Currently serving as Chief Sustainability and Transformation Officer at Albertsons, Suzanne Long began her career at Accenture consulting for Fortune 100 companies. She joined Albertsons in 2001 where she developed and led the company’s Lean Six Sigma program – this first of its kind in the food and drug industry.
In 2008, she become the Retail Practice Leader for SSA & Company, a New York-based consulting firm, directing engagements with clients such as Kroger, Harris Teeter, Staples and Office Depot. Suzanne joined the “new” Albertsons Companies in 2012, leading five major acquisitions/integrations that grew the company to the nation’s second largest food and drug retailer.
She became Group Vice President, Strategic Sourcing and ESG/Sustainability in 2020, and moved into her current role in 2021, driving both the company’s ESG strategy and transforming the company’s approach to engaging and inspiring its 250k+ frontline associates.
John Shegerian: Have you been enjoying our Impact Podcasts and our great guests? Then please give us a thumbs up and leave a five-star review on iTunes, Google Play, or wherever you consume your favorite podcasts. This edition of the Impact Podcasts is brought to you by ERI. ERI has a mission to protect people, the planet, and your privacy, and is the largest fully integrated IT and electronics asset disposition provider and cybersecurity-focused hardware destruction company in the United States and maybe even the world. For more information on how ERI can help your business properly dispose of outdated electronic hardware devices, please visit eridirect.com. This episode of the Impact Podcast is brought to you by Closed Loop Partners. Closed Loop Partners is a leading circular economy investor in the United States with an extensive network of Fortune 500 corporate investors, family offices, institutional investors, industry experts, and impact partners. Close Loop’s platform spans the arc of capital from venture capital to private equity, bridging gaps and fostering synergies to scale the circular economy. To find Closed Loop Partners, please go to www.closedlooppartners.com.
John: Welcome to another edition of the Impact Podcast. I’m John Shegerian. I’m so honored to have with us today Suzanne Long. She’s the Chief Sustainability and Transformation Officer at Albertsons. Welcome to the Impact Podcast, Suzanne.
Suzanne Long: Thank you so much. I’m so glad to be here.
John: Well, we’re honored to have you and as you and I were chatting a little bit off the air, I think I realized today that this is the first time we’ve ever been honored to have a supermarket chain on the impact after 16 years. I’m so glad you’re on because this covers a whole new sector that needs covering.
Suzanne: Well, first, I’m glad to be that person. Actually, it’s going to be an interesting conversation, I think, because one of the things that I find so fascinating about being in the supermarket industry is everybody has to have food and everybody knows what we’re talking about. They’ve experienced walking in to buy food. The nice thing about it is it’s super relatable. Everything we’ll talk about, I think, will hopefully resonate for folks.
John: I believe you’re right. Before we talk about all the important and great work that you and your colleagues are doing at Albertsons, can you share a little bit about your background story, where you grew up, and how you got on this wonderful journey that you’re on now?
Suzanne: Yeah, of course. That probably is the easiest question because only I really know the answer to that, right?
John: Yeah. Exactly.
Suzanne: I grew up in Idaho, actually, in a small town called Ketchum. It was a ski resort and such a small town that I felt like even though it was a great place to be from. By the time I was out of high school, I really wanted to try something new, so I went to the other side of the country and I went to Duke for college, which is where I met my husband, actually. Coming out of Duke, I started my career first in consulting with Accenture, doing financial services consulting, primarily, out of Charlotte, North Carolina. There was a lot of consolidation going on in the banking industry at the time.
I worked on process improvement and change management and mergers and acquisitions and really a lot of the ABC’s one, two, threes about how to be more effective in business, just having been in a consulting firm. Then after a few years, my husband and I both wanted to move out west. That’s where obviously I was from originally. We want to start a family. When we looked around at different cities, Boise was the highest on our list. We both got opportunities to have jobs there. That was actually when my career with the old Albertsons started. This is the part where the story gets a little bit tricky if you don’t know sort of the history of the industry. For Albertsons, it was a very large company then as well. About over 2000 stores, the second largest grocery chain in the US at that time as well, so it’s a very large company based in Boise.
I actually worked on process improvement and rolled out Lean Six Sigma, which was new to the grocery industry, and did just a number of projects to sort of improve the business. That’s always been sort of the angle that I’ve come into all of my jobs with. But in 2006, actually, the old Albertsons that we think of, which was made up of many different names, depending on what geography you were in, Jewel in Chicago or Albertsons and in Boise, for example, but it had many other names as well. Those businesses, though, were acquired by some other businesses and broken into several pieces. One of the pieces that was broken off was called Albertsons LLC. That was owned by a private equity company.
Those were really the non-profitable parts of Albertsons at the time. The idea was to sell off those assets and move on. Well, I went with a different part of the business that was sold to a company called SuperValue. SuperValue was primarily a food distribution company. I went there and continued to work on Lean Six Sigma for that organization. But then it became pretty clear that I was going to have to relocate and by this time, I had small kids and my family was in Boise, so I stayed in Boise and worked actually for a consulting firm that was out of New York. I ran their retail practice. Effectively, whether it was we consulted for Staples Kroger or Office Depot, my job was to go sell work and manage the work.
