Employees at a Wegmans in Buffalo help a volunteer from the Food Shuttle of Western New York (Photos by Kurt Brownell)

The supermarket chain Wegmans is beloved for a lot of things, including being one of the best companies to work for. Among U.S. grocery chains, it typically ranks No. 1 with customers too. In Brooklyn, N.Y., where Wegmans plans to open its first store in New York City this fall, anticipation has been building for years.

Yet the family-owned company, based in Rochester, N.Y., has a lesser-known but equally impressive status: as a standard-setter in sustainability. Wegmans has made it a company-wide effort, from reduced emissions to zero waste. At the company's zero-waste pilot store in Canandaigua, N.Y., the level of recycling has reached 82.6%, with the company's other stores close behind. 

What's striking about the company's commitment is that it didn't start with a long-term vision, but with a small, local initiative. Jason Wadsworth, who oversees Wegmans’ sustainability program, can trace the DNA of its success to a small program that was never expected to roll up into a program that now directs business choices at the company. The industry-leading initiative started out as a program to donate unused, perishable food. Wadsworth told From Day One how the little program scaled up, providing a case study for anyone in a company trying to get a similar campaign off the ground.

Wegmans has been running the Perishable Pick Up Program for the last three decades, predating the sustainability program, which is now 12 years old. For years, food-pantry trucks have rolled up to the loading docks of local stores as frequently as three to seven days a week or to distribution centers at the end of a reverse-logistics chain. The program donated 8 million lbs. of food in 2017, including bakery products and nonperishables like dented cans. 

Workers at a Wegmans pick out perishable items for donation, including baked goods

As food pantries start to shift their requests toward healthier options, Wegmans upped their produce donations of fruits and vegetables to match. “We did it because it’s the right thing to do, first and foremost,” says Wadsworth, who credits the values of the late Robert Wegman, the company's former chairman—"doing the right thing, caring, and making a difference”—with setting fertile ground for the donation program.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that 11.8% of households in America, or 40 million people, are "food insecure," meaning that their regular eating patterns are disrupted because they can't afford enough food or live in "food deserts." Though Wegmans has expanded to nearly 100 stores in recent years, the Perishable Pick Up programs remain local, run by each store with local partners.

Besides the benefits to local communities and the reduction of food waste, Wadsworth pointed out that there's a business case as well. “Those folks you would be donating to today may not be your customers; they may not be able to afford it. But at some point, they will be able to afford it when they get back on their feet.” In short, the Wegmans Perishable Pick Up Program is a window into the trait that makes the company a good local actor: long-term thinking.   

Twelve years ago, the company set the more ambitious goal of zero waste. Now, in addition to pantry donations, unused products are composted or taken to farms for animal feed. The program is built on several business cases, including responding to consumer affinity toward sustainable companies and avoiding the expense of unused-food disposal. The sustainability program is not yet cost-neutral, since R&D on programs like composting require large up-front costs, but that’s Wadsworth’s eventual goal. “We shouldn’t pay more for sustainability,” he says. 

The program has had unexpected benefits as the company expands into new states where regulations may require sustainability practices. New York is the second city where Wegmans has met an existing food-waste ban, which prohibits supermarkets and large restaurants from putting unused food in landfills. Thanks to its long-term investment in processes like the perishable-donation program, Wegmans is set up in advance to comply with such regulations.

For the many companies dealing in food and beverages (manufacturers, groceries, wholesalers, caterers, and farmers), the EPA has created a step by step guide on how to build a donation-logistics program to help reduce food-waste’s role as the single largest contributor to municipal landfills, not to mention saving the energy and water needed to break down food waste for other purposes. 

For anyone interested in pushing their organizations into sustainable or other value-driven policies, Wadsworth suggests starting local. “Typically, we start with one store and it morphs until eventually it becomes a company program,” he says. True, not every company is family run, with decades of long-term thinking, but Wadsworth still believes it’s possible to change a big company by launching a program in a local branch. “Just do it,” he says. “You’ve got to start somewhere.”

Emily Ludolph is a senior editor at 99U and an alum of TED Conferences and Vassar College. She has published in the New York Times, the Atlantic, Narratively, Artsy, 99U, Quartz, and Design Observer