PCC Natural Markets

Building a sustainable business in the Pacific Northwest

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Founded 54 years ago, the nation’s largest natural foods cooperative has survived expansions, closures, changes in member benefits and products sold, and growing competition. Seattle-based PCC Natural Markets (PCC) has thrived by remaining true to its mission “to provide the highest quality natural foods and products, and to create and deliver the most satisfying natural foods shopping experience in the Northwest.” Its success also is attributed to employees and members who regard “green” and “sustainable” not as a current fad subject to exploitation and overkill, but as deeply held values expressed in all aspects of PCC’s operations.

Commitment to operating sustainably is evident throughout PCC’s eight locations in its staff, products, stores, and partnerships, as well as in the co-op’s willingness to take leadership positions and risks to further its mission. A deliberate triple bottom line approach to business assures attention to economic stability and growth, environmental stewardship, and social responsibility. All three areas guide PCC’s long-term planning and daily decisions.

Securing the future

Increasing consumer demand for natural foods has brought new competition into the marketplace. PCC’s advantage over nonorganic mainstream groceries and warehouse outlets is its staff and the value it places on customer service and satisfaction.

Happy employees make for healthy companies, and PCC works hard to be an employer of choice. PCC employees are offered competitive wages and superior benefits, training, and advancement opportunities. Staff discounts on PCC purchases, free classes, and a work environment supportive of personal interests and family demands draw skilled and motivated workers. Staff satisfaction has not gone unnoticed; PCC has been granted “outstanding employer” awards in each of the past two years.

Customer satisfaction, particularly in the form of responding to member needs, always has been a top priority for PCC. Members expect their co-op to be more than a grocery store; they count on PCC to be a vigilant gatekeeper that speaks up—internally and publicly—about issues such as food safety, farmland preservation, and fair labor. PCC’s customer focus is quantified by strong sales, member surveys, and mystery shopper visits, and further validated by member response to PCC calls for action such as letter writing campaigns to legislators and promotions that support sustainability causes.

PCC merchandisers approach product selection as a sacred trust, guided by standards that are regularly reviewed and updated. All food products are screened for banned ingredients including trans fat, artificial sweeteners, and high fructose corn syrup. All meat and poultry are pastured and free of antibiotics and artificial growth hormones. All fish and shellfish are from fisheries deemed sustainable. In the beer and wine department, producers who practice traditional organic and biodynamic viticulture are highlighted, and in deli fresh, local, and organic products are featured. More than 90 percent of the produce sold at PCC is organically grown, with preference given to local producers. The ingredients in personal care products are evaluated for chemicals harmful to people and the environment against PCC criteria and those of the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics (safecosmetics.org). Packaging is also considered; the less packaging, and the more compostable or recyclable it is, the more it is favored by our merchandisers.

PCC also seeks fairly traded products that reflect adherence to sustainable growing practices as well as fair labor principles, and the co-op shares the compelling stories behind them with consumers at sampling events. Products include fairly traded tea, chocolate, rice, sugar, and bananas, and PCC is proud to be the first and only grocer to guarantee that all coffee—bagged, brewed and bulk —is organic, shade grown and Fair Trade Certified™.

Promoting conservation and preservation

Minimizing waste and energy use saves money and resources. The biggest challenge is getting people to pay attention. PCC members do. “Zero waste” is PCC’s ultimate goal, and much is being done to achieve it. This year PCC was named a “Best Workplace for Recycling” by King County, where all eight stores are located. Also this year PCC’s newest store, in Redmond, Wash., was honored as the first grocery retailer in the U.S. to receive LEED Gold® certification from the U.S. Green Building Council for its exceptional design, construction, and operation.

Redmond PCC was recognized for several innovative eco-friendly features, but at all PCC locations even the smallest efforts to reduce and conserve count. Business-as-usual includes food composting cardboard and plastic film recycling, programming office printers for double-sided output, buying used furniture for staff areas, installing low-energy lighting systems, and printing PCC publications on recycled-content papers.