I did that for several years until actually little Albertsons LLC came knocking. Because of the financial crash of 2008, they hadn’t actually sold all the assets off. Right? They still had assets in the portfolio, even in 2012. Then not only did they have assets, but they said, “You know what, this is a good little business. What happens if we grow it?” I came back to this little tiny version of the company I had worked for 5-10 years prior. We went on a buying spree. We bought within two years, two thousand stores. We were two hundred stores and three billion in sales in 2012 when I rejoined.
By the time 2014-2015 had hit, we had bought back all of the stores that had been sold to SuperValue. We had purchased United Supermarkets in Texas and we bought Safeway. We went from two hundred stores and 3 billion in sales to 2500 stores and $65 billion in sales in two years and my job became running integration, stitching the company built together. I did that for 5 years and it was an enormous effort. I joke with people, this is no longer my natural hair color after having had that experience, but it was such a great education. Then now, we were the company size that we are today.
Then since then, I then built and ran our strategic sourcing capability as a company. Then out of that, many of the things that we were purchasing in that, but not selling to customers. Think about energy for lights, the bags that your groceries go in, the maintenance and refrigeration. All those are part of our our footprint as a company. Then I took on sustainability as part of that job. Then two years ago, officially moved out of the sourcing and took on transformation, which is transformation of our front line. That’s why I am today Chief Sustainability and Transformation Officer. It’s a very long circuitous route, no direct line at all. But super grateful for all the experiences I’ve been given.
John: On the integration side, when you were made in charge of the integration for those five years, I mean, back then Zoom wasn’t a thing. Did you live on airplanes and everything else?
Suzanne: We did. It was one of the most remarkable experiences of my professional life. I think there were a couple of reasons why. One is nobody knew how to do it. It was the largest food and drug acquisition in U.S. history at the time. I had come out of consulting, no matter how many people say, “We’ve done this before. We know exactly how this goes.” That’s actually just not true because it was new ground that we were breaking. We decided to do it ourselves. We had third-party hope with some of the execution of it. But we really did all of the strategy for how to approach it ourselves.
I think that created such a sense of ownership for the company that we were in charge of our own destiny. We were the ones charting the path. There was no third party to look at and say, “Blame them.” If we had we had to look in a mirror every day. The amount of teamwork and problem-solving that went into it was just incredible. The best part about it was. We had the absolute utter support of our board and our executives to finish the task we were given. It was the best example to me of when you need to prioritize something and get it done, we never took our eye off that ball. That’s why I think it was really successful.
John: What a story. Is it today? Help me with terms of size of 65 billion, 2500 stores. How many employees or so?
Suzanne: Those numbers have changed a little bit just over time for a variety of reasons, but you’re right in the ballpark and exactly what I said.
John: Okay. Right.
Suzanne: Right now, we’re about just under 2300 stores or over $70 billion in sales.
Suzanne: We operate in 34 states under 22 different names. I think you’re in California. For example, in California, we are Albertsons, Safeway, Vons, and Pavilions. If you went to Texas or Tom Thumb, Randall’s, or United. Depending on wherever you are in the country in Boston, we’re Shaw’s and Star. People don’t even know that we’re one big company because we go by all these different names. But we have about 34 to 35 million customers walk into our stores every week. I mean, we are we’re a giant company. It’s just many people don’t think of us that way.
John: Right. Is that the biggest? Is that the biggest supermarket chain in the United States now?
Suzanne: It’s the second largest. Kroger is actually larger than we are.
John: Got it. Wow. Incredible. I never knew the story of Albertsons. That’s a fantastic story and just so our listeners and viewers know, we’ve got Suzanne along with us. She’s the Chief Sustainability & Transformation Officer at Albertsons Companies, and you can find Suzanne and her colleagues and all the important work they’re doing in sustainability and ESG at www.albertsons.com. Now, there was no roadmap for the integration, which is sort of a cool thing, because, like you said, you all were putting this together as you did it. Was there a roadmap for sustainability when you stepped into that role two years ago?
Suzanne: No, I love that you’re asking me this question because the way I would describe my career is that I think I’m I think I have not exercised the use of the word no. Like somebody offers me a role, and usually, it’s pretty undefined, not something people have done before. If you think about, for example rolling out Lean Six Sigma in an industry where it really hadn’t been used or leveraged before, or being in charge of the integration, right? Or now, doing sustainability or building out strategic sourcing at Albertsons. I mean, some of these things had been done before, but they hadn’t been done before at the company.
I think what I’ve always loved about those opportunities is it’s a little selfish in that because somebody hadn’t done those jobs before, somebody couldn’t exactly tell me how to do the job, right? There was there was some sort of entrepreneurial enterprising spirit I had to bring to all of that. There was no, “Hey, fit inside this box and do this. Just your predecessor did. It was we’re going to put you in this role. Can you help us figure out how to do it in a way that’s right for a business?” One of the fascinating things about the food business is people think of a bit as such a simple business.
