The 2016 Global Sustainability Summit: Capturing the Changing Face of Sustainability

The past decade has brought the kind of rapid change to the food wholesale and retail industry that can take your breath away. It is not just technology that is altering the industry—though it is certainly playing a major role—but also government policy (the Affordable Care Act, the Food Safety Modernization Act), consumer engagement and dozens of other factors. A time traveler from 1976 might still recognize the outlines of a food retail operation in 2016, but she would find the inner workings virtually unrecognizable.

Perhaps no area has evolved as quickly and as decisively as the role of sustainability within the industry. While many players originally viewed the issue as a reputational arena, today virtually every company is finding that creating and maintaining sustainable supply chains and retail operations is a competitive issue with the potential for significant returns. What was once a cost center can now be a revenue opportunity. Many companies have now integrated an ethos of sustainability so deeply into their operations that it has become everyone's responsibility, built into annual targets in the same way any other revenue goal would be.

Even the meaning of the term sustainability is evolving. Ten years ago, many sustainability professionals had a primary focus on environmental issues such as carbon footprints or energy efficiency. Today, their responsibilities can cover anything from animal welfare and human trafficking to food waste and sourcing high impact commodities. This list of sustainability-related responsibilities is now so broad that some companies are moving away from the term itself, in favor of alternatives like corporate social responsibility.

For the past ten years, the Food Marketing Institute (FMI) has been working with our members to capture the changing face of sustainability and provide the tools necessary to stay competitive. We chartered our first Sustainability Task Force back in 2006, and it maintains one of the most active work streams within the organization. And since 2010, we've been partnering with the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) to host an annual summit on the issue.

The 2016 FMI-GMA Sustainability Summit—held in New Orleans in August—offered retail leaders the opportunity to engage with and learn from partners in the manufacturing, NGO, academic and governmental communities. The range of sessions covers a wide variety of areas that demonstrate just how diverse the topic of sustainability has become. In addition to presentations on traditional areas like flexible packaging, food waste and greening supply chains, the Summit offered the chance to explore newer issues such as reputation management in the wake of undercover investigations and food tribes. Attendees also heard from Lt. General Russel Honore, widely hailed as the man who helped save New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina, speak on leadership and preparedness in a changing world.

Sustainability is evolving and to keep up companies are going to have to embrace this change. The 2016 FMI-GMA Sustainability Summit is one way FMI is helping its members move beyond the present and understand the future and what the term "sustainability" will mean a decade from now.