research." It offers assessments of the life-cycles of products, performs research, and its "carbon innovation lab" finds ways to reduce the carbon footprint of various kinds of manufacturing.

A head start

The meat and poultry industry has practiced sustainability, at least to a degree, without really knowing it. The business likes to pat itself on the back for making use of every part of an animal "except the oink and the moo" – but it’s true. There’s remarkably little waste from processed livestock. On the other hand, the meat manufacturing process itself can generate considerable waste – water, cardboard and heat, for example. Some of this is fairly easily recycled, Johnson notes, but not all of it. "Often, the easiest thing to do is to start with the environmental factors, but when you start talking about limiting greenhouse gases and reducing water use, it becomes more difficult. But this is what sustainability is all about. You’re talking about resource use and consumption that’s sustainable in a very literal way. You do not take out more from the system than you put in."

He says there are currently more questions about sustainability than answers – but that’s exactly why it’s a very good time for companies to remake themselves to fit a sustainable model: with no hard and fast rules, companies can improvise and innovate to suit their own needs. Johnson will describe guidelines for sustainability in the food industry when he addresses the Sustainability Summit. ‘"Exactly’ is not a word I use," he admits. "The concept of sustainability must itself be sustainable, which means that it’s always open to new ideas and information." At the same time, the hard data gathered by Wal-Mart on the life-cycle of the products it sells will establish a kind of "library of sustainability" that companies can draw from.

Steve Bjerklie is M&P’s East Coast correspondent, based in Franconia, N.H. He has worked as a journalist covering the meat and poultry processing industry for more than 25 years.

Sponsored by MEAT&POULTRY, the 2009 Sustainability Summit is being presented in conjunction with the American Meat Institute’s Worldwide Food Expo, held at Chicago’s McCormick Place Oct. 28-31. Dr. Jon Johnson is scheduled to make a presentation at the event and discuss his work with Tyson Foods, Wal-Mart and other companies. Prior to the show floor opening each day, attendees are invited to attend educational sessions focusing on sustainability for three consecutive mornings, Oct. 28-30, from 8-11 a.m. All WWFE attendees are invited to sit in on these thought-provoking presentations.

Attendance is included in the registration fee for the WWFE. For more information on the Sustainability Summit, go to

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