We buy food, we put it in our stores, we sell it. It is a miracle to me that there is food in grocery stores every day to watch the amount of work that goes into our food system. It’s really eye-opening. When you have tasks in the industry things that you’re being asked to do and someone says, “Well, these other companies have done it. Can’t you just copy the way they did it?” No, you can’t, actually. I’ll just give you a really simple example. You take something like strategic sourcing, right? The way we define strategic sourcing is anything that you’re buying, either goods or services, that you aren’t going to then turn around and sell to a customer. That can be everything, like I mentioned earlier, from the power in our lights, it can be the janitorial service cleaning our floors, the bakery ovens in our stores.
Suzanne: Exactly. Right? It can be maintenance. Then in the back office, it’s everything from laptops to printers to travel expenses, right? It’s all of those things. Everything we spend money on that we don’t resell to a customer is in the sphere of strategic sourcing. That also included all of our own brand’s products, even though those get sold to customers. What my role was, was I had a team who was responsible for sourcing the ingredients and the plastics and packaging for those items. My team didn’t decide what we were going to carry, which were our own brand products.
But once that was decided, we determined who the manufacturer was going to be, and what the packaging for that was going to be in partnership with the business. When you think about all of that, many companies have put together strategic sourcing operations before. You could think, “You just take that and you stamp it out and just do what all these other companies do.” Except when you take something as “simple” as front-end bags, let’s say. People wonder, like, “Why don’t we have more paper bags in our stores? Why don’t we eliminate plastic? Why are plastic bags different in certain states versus others or in certain cities?” It’s because actually, we have we operate in so many different local places.
We have to abide by local law. We can’t do things just one way because our country doesn’t do things just one way. Our customers expect things differently from us and our associates expect things differently from us. Even something as simple as, “Well, can’t you just buy more of the same kind of bags?” You actually can’t because the requirements can vary by state and even by city. Something just as simple as that has this endless list of things that you have to account for and modify. It’s just never quite as simple as it seems.
John: True. With strategic sourcing, I assume size matters, given that you have such scale, even though you have so many wonderful brands tucked into you as part of the Albertsons companies, you get to use your size as a negotiating tool and as an innovation tool as well, because if something really breaks loose and you innovate to a new opportunity, you really have a great scale to be able to absorb it into and to socialize it throughout all your wonderful brands.
Suzanne: You’re you’re exactly right. That is exactly why you would want to do strategic sourcing and why there’s huge value in doing it. The interesting part about a business like ours is and one of the things that I love about working at Albertsons is that we are what we call locally great and nationally strong. The best way for us to show up for our customers and our associates is to make decisions as close to them as possible, right? Because the variety of what we carry, the brands that we carry, or the quantity of something that we carry needs to vary by the customer base that we have, by the associates who work there, and by what that community demands.
Trying to make that decision from an office 2000 miles away is never going to work, right? That food is too personal. There’s too much personal decision-making that goes on to be able to not keep those decisions as close to the customer as possible. But then there are things that make us nationally strong, right? For example, the way we buy certain items, whether it’s for sale for a customer or for our own use internally, we use bags everywhere, right? Well, mostly everywhere. There are places where we’re not allowed to use them but we sell brands across all of our stores in many of the same flavors and the things that are popular in one place. Still, a lot of it’s popular everywhere, right? That’s where we can leverage our scale.
The idea behind strategic sourcing is to account for the local things that we need to do but to leverage our scale to get the best price on it and make the great. Also, for example, in my job in sustainability, to also make sure that we’re making decisions that aren’t just what’s the lowest cost but how can we balance cost with what’s right for our communities and our environment and reduce waste. It becomes a much tougher balance, I think, than one might assume outside of the industry.
John: You know, Suzanne, to your credit, you must have impressed a lot of people along the way, because for people to give you the leadership, to give you opportunities over and over again, Six Sigma, on sustainability and, of course, in the middle on the integration, those were where no one had ever stepped before and no one had ever created a plan before for them to trust you, to go create the plan and go execute against it. Wow. You’ve impressed a lot of people along the way, and I’m impressed because that’s not easy to do for anybody. When it comes to sustainability, I get to have a lot of wonderful people like you sitting in the similar positions and chairs that you sit in today.
We talk about the proverbial white page. A lot of them come in and inherit legacies, and a lot of them come in to then the blank sheet that you walked into. Sustainability and especially ESG in this alphabet soup of acronyms now that exists can mean something this narrow or this wide, depending on the culture and the DNA of the brand or the brands. In your case, where you’re representing Albertsons companies, how did you start to study the topic of sustainability in ESG and how did you get informed and inspired to create the ESG program and sustainability program that you eventually came up with and started executing against two years ago?
