Social responsibility at PCC Natural Markets

by Diana Crane

This article was originally published in January 2010

(January 2010) — The start of this new year — PCC’s 57th year of service to its communities — is a fitting time to celebrate examples of how PCC gives back to the community.

PCC’s efforts to demonstrate its commitment to social responsibility reflect an ongoing dialog among members, staff, vendors and community partners. Based on the premise that PCC does well by doing good, the conversation addresses questions about what good; for whose benefit, and how often … and always, how much? Evaluating the return on the investment of our co-op’s resources on social responsibility also raises the question: How much good is good enough?

The pursuit and even the definition of social responsibility vary widely from one organization to another. Common denominators are the well-being of the people impacted by an organization’s operations and the viability of the communities they form.

A growing number of businesses regard social responsibility as an essential component of sustainability (together with economic and environmental responsibilities) but until recently it has been described, practiced and measured (if at all) in ways as diverse as the companies themselves.

The Global Reporting Framework, introduced in 2000, provides guidelines to organizations to make the reporting of sustainability measurements as consistent and comparable as routine financial reporting. The framework is a project of the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI), a Netherlands-based nonprofit organization that relies on a worldwide network of experts to contribute to the framework’s development.

Later this year the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) will publish a worldwide standard for social responsibility — called the ISO 26000. Its purpose is to provide guidance to organizations of all types and locations on integrating social responsibility into their culture and operations.

At PCC, the pursuit of social responsibility has roots in the Cooperative Principles (see sidebar) and Ends policies (which provide broad guidance to our co-op’s mission), developed by the Board of Trustees. Management chooses and implements specific programs and standards to implement those Ends.

PCC has a long history of investing in social responsibility. For the past five years, we have been developing measurements for the resources allocated to social responsibility and evaluating our performance.

These metrics are a work in progress and do not conform to any formula, such as percent of sales or profits. They fall into four categories that are integral to PCC’s economic and environmental goals: community outreach, consumer education, labor practices, and product responsibility. All require some combination of PCC’s human, financial and in-kind resources.

The start of this new year — PCC’s 57th year of service to its communities — is a fitting time to celebrate examples of PCC’s actions in each area.

Community outreach

PCC calls it outreach, but it’s our interaction with partner organizations that makes our community-focused programs and projects succeed. Our philanthropic model donates not only cash but also works to develop long-term partnerships that generate a multiplier effect on the value of resources given.

PCC’s Food Bank Program is one example. It’s about neighbors helping neighbors through our neighborhood grocery stores. PCC shoppers donate cash at the check stand or online; PCC then uses the cash to purchase bulk food at wholesale prices, which multiplies the buying power of the donations.

In addition, nine out of 10 shoppers donate rebates from reusing their shopping bags — each five-cent rebate being split between the food bank program and the independent PCC Farmland Trust. Nearly two-thirds of PCC customers bring bags — helping the environment by eliminating single-use bags, supporting organic farmland preservation, and adding to the amount of food purchased for distribution by PCC’s nine partner food banks.

Community building through the food bank program doesn’t end with the purchase of food. Each year more than 200 volunteers attend two-hour work parties where 25-pound bags of food are repackaged for individual household use. These work parties are an enjoyable way to interact with other PCC members, enjoy some PCC snacks and make a valuable contribution of time and labor to our communities. More than 70,000 pounds of food are distributed annually.

Consumer education

From ingredient signs in our delis and on our Web site (1,500 pages!) to the free Walk, Talk and Taste store tours and 1,000 PCC Cooks classes each year, our co-op encourages consumers to understand the products they buy and how to use them for optimum health and enjoyment.

Once again, it’s not a one-way proposition. Many PCC Cooks instructors were PCC shoppers first who then wanted to share their knowledge, recipes and passion for good food with others. The ingredient signs, tours and classes in turn enable consumers to voice their concerns directly to appropriate staff.

Followers of PCC’s social networking sites (Facebook, Twitter and YouTube) and Stir Fry (our blog that takes you behind the scenes at PCC), and subscribers to any of PCC’s electronic newsletters, also join in the conversation about what is important in our communities.

