Eating differently, we’re told, is a critical step we must take to confront a multitude of global environmental and social challenges. But as anyone with dietary restrictions—or anyone who has simply tried to change their diet—can tell you, eating differently can be much harder than it sounds.
Even for those with the access and means to shop at co-ops, select from high-end brands, and relentlessly investigate where food comes from, what should be a simple lifestyle change can at times feel more like a second job. Requiring this level of commitment from anyone, let alone the average consumer, is an unrealistic way to make change. Instead, we believe that in order to progress to a more just and sustainable global food system, bridges must be built to bring food produced in a more equitable, environmentally sustainable manner to the average consumer.
Enter United Natural Foods Inc. Formed in 1996 through the merger of California-based Mountain People’s Warehouse and Rhode Island-based Cornucopia Natural Foods, United Natural Foods (UNFI) is now the largest publicly-traded wholesale distributor of natural and organic produce, conventional grocery and non-food products in the United States and Canada. The company’s “Certified Organic Distributor” designation covers almost all its natural foods distribution centers in the United States; UNFI claims it is among the largest purchasers of organically grown bulk products in the natural and organic products industry.
While the company’s vast food distribution networks (which include a 20-year relationship with Whole Foods Market) give it meaningful leverage over the agricultural and ESG practices of other producers, UNFI’s portfolio of private brands allows for direct control over how food is produced. Brands such as Essential Everyday, Woodstock, Wild Harvest, Field Day, Asian Gourmet and Equaline have helped lift the company to its place at No. 61 among the top 100 food retailers in North America, while its prioritization of USDA organic growing practices, Fair Trade certification, its role as a founding member of the Non-GMO Project, and its partnership with the Global Aquaculture Alliance bode well for the health and environmental future of its product mix. That mix currently includes more than 1,000 USDA Organic or Non-GMO Project Verified products, among its portfolio of 5,000+ private branded items.
UNFI is also making strong corporate ESG commitments. The process of setting a Science Based Target, begun in 2018, has been rebooted in earnest, with UNFI committed to a 1.5 C warming goal covering its Scope 1, 2, and 3 emissions (in other words, to include those from its agricultural and other suppliers). UNFI has begun to make measurable annual reductions in its food waste; the company’s target for 2025 is now a 50% reduction compared to a 2019 baseline, alongside a zero waste to landfill goal for its operations. While UNFI donated 23 million pounds of food in 2020—roughly equivalent to 19 million meals—its goal for 2030 is an eye-popping 250 million pounds donated. And among a host of other initiatives, UNFI is working to make more of its most affordable natural and organic products available in rural and low-income communities, with nearly 2,000 additional natural products made available to conventional retailers in 2020.
It is in this kind of access, we believe, that UNFI could have its greatest impact. Beyond the company’s operational ESG commitments, beyond its existing organic, non-GMO product lines, what excites us most about UNFI’s ESG profile is the just-beginning-to-be-tapped sustainability potential of the company’s scale. UNFI’s 2018 acquisition of SuperValu more than doubled the company’s employee base, bringing a host of both budget and traditional brands and distribution networks along with it. If UNFI can apply its founding values at scale, across its massive distribution and production networks, the company could be a foundational piece of the bridge to the more equitable, accessible, environmentally sustainable food systems that we know are necessary for our future survival.