Suzanne: Well, it’s a little bit of falling backward into it, to be very honest. I wish it were more strategic of a beginning of the story than it is sort of after I was given it. But effectively, I was running strategic sourcing, right? Many of the components that I had in that job had so much to do with our footprint. So sourcing the energy, sourcing the refrigerants that we put in the systems that run in our stores, figuring out what’s the best recycling options and how can we create revenue, reducing our trash hauling expense, like all of those things were in my job.
You know, what is our plastics and packaging that we’re using our own brand’s products, as well as in places like the front end and all of those things were already part of my job in strategic sourcing. It was a natural extension. Three years ago, Our CEO reached out to me one day and said, “What is our ESG strategy?” The term ESG, by the way, at that point, we talk about it now, like everyone knows what it is, but they don’t.
John: Absolutely true. [inaudible].
Suzanne: It’s alphabet soup.
John: It was a brand new term three years ago. It’s still a relatively new term that most people don’t know what it even means. Yeah.
Suzanne: Exactly. Well, that’s sort of the funny part of this story he asked me what our ESG strategy was and I did not understand what he was asking me. I said, “I don’t know, but I’ll find out.”
John: I love your honesty. It’s so great.
Suzanne: Well, the reason that I share that story and people have coached me is, “I don’t know if you should tell that story, Suzanne.” But the reason I think the story is important is for a couple of reasons. One, I think it shows that when you find something new, acting like you know what it is can be helpful in some situations, the you fake it till you make it. But I actually have found a lot of value in my career by asking what I call kindergarten questions. The questions that everyone in the room already assumes someone else has asked or is too embarrassed to ask because they think it’s too basic. But I find so often that the unlock happens at the most fundamental level.
It’s the assumption that someone has made that actually is creating the issue that’s not being talked about. We end up talking about all of these surface or micro things that are layered on top of old decisions that were made and nobody’s asking about whether the old decision or the old way of doing things needs to be questioned instead. Part of the reason that I share the, “Hey, I didn’t know what ESG was.” was to show one, the vulnerability and I’m a really big believer in leadership humility. Not being afraid to say when you don’t know something and then being willing to go in and figure it out and explore.
You have to have the confidence that you can figure it out, but you have to have the humility to admit you don’t know, right? I think that magic combination, that sort of what’s given me some of these opportunities. To be honest, I don’t know that I am any more talented than anyone else, but I think I’m a little bit fearless when it comes to like, don’t ever put something in front of me and expect I’m not going to want to do it. Like I’m going to figure out how to get it done. That’s the tenacity of it, right?
John: But as you said, the first step to getting something done is first admitting what you don’t know in that process so you can learn that and then take it to the next level. That’s so smart. Most people will never put that together, the humility and the fearlessness. I think that [inaudible]
Suzanne: Well, it’s a very hard combination and it’s one of the things that I’ve been so fortunate at Albertsons companies because the culture there allows for it. There are definitely corporate cultures where that vulnerability, though asking those questions would be seen as something that was career-limiting. But because I had the trust of our executive team, right? They knew that if I was asking questions like that and really trying to open my mind to what was being asked of me, the kindergarten questions are often the ones where we were starting, where we found value, right?
Suzanne: A, They had seen this work. I don’t know that that would be an effective strategy in certain corporate cultures. It just happens to be that I also work for an incredibly humble, tenacious company. It’s hand-in-glove, right? Our CEO, as I mentioned reaches out and says, “What’s our ESG strategy?” I say, “I don’t know, but I’ll find out.” As soon as I, of course, did a little research and knew exactly what he was talking about, because ESG was just a new name for sustainability and corporate social responsibility, and many of the names that we’ve had in the past for this work, but with a broader definition.
I did my investigation. I came back to him and I said, “Well, we’re doing a lot of great things as a company. We’re recycling, we’re donating, we’re great stewards of our communities, we’re investing in people, but we don’t have a strategy. If somebody asks us who we are in the ESG space, we can’t articulate what our goals are, or who we want to be when we grow up. If you’d be willing to give that to me, I’d like to take it and help us figure that out.” To be honest, he didn’t need to give it to me.
I mean, he could have picked someone who was an ESG expert or had been in sustainability forever, but it was so related to my job and I think he could see the passion that I had for it. Naturally, I’m a mom of two kids that I’m watching grow up in a world that is sort of changing before our eyes. I felt the need to not just do something that’s good for my family, but could I be doing something that actually was a part of something greater as well and I could see the role that Albertsons as such a large company could play in that. So they gave it to me.
Then over the course of the next year, we developed what we call our recipe for change and really that’s for a couple of reasons. First of all, ESG is alphabet soup, like we were talking about. Most people don’t know what it is. Even people who work in the industry, I don’t know, are fully clear on like what is the scope of it. But it’s also that the term ESG as many terms have become these days can be incredibly polarizing.
Suzanne: There are varied opinions on what that means, but I’m very clear on what our recipe for change means. Our company is very clear on what our recipe for change means. What we want to be doing in the world, what we want to be doing in our business, and how if we make our recipe for change happen, it improves our business and leaves less of a footprint on our planet. That to me is the magic combination and even where my background comes from, I am an absolute walking billboard.
