Integration: United They Stand for Corporate Responsibility

Tags: Food Logistics

Grocery store chain United Supermarkets achieved its sustainability goals by certifying chain of custody within a tight-knit supplier network and integrating responsible practices into daily business operations.


Company: Grocery store chain United Supermarkets

Challenges: Supporting corporate social responsibility.

Goal: Ensure responsible seafood sourcing; promote environmental responsibility.

Approach: Obtain Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certification; buy from MSC-certified suppliers; install fluorescent lighting in refrigerated cases; establish in-store recycling centers.

Result: All seafood sold in United Supermarkets stores is caught using environmentally responsible fishing practices; store programs save energy and reduce waste.


Sustainability has had a pervasive impact across all supply chains in the past few years. Spurred by media exposure, consumer demands to be better global citizens, and corporate mandates to reduce costs, many companies have successfully made a business case for going green and sourcing conscientiously.

Companies are feeling heat from consumers, advocacy groups, government regulators, and peers to integrate corporate social responsibility (CSR) standards—which address environmental stewardship, sustainable sourcing, fair labor practices, and diversity—across the entire supply chain. Enforcing compliance by measuring performance and holding partners accountable is no small task. But the consequences of nonconformity, especially with regard to brand recognition and public awareness, are irreparable.

One of CSR's hallmarks is transparency, and big-name companies in a range of industries are taking steps in that direction. Technology giant Apple, for example, has become more forthcoming about identifying suppliers, preferring not to share regular headlines with Congolese warlords and conflict minerals. Nestlé partnered with the Fair Labor Association to send independent experts into Ivory Coast cocoa fields to ensure it is complying with child labor laws. Tiffany and Hasbro recently debuted their first-ever CSR reports, and McDonald's launched a mainstream advertising campaign inviting consumers to see where the Big Mac begins.

Internal Motivation

Smaller enterprises often don't face the same public scrutiny and pressure to invest in sustainability, but many are leveraging their smaller footprints as a platform for introducing sweeping changes inside and outside the organization.

One such company is Lubbock, Texas-based, family-owned grocery chain United Supermarkets. The company's sustainability ethos is characterized by grassroots common sense.

A self-distributing operation with distribution facilities in Lubbock and Roanoke, Texas, United currently operates 51 stores under four distinct brands— ­United Supermarkets, Market Street, Amigos United, and United Express—in 30 markets across northern and western Texas.

"The primary driving force behind our social responsibility efforts is our ownership family's commitment to doing the right thing," says Eddie Owens, director of communications and public relations for United Supermarkets. "This attitude permeates everything the company does."

United is fourth-generation owned and has been in business for 95 years. The family's values serve as a cornerstone for the way the company operates and engages with the community. United's green efforts include energy conservation within its stores, such as fluorescent lighting in all refrigerated cases; a bring-your-own-bag program; in-store recycling centers; and a Go Green Task Force that promotes cleaner living.

Initiating a Sea Change

The supermarket's most recent progression signals a full-circle turn as it extends sustainability all the way back to its food sources.

United became the first all-Texas grocery chain and only local grocer to obtain Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certification, which ensures store-sold fish are caught using environmentally responsible fishing practices.

The London-based non-profit develops standards for sustainable fishing and seafood traceability to verify that seafood comes from, and can be traced back to, a sustainable fishery.

"The driving force behind our MSC certification was the personal commitment of Scott Nettles, our business director of market/seafood," says Owens. "A few years ago, Scott learned that some seafood species, such as orange roughy and Chilean sea bass, were threatened."

MSC certification provides assurance that wild fish species are procured responsibly, but that peace of mind comes with an additional cost. Paying a premium for quality products from a certified supplier passes a small price increase, ranging from 50 cents to one dollar per pound, along to consumers.

Supplier Support

United sources all its seafood from Albuquerque-based Seattle Fish of New Mexico, which imports product from all over the world. Seattle Fish is also MSC certified, and has demonstrated a market-leading position in sustainable sourcing.

The company has explored supplementing wild-catch fisheries with purchases from responsible aquaculture suppliers, which raise and harvest fresh and saltwater animals for human consumption.

United's role in this chain of custody reveals how CSR compliance can be seeded and nurtured within a tight-knit network that organically expands and touches other parts of that supply chain and, eventually, other industries.

Companies are starting to perceive CSR as an integral force within their supply chains. It offers yet another platform to align disparate functional departments and business partners, tear down walls, and divine and share greater efficiencies and economies. In this manner, CSR becomes rooted throughout the corporate culture. That's a manifestation United Supermarkets can appreciate.

"We expect our vendor partners to uphold United's standards," says Owens. "We choose who we do business with based on their commitment to understanding and respecting our business philosophy."

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