Sustainability may seem like an overused, overhyped and misunderstood word depending on to whom you are talking. Business Insider reports that “sustainability” ranked as the third most overused word in 2013.
“The definition of sustainability itself has been bantered about, particularly in recent years,” says Charlie Hall, professor and Ellison Chair in International Floriculture at Texas A&M University. “Sustainability has always been centered around the 3 Ps: people, planet and profit.”
The planet side has to do with the environmental dimensions, and the people side has to do with making sure employees, customers and all stakeholders are taken care of, says Hall. Being a sustainable business means that you pay your employees a wage with which they can support themselves.
“All of that fits under the umbrella of corporate social responsibility and whether it is advantageous for a business to act in a socially responsible manner,” Hall says. “In my mind, the things that a company does to be more sustainable from a planet and a people standpoint also make sense from a profit standpoint.”
Business Sustainability Includes Upgrading Systems
Hall says one of the first elements of being sustainable is making sure a company is leveraged properly, but not overleveraged.
“When you are implementing new technologies, adopting mechanization and automation and making processes more efficient, usually that also means you are utilizing fewer resources,” he says. “You’re not in a situation where you’re generating externalities from an environmental standpoint. You’re doing business better and that usually leads to a cost savings.”
Another area where growers have the opportunity to be sustainable, according to Hall, is the willingness on the part of some consumers to pay more for products that are considered to be environmentally friendly.
“We have found in our research that half of consumers have actually tried green products vs. having not tried green products,” he says. “There are some consumers who are willing to pay for products they deem to be more sustainable and more environmentally friendly.
“We also found that people were willing to pay a premium if the product was labeled carbon saving vs. carbon intensive. People weren’t told the difference between what those labels meant.”
Improving Sustainability With Lean Flow
Hall says one of the first things growers should do if they are serious about improving their business sustainability is doing a Lean Flow analysis.
“There are gains to be made in efficiencies with a Lean Flow analysis,” he says. “Twenty-five percent of a grower’s labor involves getting the product to the bench or out into the field. Another 25 percent is used to take care of the product — all of the cultural practices. Another 50 percent of the labor is involved in order pulling and assembling, loading and unloading trucks and delivering the product to the customer. Shipping and handling activities are some of the last things that are typically looked at from an efficiency standpoint. There is a lot of low-hanging fruit just in analyzing this last part of the value chain.”
The same Lean Flow efficiencies that can be applied to production- and shipping-related activities can be adapted to office management practices, Hall says.
“Any function within a business that involves a repetitive task is a candidate for doing a Lean Flow analysis,” he says. “Lean Flow is all about minimizing wasted movement and gaining efficiencies, so office management practices such as processing orders and handling invoices are logical areas to investigate.”
An Early Adopter Of Sustainable Solutions
D.S. Cole Growers, a young plant producer in Loudon, N.H., was the first U.S. greenhouse operation to receive MPS certification in 2008. Owner and president Doug Cole says his interest to certify his company began when he was president of OFA, now AmericanHort.
The certification process was tough because it had been originally set up for European growers, Cole says.
“Everything was measured in metric,” he says. “We had to convert all kinds of measurements, including water, natural gas and pesticide use. The people at MPS tried to help us, too.”
Cole says the toughest part of the whole certification process was that MPS was originally set up for finished plant growers.
“In Europe, plant propagators similar to our company weren’t as involved in the MPS program,” he says. “A pot plant grower may produce a crop every 12 weeks or more. When rooting vegetative cuttings, we can be cycling crops every four to six weeks. Propagation requires more inputs per year, including pesticides, heat and electricity for supplemental lighting.”
Initially, the Dutch flower growers wanted to show government officials that they were not polluting and were monitoring themselves and their impact on the environment, says Cole. The growers were trying to be proactive in showing officials the things they were doing to be better each year, so they developed these parameters to reach a higher level of certification.
Cole says that his company would not have been able to achieve and maintain MPS certification without the cooperation and interest of his employees. He says employees need to be on board in order to make the program successful.
“Being the guinea pig, we did this for a couple years using the metric program,” he says. “As more American growers looked to become certified, MPS officials realized that the U.S. growers were only going to sign up if the metric system was changed. It was just too much extra work. The certification program has been changed so that there is a U.S. template. The conversions we had to make don’t have to be made anymore.”
Growers don’t need to be mechanized or automated in order to become certified, Cole says.
“There are a number of certification programs, but the one that many U.S growers have been involved with is MPS ABC,” he says. “They’re not measuring efficiency and wastefulness in regard to labor. It’s all about environment and quantitative measurements, which is a lot more meaningful. You want to keep your inputs as low as possible, whether you are measuring fertilizer-, pesticide- or energy-use.”
Realizing The Benefits Of Sustainability Certification
Pacific Plug & Liner (PP&L), a young plant producer in Watsonville, Calif., is in the third year of being MPS certified. General Manager Hank Bukowski, who has been with the company for 2½ years, says the company has definitely seen benefits from being certified.
“You almost have to go into the certification process with the attitude that you are going to be told what’s wrong with your operation,” Bukowski says. “You have to have the diligence to look at everything that you are doing. MPS wants to see some progress in order to get a better grade. It happened immediately for us and it didn’t take a big financial investment. It was more about how we did things. How we sprayed, how we monitored for insects. It was just a lot of different things that we could do better.”
Bukowski says the area where PP&L had to make the most changes was chemical and fertilizer usage.
“You get graded fairly hard in those areas, the types of chemicals,” he says. “MPS is not like the IRS when they audit you. They are trying to help you. They look at the chemicals you are using, the location where the chemicals are applied. They require that you complete data sheets that include not only the volume of a chemical applied, but also the area that was covered. They may suggest alternative controls, including neem products and biologicals.”
One project that PP&L recently completed that helped improve its MPS audit score was an outdoor water reclamation project for the whole property. The company has 15 acres of outdoor production.
“When I first arrived, we had just begun the reclamation project,” Bukowski says. “We received a $60,000 state grant to take on the project to reclaim all of the water that we use on our outdoor fields. It ended up being a $200,000 project. As a result, we are going to reclaim the unused irrigation water and cut our fertilizer use in half.”
MPS certification is not synonymous with organic, Bukowski says.
“Growers could be producing their crops organically, but not necessarily be growing them sustainably,” he says. “Everyone thinks that organically grown is better for the environment, but that is not necessarily true. MPS is trying to develop a balance for people, the planet and then profits. They don’t want to come in and say ‘do this’ and then have it cost growers a lot of money. Their goal is to help the environment and help growers be profitable.”
To learn more about sustainability certification and how it could impact your operation, contact Charlie Hall, Texas A&M University, Department of Horticultural Sciences at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit EllisonChair.tamu.edu; D.S. Cole Growers at 603-783-9561 or visit DSColeGrowers.com or Pacific Plug & Liner at 831-768-6327 or visit PPandL.net.