We are taking stock of climate action in 2020 and what's ahead for the industry through a series of interviews with the 2020 National Co+op Grocers Climate Collaborative Awards winners. This week we sat down with Kurt Baehmann, Sustainability Manager at Outpost Natural Foods, winner of the 2020 Outstanding Company Award. (View our previous interview with Numi Organic Tea).
I imagine it has been quite the tumultuous year for your work at Outpost, trying to balance meeting unprecedented demand, keep employees healthy and safe, and keep pushing forward on climate goals amid all that. What has it looked like?
You’ve hit the nail on the head. Our frontline employees have done amazing work dealing with the perils of operating in a customer-facing environment, while dealing with unpredictable supply chains on top of all the challenges everyone else has encountered with daily living during the pandemic. One of the surprises I think many of us working in sustainability have seen is that during such a stressful time that issues concerning climate change and the environment have not been pushed to the side, but actually have increased in importance.
What were the enabling factors that allowed you to keep pushing forward on climate amid everything else? Were there any challenges you had to overcome, and do you have advice for other retailers and companies?
First and foremost sustainability is at the core of why we were founded over 50 years ago, and our leadership has continued to keep the mission of creating a healthy, diverse and sustainable community as the driving force for how we operate every day. From a logistical standpoint, we’re fortunate that with our size we’re able to have a dedicated sustainability position, so I’ve had the opportunity to remain focused on the environmental and social issues that make us unique in the marketplace.
One of our challenges from a brand and operational cost perspective was the temporary elimination of reusable shopping bags. We haven’t had plastic bags for years, relying on our dedicated shoppers to bring their reusable bags or utilize paper bags. Before we knew that transmission of the virus is primarily airborne, everything reusable was put on hold. The plastics industry has also pushed a false narrative that single use plastics are the safest way to package and transport food. This resulted in increased costs for paper bags and using more natural resources. A recent study estimated that plastic use in packaging has increased by 40% during the pandemic, though hopefully, this will trend downward again.
Due to local health regulations we also had to stop accepting reusable containers for our bulk departments and cafes, which meant increased costs in both labor and packaging to pre-pack those items our shoppers have come to rely on.
As far as advice I would say the more you can ingrain sustainability in the culture of your organization the more nimble, adaptive and efficient you will be when it comes to facing challenges that arise. So many of our employees believe in the value of sustainability that we have a diverse group of advocates at all levels in the organization that make decisions on a daily basis through that lens.
You’ve launched some projects providing really interesting ways for your customers to get engaged in Outpost’s climate work. Can you speak a little bit to that?
Absolutely. Last year we launched our Call To Action program in an effort to draw on the collective voices of our almost 400 employees and 23,000 local owners of our cooperative. When researching the effectiveness of creating change on a legislative level it became clear from those that have worked in politics that calling our elected officials, more so than emailing or writing letters, is the most effective way of getting politicians to pay attention to a certain topic.
We created a team that launches periodic campaigns based around a revolving topic that provides background information, a quick link to contact information for their elected officials from all levels of government, then even a short script they can use when calling to make it as easy as possible. Many times it can be intimidating to make those first few calls, but after a person gets comfortable it “breaks the ice” and makes that communication easier going forward. The effort is supported by permanent in-store signage with take-away flyers, a dedicated page on our website, email blasts and social media posts.
What are you most proud of this year?
I would say that instead of hiding in our shell and pulling back to just wait out the pandemic we’ve remained committed to our values as an organization. Aside from our climate advocacy work, we’ve made a concerted effort to promote suppliers of color, undergo Diversity, Equity and Inclusion training, remained committed to reducing our use of plastics and even raised a record amount of customer contributions for our annual Buy A Bag program that doubles shopper contributions providing healthy food for at risk families.
What’s got you excited for the next year? Is there anything you’re looking to go deeper on, or collaborate with the industry on?
When it comes to our plastics reduction work we’ve gathered a wide-ranging group that is working on creating a reusable food container program here in Milwaukee. We’ve brought together Plastic Free Milwaukee and the Mayor’s Environmental Collaboration Office with the Department of Public Works, and are now participating in the City County Task Force on Climate and Economic Equity to continue advancing this project. Many people also aren’t aware of composting’s benefits for climate change, so we’re working to increase access to commercial composting infrastructure. While we continue to inhabit a challenging environment, we’re committed to “walking the talk” and collaborating both locally and nationally to be a positive force in our community.