A major initiative in October involved elimination of plastic shopping bags. The decision was not easy, due to concerns about impairing customer service and increasing front-end costs. An employee team evaluated commercially available alternatives to the 3.3 million plastic bags used by PCC shoppers each year and debated whether or not PCC should charge for paper bags if plastic ones were discontinued. Guided by internal research and external expertise—but primarily conscience—PCC chose to remove plastic shopping bags, aggressively promote bag reuse, sell reusable cloth bags at cost, and not charge for paper bags. In making this public, PCC’s CEO Tracy Wolpert said, “While this decision will entail some additional cost, it’s simply the right thing to do. We have studied the environmental impact of paper versus plastic and believe that paper is the more sustainable choice, while bag reuse is the best choice of all.”

PCC’s move away from plastic shopping bags received overwhelming support from members, eco-savvy shoppers, and environmental organizations, but PCC’s commitment to consumer education on other “green” issues goes on. Through PCC’s member newsletter, its award-winning website (pccnaturalmarkets.com), and classes taught by PCC experts, PCC gets the word out on why sustainability is in everyone’s best interest.

PCC also has built successful relationships with several local organizations, such as Sustainable Seattle, the Washington Sustainable Food and Farming Network, and the Network for Business Innovation and Sustainability, that offer expertise, opportunities for personal action, and widespread channels for education. Classrooms in PCC stores are venues for cooking classes and workshops on sustainable topics. Store-based events, such as PCC’s annual Healthy Living Fair, include representatives of eco-organizations who share ideas and resources with shoppers.

Examples of nonprofit partnerships that support consumer education and PCC’s bottom line are the Cascade Harvest Coalition’s “Puget Sound Fresh” program and Salmon Safe. Puget Sound Fresh supports producers within the 12 counties that touch Puget Sound, and “Puget Sound Fresh” labels on PCC’s produce, meat, dairy, seafood and flowers emphasize the locally grown message to shoppers (pugetsoundfresh.org). “Salmon Safe” is a nationally recognized eco-label that identifies growers who employ sustainable practices that restore and maintain watersheds so that salmon can spawn and thrive. PCC is working towards certification of its stores as “Salmon Safe” (salmonsafe.org). Both partnerships raise consumer awareness of the importance of preserving local resources. Once aware, consumers want to do their part by supporting businesses such as PCC.

Another partnership that addressed global warming, air pollution, traffic congestion, and fossil fuel conservation at the grass-roots level, was one PCC formed last year with King County Metro Transit. PCC members were challenged to take a bus, walk, bicycle, or share a ride instead of driving twice a week over a 10-week period. 2,400 took the “Partners in Transit” pledge, encouraged by alternative transportation resources and bus passes from Metro and gift cards from PCC.

Giving back

No retail operation can thrive for long without the support of its community. PCC is committed to sustaining the markets it serves. Examples of PCC’s community involvement abound. Long-established programs—such as the PCC Food Bank Program, which uses shopper donations to buy bulk food at cost that is then distributed to partner food banks—sustain local neighbors in need and provide PCC members meaningful volunteer opportunities. Cash and in-kind donations to schools and nonprofits, co-sponsorship of community events and programs, and education about food safety and nutrition, all demonstrate PCC’s commitment to community health and wellbeing. Innovative programs, such as PCC Kids Picks, introduce families to healthy foods they may be unaware of, and makes the experience fun and educational. Details about PCC’s community efforts can be found by clicking “Community” on PCC’s website.

Whether labeled “green” or “sustainable,” PCC’s ongoing commitment to performing responsibly throughout its operations is working, and working well. An annual audit by PCC’s Sustainability Task Force that reports waste reduction, energy savings, and other statistics quantifies it. Member calls, emails and letters to PCC, and media coverage acknowledge it. PCC’s healthy bottom line proves it.

See other articles from this issue: #133 November - December - 2007