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Albertsons reduces food waste by thinking about what happens at home: 'That's where the power of the opportunity is'

"Everybody has to eat. … Food's sort of the great equalizer."

"Everybody has to eat ... Food's sort of the great equalizer."

Photo Credit: Albertsons

A good rule of thumb is "Never go grocery shopping on an empty stomach." Otherwise you might buy more than you can eat — and only realize it when the bags of cheese puffs are piled on your kitchen counter. 

Suzanne Long, chief sustainability and transformation officer at Albertsons, is taking that idea and running with it: Her goal is to bring sustainability to life by making it visible and tangible. And what better place to do that than from the grocery store? "Everybody has to eat," she noted. "Food's sort of the great equalizer."

In an exclusive interview with The Cool Down, Long takes us behind the scenes at the nation's second-largest supermarket chain — from what might surprise you about food waste to the company's unconventional partnership with Uber.

🏡 Home is where the (artichoke) heart is

"The great thing about grocery stores is that people are super familiar with them," Long told TCD. That makes them a great place to engage shoppers on sustainability. 

"Some of the inefficiency that we [in the grocery industry] actually see in our operations, especially as it relates to climate, comes from some of those things that we would never do in our own home."

For example, she posed these questions: Would you…

🚪 Walk into your house and leave the front door wide open? At a grocery store, no matter the weather, that automatic "door opens for you. And … it stays open because it might take you a minute to walk in."

🍳 When you go into your kitchen, would you expect your fridge and freezer to be wide open? Or what if your oven was constantly set to 400, to keep the wings warm all the time? "We would never do that in our own homes. We would never just leave the refrigerator and freezer or oven open in case we just wanted to grab something. But we have normalized that in our grocery stores." 

🗑️ And what about food waste? Usually we don't think about it because scraps go in the trash and get picked up each week. But if someone said: "'You have to start burying your garbage in your own backyard,' you might really think twice about what's in that garbage and … what you could do to minimize it."

We took these comparisons one step further. Dive deeper below.

👀 Turning shoppers into solvers

About 40% of food in the U.S. is wasted, including more than 240 million slices of bread each year, and many of us assume this happens because grocery stores have to toss expired products. But really, "The majority of the food that's wasted in the U.S. food system is actually in people's homes where we are purchasing items and not consuming them," Long said. Nearly half of all food wasted is from our own kitchens. 

"The reason it seems different is because in a grocery store, you see the waste en masse, right? You see all of it in … one place, and so it seems like a high volume. 

"But [at] Albertsons, we have about 35 million people in the U.S. shopping our stores every single week. When you think about the food waste generated by 35 million consumers and their families and how much they're unable to consume from what they've purchased, the volume is actually far greater. 

"That's where the power of the opportunity is. Not only for us to fix the waste … but to help educate those 35 million consumers … to figure out how they can reduce their own food waste."

🍏 Too good to toss

When Albertsons stores do have surplus food, the first priority is getting it "into the mouth of someone who needs it," Long told us. If that isn't possible, "then let's turn it into compost. Let's turn it into animal feed. Keeping as much of it out of [the] landfill as possible is really the ultimate goal."

Recently, Albertsons teamed up with Uber to get excess food waste from its supermarkets to nonprofits and food banks. "Think of it almost like an Uber Eats delivery but for food donation," Long told us. "They even tip the driver."

🗣️ Which of these groups has the biggest role to play in reducing food waste?

🔘 Grocery stores 🛒

🔘 Restaurants 🍝

🔘 Individuals 🗑️

🔘 The government 👩‍⚖️

🗳️ Click your choice to see results and speak your mind

The grocery chain also partners with startups such as Too Good To Go to offer extra food to customers at reduced prices. And it's using the artificial intelligence-based system Afresh to get smarter about "the right quantity of product to have in our stores that we can actually sell but still gives you the freshness and the choice that you want as a consumer."

😤 An easy win for all of us: "the sniff test"

Expiration dates are one of Long's favorite topics. 

"'Best buy,' 'best if used by,' 'freeze by,' [we have] all these different nomenclatures that are actually used in our business to indicate freshness — it's not really to indicate food safety," she told us. 

While there are select products — including baby formula — wherein food dating is critical, the "best buy" date typically "doesn't mean that food is no longer edible as of that date. It means that someone has determined that maybe that's peak freshness or [it's] a standardized date that [other] companies manufacturing similar items use," Long said. "There's just so much product that we throw away as both an industry and as consumers even though it's still perfectly safe and delicious to eat.

"The best guidance I can give to consumers [is to] use the sniff test, use the taste test."

💸 The business case for sustainability 

Long told us Albertsons' sustainability strategy is about doing the right thing for its bottom line, not just for the planet.

"If I reduce the amount of plastics and packaging that are in an item, it actually reduces the amount of cost for that item. … If I reduce the amount of energy that I use in our stores, our energy bill goes down," she said. "If we have less maintenance on our refrigeration systems, which are actually one of our largest sources of emissions, that reduces our maintenance costs. If I have less food waste that I send to composting because I've donated more of it, it actually is better for our bottom line. 

"So there's all of these examples where this is good business. In fact, we would do these things for our business regardless of whether they were better for the planet or our communities — but what a wonderful thing that they are better for both." 

🥤 Sparkling water > soda, pop, and cola

"Many consumers are increasingly conscious of where their food is coming from [and] the type of plastic and packaging it's in," Long said. They're asking: "'What are our practices for donating food or managing the amount of food waste that we have?' And … they're bringing those [ideas] to their purchasing decisions.

"Products that have a favorable or more favorable impact on the environment actually do better than and grow faster than brands that don't."

Just take a look at the carbonated beverage aisles, where consumer demand has shifted toward low or no-sugar waters in recyclable cans. "Ten, 15 years ago," she told us, "those were full of … soft drinks with a very small portion of them dedicated to sparkling water. … But as consumers changed their buying habits … you'll notice now, as you walk down those aisles, that actually there [are] dozens of sparkling water flavors. 

"There's some really interesting lessons to be learned … in products like that and where consumers are going."

💚 Tapping into a higher purpose

Albertsons employs nearly 300,000 front-line workers, and sustainability practices might just be the secret sauce to increasing both employee engagement and satisfaction. For Long, "there's a connection between what we do in sustainability and how connected people feel to their place of work."

For example, recently Albertsons team members had the chance to volunteer at food donation workshops. Several employees "said that in their 25, 35, 40 years of working with the company, that they had never felt more connected," Long told us.

"Hearing them say that this was the unlock, this was the thing that felt most like it tugged at their heart and made them excited to come to work every day — I think I knew it, but this was what made me even more dedicated to wanting to help our … employees really find a way to be able to engage in reducing food waste and our entire recipe for change."

Anna Robertson conducted the interview for The Cool Down. 

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