I come from a Lean Six Sigma, important business-managed transformational background, and what we do in the world of a recipe for change or sustainability or ESG has to be good for business. Otherwise, it will not stand the test of time, that there are ways of doing that and bringing that to life in a way that brings people along for the journey instead of polarizing them on the journey.
John: That’s so smart. I love what you just said. The interconnectedness in your career, the Lean Six Sigma still informs you in everything that you do. Let’s go back to the terminology of strategic sourcing. Really what you were doing in strategic sourcing was a platform that literally was the roll-up of all procurement and diversion at your company.
Suzanne: That’s correct. That’s a great way of describing it.
John: That then rolls up into your new title of Chief Sustainability and Transformation Officer. That makes so much sense in that. I love what you just said. See, historically people always heard the word sustainability, they would always want to push off it because they thought, “This is going to cost me money and I don’t care about the newspaper or the media that it’s going to get me because it’s just going to cost me money which is going to take away from my performance and I’m going to be graded on my performance.
Therefore, this is really not good for us.” Sustainability means it makes the corporations that you’re working for and the brands that you represent more sustainable which just means sustainability has to equal good financial business sense. That’s so smart. How did you then come up with what’s in your recipe for change? What is the recipe for change at the Albertsons companies?
Suzanne: Well, we had to go through an analysis really to figure out what that would be because if you think about the grocery industry, there are dozens of topics that we have to care about. Everything from our energy and emissions to customer health and wellbeing, associate health and wellbeing, food safety, and data privacy. I mean, the list goes on animal welfare and water stewardship. I can list so many of these.
John: You get to choose almost anything. You’re touching every industry.
Suzanne: That’s right. We have to care about all of these things because you’re not going to want to shop in our grocery store if you think that we are ignoring any of those absolutely important topics. But when we look at those topics, there are topics that you just expect us to be operationally excellent every day. You’re not going to give us extra credit just because we do it right. Food safety is a great example of that. You expect when you’re walking into our stores that we are food safe. If we weren’t food safe, you wouldn’t shop with us.
You’re not going to give us extra credit and say, “I see them really wanting to do more in that space.” Same thing with data privacy. You expect us to protect your pharmacy data, for example. We do, right? We take that job extremely seriously. But if I said, “I’m going to protect you even more.” You’d say, “Well, what are you doing that’s not protecting me 100% already.” Right? I can’t make a strategy out of those things. There are things where we just have to be operationally excellent.
Suzanne: Then there are things where we can actually play a leadership role where given where our footprint is or what customer perceptions are of us or industry perceptions, where we can actually play a leadership role in driving change, certainly within our company, but also in our industry or even across the marketplace. What we did is we actually did what we call a materiality assessment. We did surveys, interviews, desk research, and a lot of work, both with external stakeholders, so think customers, investors, or people who research the industry.
Then internally, we also did the same research with our associates, right? Different functions within the business with our CPG partners would be another external. We’ve mapped those out and there were several that rose to the top. Now, remember all of these are important, right? I can’t emphasize that enough. None of them can hit the floor. We have to be good at all of them. We have to be excellent at some operationally. Then there are ones where we found that both internally and externally across the board, people felt that we could play a leadership role.
An example of that is energy and emissions. We call that climate action, waste reduction, and circularity. That has a primary focus on plastics and packaging and food waste. Diversity, equity, and inclusion. That’s not only for our employees but also for our suppliers. Then last but certainly not least is community stewardship. That really has a focus on hunger. Those are the four ingredients that we, all of them are ingredients, I should say, that make up our recipe for change. But those are the four where we wanted to take a leadership position on each of those topics.
Then within each of those topics, we actually set goals for who we wanted to be. I’ll call it when we grow up. For example, on the topic of climate action, we have said that we will reduce the footprint of our operations by 47% by the year 2030. So the emissions from our operations by 47% by 2030. The majority of what makes that up is actually energy and refrigerants. We’re actually already on our way towards achieving that. As of 2022, and this is as of a baseline of 2019, we’ve already reduced it by 21%, so we’re almost halfway to meeting our goal, which is fantastic. But it’s 2023 and a lot of hard work left to do.
John: Right. Sure.
Suzanne: Then, for example, in waste reduction and circularity, one of our commitments is to eliminate food waste going to landfills by 2030. When you think about that one, this is a really interesting one, because actually, about 40% of the food in the US food system goes to waste every year.
Suzanne: Forty percent. It’s just a mind-blowing number when you think about it. What’s interesting is that about 5% or so of it is actually in the grocery industry. The majority of it actually happens either before it gets to us and mostly actually in consumer homes. When we think about eliminating food waste going to landfills in a grocery store, we have a whole bunch of things that we can do to help do that. We can order better, we can manage our inventory better, and we can do everything we can to mark down products that aren’t selling so that we can try to sell them before they become unsellable.
