Sustainability — the Next Chapter
As I look back at the summer, there is one topic that stood out at every meeting, every trade show and even some buyers' meetings — sustainability.
How do we make money satisfying the ultimate consumer with sustainable products? I would suggest that the question presents some real challenges and offer a couple of words of caution. If you recall, in a past issue of Big Grower, I discussed the definition of sustainability and the need for companies to be proactive in the development of a company sustainability plan. I hope that you have taken some time this summer to get started on that project. Rumor has it that at least one major big box retailer is asking to see it during the line review process this fall.
Let's take a closer look again at this whole subject of sustainability. The definition that I like the best, "meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs," leaves us with a lot to think about.
A New Mindset
First of all, sustainability has to be a way of thinking for you and everyone involved with your company. Sustainability also goes beyond an organic, biodegradable and aggressive recycling company.
Sustainability relates to such examples as buying locally versus shipping across the country. It relates to having a clear understanding of the source of raw materials that are used in manufacturing the soils, plastics and fertilizers we purchase and use. The mindset of sustainability also speaks to thinking twice about all the decisions you make through the day.
Proceed with Caution
I am excited that the subject of sustainability has become a mainstream topic, but I have a couple of words of caution for the grower community.
Some unknowns as we look to 2008:
- Is the gardening public ready to buy and support a sustainable product offering? Non-industry articles suggest that the era of sustainability has arrived and the consumer is ready to buy. There will be some interest and some sales, but how much?
- Recent information suggests certain regions of the country are more in tune to the issues of sustainability. For example, the Northwest and Northeast have very strong support with the mountain states; the Southwest and Southeast are seeing much less interest. They tell me that in some mountain states people are required to pay 15-20 percent more for garbage pickup if they want to recycle. Are those consumers ready to also pay for a sustainable garden product?
- Then we have the whole question of retail price: how much will the end consumer pay for a sustainable product? Maybe 10, 15, 20 percent more? No one knows at this point. What we do know is the cost (inputs) to produce a sustainable product is sufficiently higher.
- The largest unknown to me is what this sustainability interest will look like in two years. I'm starting to hear terms like organic plastic trays and tags and organic/natural resins and coatings. Containers might be ordered and used based on how long it takes for them to breakdown in a landfill. The bottom line: no matter what we are producing and selling in 2008, we most likely will not be doing the same thing in 2009.
The time has come for all of us — even us old timers — to embrace, support and learn all we can about sustainability. We need to aggressively trial, grow and market sustainable products in 2008. Be cautious but remain open minded and willing to learn the next new ideas.
I think about the transition the industry went through when we went from growing all our products from seed versus buying and growing from plugs. Sustainability will be the next new learning ground. Someone said it this summer, "Remember, we are the original green industry." Amen to that!