Lessons from Sweden: Leading food retailer steps up sustainability initiatives
Sweden's largest food retail chain has been stepping up its efforts to become more sustainable, trialing and implementing numerous initiatives with a focus on packaging and food waste.
A representative of ICA Sweden, which has around 1,300 stores and last year saw revenues of 74 billion krona (US$9 billion), said the chain aimed to be at the forefront of sustainability in retail.
Addressing attendees at November's Amsterdam Produce Show & Conference, the company's senior category manager for fruit, vegetables and flowers Maria Wieloch spoke about what the chain had been doing on the commercial side of the issue.
Describing Sweden as somewhat of a "forerunner" in organics, Wieloch explained how organic sales in the fresh produce department had been hovering at around 3-4% of total sales until 2013, when a series of media reports about pesticides levels in bananas saw an "explosion" in demand.
The following year a campaign by an NGO that attacked conventionally grown produce led to another strong boost, with organic produce sales now stable at a little over 15%.
In tandem with this significant increase, Wieloch said ICA had wanted to reduce the packaging used for organics, but some challenges had been encountered along the way.
She explained it was hard to get rid of packaging for organic produce in Sweden due to regulations requiring that organics be clearly marked as such and it not be easy to take off the label or remove the item from the packaging.
"As a result we have a lot of packaging in organic produce. It doesn't really rhyme well with organic to have a lot of packaging because you want to address the consumer who is conscious [of sustainability]."
ICA therefore experimented with natural branding, which involves using a low-energy laser to mark the skin of produce without affecting the quality or shelf life.
"You take everything unnatural off the organic produce, which makes it a really good match [with organics]. We said we wanted a strategy where we put this on our organic produce wherever possible," she said.
"But we also have to remember that packaging is not always the enemy, and that's another issue we have to address to the consumers - sometimes packaging is actually better for the produce to keep the shelf life."
She noted that as the natural branding technology was still in its relatively early stages the marking process was not as quick as desired and there were limited machines available, meaning a large investment was required to roll out the labeling technique on a large-scale.
"But this is something we have to think about as an industry, how do we want to move forward, because we see this as a great opportunity to get rid of the stickers...and also to get rid of some of the plastic packaging."
ICA started out using natural branding for avocados, but realized that a dark and often bumpy surface of the fruit meant the laser marking was often hard to see. More success was found, however, with other commodities like butternut squash and melons.
In addition to the natural branding, Wieloch said ICA had been trying to move from plastic to paper packaging wherever possible.
She explained that this change was made for cherry tomatoes, and although it increased costs it created more space to be used to communicate with the consumer about the produce, spurring on a sales rise of 6% in the first month alone.
"We actually did this with 10 products - moving from plastic to paper - which gave an estimated 40 [metric] tons (MT) annual saving in plastic just from one supermarket. This shows that small things can help in the bigger picture," she said.
"Green plastics" - involving a material similar to plastic that is made from sugar cane - are also being looked into.
Another major topic falling under the sustainability umbrella is food waste, and one new way ICA is combatting the epidemic is through supporting a school project which takes apples and pears that would have otherwise been wasted and makes it into "Rescued Fruit Juices".
Wieloch said while this started as a small initiative, the amount of fruit that was rescued in the first year of operation was three times higher than anticipated - 24,000MT.
Another initiative involved providing unwanted organic potatoes to a small company which uses them as feed for its production of mealworms. The insects are edible but their sale for human consumption is still prohibited in a few European countries including Sweden.
"ICA is really pushing for this [allowing the consumption of insects]. I know for some people, including myself, this is a bit weird, but of course we are not going to sell them like this [unprocessed], you would make them into flour and then bake with them," she said.
"But we also know that the unsustainable production of meat cannot go on, we need to find another source of protein."
While mealworm consumption is still not legal in Sweden, in July this year the EU allowed their use for fish food. ICA therefore decided to allow the insects to be used for feed in its private-label fish farming operations.
"So this is something that's now starting up, which is the first real circular collaboration we have which I find really interesting and I'm proud to be a part of it. What we do is we connect the industry altogether. So we have ICA as the supplier, then Nutrient do the worms and then we connect our supplier of private label fish."
Noting that food waste became increasingly prevalent the further down the food chain you go, the representative said ICA has also been doing some in-store initiatives to help combat waste.
These initiatives include taking produce that would likely not have been sold on the shop floor, and using it in the ICA store kitchens to make cheap meals for local university students, and also putting a sign next to highly perishable produce urging customers "chose an expiration date that is good enough for you."
"So we're saying 'don't go digging in the back for the one that has 10 days if you're going to eat it today'. It makes sense of course but it's also good to have it in your face when you're making the decision. It's really reduced the waste in the stores," she said.
Another initiative involved cutting off portions of produce items which have cosmetic issues covering only part of the outside, and selling, for instance, half a melon instead of a whole one.
Wieloch said this was a win for the supermarket which could make money on produce that would have otherwise been wasted, and a win for consumers who did not want to buy a whole piece of fruit in the first place.