If we can’t do any of those things, we can certainly donate it in many cases. If we can’t donate it, the least we can do is keep it from going to landfill. Here’s this really fascinating part about landfills. This whole sustainability can be both financial sustainability as well as sustainability for the greater good. Let’s just food because it’s so personal, right? We all have our experiences [inaudible] in a grocery store.
John: Exactly. Right. [inaudible].
Suzanne: If we’re unable to sell an item in our stores for some reason, I don’t really believe that the majority of people in the world, the large majority of people would rather see that food that for some reason is unsellable, but still very edible, go to a person who needs it, right? Go to a hungry person [inaudible].
John: Absolutely. Yeah.
Suzanne: That’s the first place we would want it to go if we’re unable to sell it. Then if you can’t sell it and you need to dispose of it. What’s incredible is that when food goes to a landfill, it turns into a gas called methane and methane is far more intense in trapping heat in the atmosphere than carbon. In fact, over a hundred-year period, it’s 28 times more powerful at trapping heat. Over a 20-year span, because methane is most powerful right at the time that the food is decomposing, it’s 86 times more intense than carbon at trapping heat in the atmosphere, okay? Let’s just think about this for a second. We come from a world where 40% of the food is wasted, right?
Think about all the billions and billions of dollars that are for us across all industries, right? And for consumers, because a lot of it’s happening in their homes. Then we’re taking the food that we aren’t able to sell, but it’s still edible. If we didn’t donate it for some reason, well, if we put it in a landfill, that means we’re actually paying somebody to haul it away. Then once you pay them to haul it away, it’s actually far worse at trapping heat than carbon. This is a perfect example of how we could do something that is better for our business by reducing food waste, to begin with, that is better for our communities by taking any edible food we’re unable to sell and donating it to hungry people, and then taking whatever is not donateable and not sending it to landfill, but turning it into compost or some greater purpose, and along that whole chain, we save the company money by doing it.
We have less food waste, less waste hauling cost, less tax aid, and fewer fines for carbon that’s coming through legislation. We are going to have to start paying that in the next several years. I look at examples like that and just think, this is where sort of that you hit this sweet spot of we’re going to reduce waste, and that waste is going to help a lot of different areas, financial, our planet, our people.
John: Everything. You hit everything on your recipe, all the initiatives, all your ingredients for the recipe for change.
Suzanne: That’s right.
John: I mean, there are wins across the board there.
Suzanne: It’s across the board. The thing that I love most about it is that food is something that people understand so well that when I tell that story, I have yet to meet a person who doesn’t think that’s logical, right? It doesn’t matter what your background is or what your political beliefs are. People can understand, “Oh my gosh, that’s a tremendous amount of waste. Why would any business, why would anything, why should we ever waste that much food?”
Then I want to feed a hungry person with that. I would much rather do that than throw it in the garbage. I haven’t met anyone who wants ill for people. Then why would you want to spend money hauling something away if you can turn it into something greater? It’s this really interesting mix of… It is the best example. It’s one of the things that’s very fortunate about our industry. Not all industries have these examples where it checks so many boxes, but you say like, “Just pick one of those areas to focus on and you still got to win.”
John: Still got to win. What it does also, it does two wonderful other things as inspiration for others in the industry that are trying to navigate what has become the tricky waters of ESG and sustainability. First of all, it depolarizes the terminology of ESG and it democratizes the wonderful word of sustainability then. It democratizes.
Suzanne: That’s right.
John: I mean, it’s what a great story. But as you said, even if you had one win out of those four or five wins out of that story, it’s still a reason to do it.
Suzanne: It’s still a reason to do it. The reason would not have to be our recipe for change. The reason could just be, that it’s just better for our business. Even if that was the recipe, it still checks that box.
John: That’s right.
Suzanne: The thing that I find so powerful about this is it’s inspiring for people. One of the things as an example of the type of leadership we can show as a company is not just in the goal setting, but we see things in our industry that I think are often hard for others to see. One of the things that I would say that I’ve had the opportunity to do in my various jobs is see waste. Waste is not something that we like to see. There’s a reason why we put our trash on the corner for someone else to pick up. If we had to bury our trash in our own backyard, I guarantee you we would be a lot more careful about what goes in that bag versus what we recycle, right?
I mean, if we said, “No, you’re digging your own hole in the backyard and dumping that in there.” you might think a little differently about it. In a business of our volume, we get to see some of that waste at scale, right? We get to see volumes of food that may not be sellable for one reason or another. In some cases, those reasons are not ours in the making, they’re rules that others have set, right? That might be something like rules, because this does vary by state, and is a product that is past its code date, donatable, okay? When by code date, I mean, best by, best is used, by freeze, or by right. Listen, first, it’s very important to know that we care tremendously about the freshness and safety of the products that we sell, we would absolutely never compromise that full stop.
We also see practices in the larger CPG and retail industry, where people believe that those code dates are a safety marker. There are only very select cases, baby formula, and meat, okay? Even the meat one is a little can vary by store and, and brand and things like that. All other cases are usually an indicator of freshness. The way that the company wants that item to taste. It is not an issue of food safety.