One of the most visible forums for exchanging consumer and product information is the Sound Consumer. Our public affairs staff monitors sustainable agriculture and product quality standards and policies, and reports the good, bad and the ugly — in the interest of transparency and the consumer’s right to know. Readers constantly bring emerging topics of interest and concern to PCC’s attention through calls, emails and Letters to the Editor.

An often messy but entertaining form of consumer education is the PCC Kid Picks program. Entering its seventh year, Kid Picks enables kids to be the judges on whether or not PCC products pass their taste tests.

Items approved by two-thirds of kid judges, age 12 and younger, are flagged at the shelf and listed on our Web site. Taste tests are conducted at schools, community centers, or in the colorful Kid Picks Mobile, and always involve two-way education.

PCC learns what our youngest consumers like, the kids are introduced to foods they may not know or have tried before, and our staff share information about where the food comes from and what makes them a better choice.

Labor practices

All PCC employees are PCC members. Most want to work here because they share the co-op’s values for sustainability, and in turn, the company’s success absolutely is related to the well-being and commitment of PCC’s staff.

So it is no surprise that our employee benefits package — and the programs designed to support and encourage employees — are hugely important in attracting great staff. Classes, workshops, training for job-related skills (from cooking techniques to new software), internal staff promotions, and a generous staff discount on PCC purchases are highlights. The return on these investments is a remarkably healthy, well-trained, enthusiastic staff and very low employee turnover (unusual in retail).

PCC also has chosen from time to time to engage in some labor disputes involving products that we carry. We also deliberately give preference to products produced under fair labor standards.

Many vendors have their own proprietary fair labor programs in place. Fair Trade certification, provided by TransFair USA, warrants that economically and socially just practices are followed in exporting countries so developing producers can progress toward economic stability. Fair compensation and representation, skill development and education are typical requisites.

PCC carries about 400 fairly traded, imported food and personal care products and merchandisers actively are trying to source more.

Product responsibility

Customers appreciate clean, attractive stores and excellent service but most choose to shop PCC for the stuff we sell. We want our food, personal care and other household products to be enjoyable, safe and sourced from producers who are treated well and compensated fairly.

PCC works every day to earn customer trust with high quality standards for how products are grown, processed, packaged, transported and handled. As a certified organic retailer, we have established strict in-store procedures to ensure that organic products are handled properly to maintain their organic integrity. Overseeing the integrity of more than 26,000 items requires substantial investments of time and care in vendor relationships and internal procedures.

All PCC departments operate on the firm footing of personal relationships with suppliers, particularly in our produce department. Depending on the season, up to 95 percent of the produce sold at PCC is organic, much of it sourced directly from local growers, such as Nash Huber (carrots, roots and greens from Sequim, Wash.), JoanE McIntyre and Michael Shriver (berries, lettuce and plant starts from Stanwood, Wash.), and George and Apple Otte (pears and apples from Tonasket, Wash.).

Vegetables and fruit not grown in the Northwest are sourced primarily through Organically Grown Company, a Portland-based organic wholesaler that shares PCC’s values, particularly as they relate to organics, fair labor practices and, overall, a sustainable food system.

Asking questions

Is PCC doing enough to support the communities it serves? Needs change and resources change, especially in an economic environment that significantly increases needs and reduces resources.

The moving target of social responsibility is pursued in balance with PCC’s obligations to operate a fiscally sound business; the overarching goal is to serve our members and secure our food supply, while conserving natural resources and protecting the environment.

The pursuit — and the conversation among all involved — continue.

Diana Crane has been employed at PCC for seven years and currently is PCC’s director
of sustainability.

Related Reading

News bites, January 2010

Organic cattle operation decertified, Coffee before exercise may harm the heart, China approves GE rice and corn, and more

Letters to the editor, January 2010

Preserving ginger, Living conditions for chickens, Humane labeling?, and more

Your co-op, January 2010

Board meeting report, Fall member meeting recap, 2010 board candidate slate, and more