But because of misperceptions about what those code dates mean, the variation in the way those code dates are phrased, the weight, the variation, and how long those code dates say your food is good for that has actually also caused states to believe that those dates should be used as whether or not the food should be donatable. I will just tell myself and tell you, that I have so much food in my house that is past its code date, including fresh food like yogurt or many others, it is perfectly consumable. It tastes perfectly great.
John: Right. So do I.
Suzanne: There’s nothing wrong with it. But over 70% of consumers actually believe that food needs to be thrown out on those dates and that’s the kind of stuff that’s happening that’s causing the greater part of that 40% of food waste. Those are things that I feel like in my role, I can be partnering with agencies, other retailers, the CPG companies, those are the vendors who sell things in our stores to say, “I think this can change. I think we need to re-evaluate this.”
It gets back to that point earlier that there’s not a lot of people asking those questions. They’re kindergarten questions. They’re assuming that because it’s got a food safety kind of concept around it, it’s not touchable. You can’t ask the question, right? I think we have to ask some kindergarten questions about our food system and really get into why is it the way it is and what could we do to change it at scale.
John: Interesting. For our listeners and viewers who’ve just joined us, we’ve got Suzanne Long with us. She’s the Chief Sustainability and Transformation Officer at Albertsons companies. To find Suzanne and her colleagues and all the important work they’re doing in sustainability and ESG, please go to www.albertsons.com. Suzanne, as you mentioned earlier, one of the reasons that you’re so well suited for this kind of role is that you’re a mom and raising and navigating parenthood in the fastest-changing times that I’ve ever seen, and I’m older than you and I have children that are 37 and 30, It’s breathtaking what’s going on between technology and information and what kids are inundated with now comparatively speaking to what we were inundated with when we were kids and things of that such. How does that flexibility play out in the grocery industry?
How much change is happening just to a layperson? The grocery industry is the grocery industry. I go to my favorite store, closest to my home, I get to know some of the clerks there and I go and buy the food and the vegetables and the other products that I need on a regular basis. But you’re coming from an operational standpoint and a brand management standpoint and how is the change happening and how do you keep up with that change and still navigate good sustainable practices in an ever-changing world, like pre-COVID, post-COVID, and etc.?
Suzanne: Well, I think it’s a great question. I think it’s something that we’re working hard on every day. The interesting thing to me about it is there are things that we have to be revolutionary on and things that we have to be evolutionary on. It’s because of the variety of customers that are in our stores every day. Earlier in the show, we were talking about we have 35 million or so customers walk into our stores every week.
Those 35 million customers could be any age, demographic, gender, or race, it’s all walks of life because we all eat. That’s the fascinating thing about our industry. You always have to be operating at a pace of change that is acceptable for those who don’t want it to be different and also acceptable for those who do. What we find is that there are places to be more revolutionary. An example of that would maybe be our app. People who want to use our app to shop and put it on in-store mode and help it navigate them through their shopping list or suggest menu items or things that they can do with the food that’s in their basket, right? We have all kinds of incredible technology that we’re using, but it also could be in the products that we’re offering.
We have a ready meals program, ready to eat, ready to heat, ready to serve. Making it so that you don’t feel like you have to do a whole grocery shop, you could just go to the grocery store, pick up what’s for dinner, and pop it in the oven at home, but it is a homemade, it is a store-made meal where it’s not highly processed. It’s literally just somebody else cooking dinner, okay?
Suzanne: It’s this balance of evolution and revolution, because the evolution then, the example that I’ll give you is, if you think about what a carbonated soft drink aisle looked like 10 years ago, it was filled with all these different Coke, Pepsi, traditional sodas all the way down the aisle. Now, if you go down that same aisle, it’s about 75% sparkling water. That didn’t exist 10 years ago, right? When we think about the spin drifts and the LaCroix and Waterloo, those have absolutely…Perrier was in a two-foot section in that… right? That was the, “Look at the fancy water.”
Now, that’s what people drink, right? That is something where it’s evolutionary, because if you weren’t in the industry, you wouldn’t notice how much that aisle has changed in the last few years, but it’s a dramatically different place to shop than it was when we were kids. It was filled with sugar when I was a kid. Now, there are actually lots of healthy options on that aisle. That, to me, is this balance we’re always trying to strike and where data and the power of AI and things like that come into play to help us better see, understand, and predict where the consumer is going because there are places where you want to lead them and places where you want to follow and always keeping track of those two.
The sustainability part of this is really interesting because north of 70% of consumers now say that they will pay more for an item that they believe is sustainably sourced or better for the planet or better for their community. But what people say they will do and what they actually do in practice when they walk the store can be two very different things. What we see is that number increasingly going up every year. We’re seeing some of those buying patterns start to shift, but not at the same pace that people say they’re willing to do, and why is that? Well, part of that is because of the economic conditions that we’re in. We’re in a super inflationary environment or the inflation that happened previously now it’s holding. People are stretched thin.
They don’t feel that there are many values that they would love to purchase for, but they’re so stretched on their pocketbook they can’t always vote with their dollars right now. What we’re trying to do is figure out the balance of how are we going to continue to weave in sustainable products, and sustainable ingredients into the products we sell at a pace that keeps up with consumer demand and leads as much as possible but follows so that we don’t create our own food waste by trying to lead the market there, right? I have zero interest in creating food waste to try and be a leader in putting products out there that ultimately consumers are not fully ready to buy. This is this delicate balance of what’s right for the business, what’s right for sustainability, or for a recipe for change and always trying to walk that tightrope.
John: That’s fascinating. You’re two years into this, Suzanne. Do you yet produce an impact report or an ESG or sustainability report every year? Is that happening already?
Suzanne: We do. We have published them many years in the past, but in the last 3 years, I would say people would see more of a transformation in those reports coming out. We do share in those reports not only our recipe for change but how we’re progressing against our recipe for change as well as all of the other topics that I share. We have our recipe for change which is made up of all of those ingredients but those four primary ones I talked about and how are we progressing against those goals.
But then we also talk about things like sustainable ingredients or sustainable packaging which we don’t have in some cases specific goals around but we want to make sure people understand what we’re doing to try and change our footprint or how we’re currently performing. Yes, we absolutely have those reports out for people to read and absorb and we listen very closely to our customers. We get feedback and our associates about what they want to see, what they want to hear, what kinds of changes should we be making, and [inaudible].
John: What time of year do you typically publish them?
Suzanne: Say again?
John: What time of year do you typically publish them [inaudible]?
Suzanne: In the summer.
John: In the summer. Then they live in perpetuity on your Albertsons website, albertsons.com.
Suzanne: That’s correct. Yes.
John: You have so many inspirational and wonderful stories, Suzanne. What are you most excited about as we are heading into 2024 and all the things that are going on externally to us, what are you excited about Albertsons companies that you’re working on right now that you are allowed to talk about?
Suzanne: Yeah. Well, I’m going to take the question really from the vantage point of my particular role. Even though we didn’t talk much about it, the transformation part of my job is about transforming the associate experience of our front lines. We have about 270,000 frontline associates and they do the hard work every day, right? Because when you walk into our grocery store, they’re the ones who are helping you. They’re the ones who are stocking the shelves, cutting the meat, checking you out of the front end, or bagging your groceries.
They’re the ones who are making it happen every day. We joke that there are no cash registers at corporate. Part of that transformation is how we create a better, more inspiring, more connected environment for them to work in. Because we know that they’re doing everything they can to bring their best so how can we help bring that out in them? When I think about that work and boy, could we be transforming an experience for someone and their job, which is where we all spend the majority of our time, I’m really excited about that.
What I’m also really excited about is that I really believe that having had two years to ask kindergarten questions and form relationships and see what innovation is out there and how many people really want to affect change, that I think coming into 2024, we’ve got some real momentum to start doing even more in the public sphere of partnerships, innovation, trying things that haven’t necessarily been tried before, trying to rethink the way things have been done in the past. I feel like we have the groundwork now and some of the credibility to get after some of that. I think it was Amelia Earhart, but my boss, Susan Morris, is our COO and she is one of the most fabulous women you’ll ever meet. She always says this quote, “The best way to get something done is to do something.” That’s what we’re going to do.
John: I love it. One thing I’ve learned doing this show over the years is that sustainability, truly, there’s no finish line. It’s a journey and it’s fun.
John: Listen, Suzanne, you’ve been an unbelievable guest. This has just been a pure delight. I learned more today than I’ve ever known about the whole industry of supermarkets. They’re right up the street from me. My Vons, Pavilion is the place I go to twice or three times a week. Now, I have a whole different view of it and that’s wonderful.
Suzanne: I’m so glad.
John: What I want to offer you is you’re always welcome back on the show because I want you to share the continued inspiring journey that you’re on with your colleagues in sustainability and transformation at the Albertsons companies. For our listeners and viewers to find Suzanne and her colleagues, please go to www.albertsons.com. Suzanne, you’re always welcome back here. Thank you and your colleagues at Albertsons companies for making the world a better place.
Suzanne: Thank you so much for having us.
John: This edition of the Impact Podcast is brought to you by Engage. Engage is a digital booking platform revolutionizing the talent booking industry. With thousands of athletes, celebrities, entrepreneurs, and business leaders, Engage is the go-to spot for booking talent, for speeches, custom experiences, live streams, and much more. For more information on Engage or to book talent today, visit letsengage.com. This edition of the Impact Podcast is brought to you by ERI. ERI has a mission to protect people, the planet, and your privacy, and is the largest fully integrated IT and electronics asset disposition provider and cybersecurity-focused hardware destruction company in the United States and maybe even the world. For more information on how ERI can help your business properly dispose of outdated electronic hardware devices, please visit eridirect.com.