Emerald Aisle

How grocery stores are leading the green movement, one shopping cart at a time
Posted October 1, 2007

The recent food scares from China are indicative of consumers’ growing consciousness about what goes into their bodies and where it comes from. More than 90 different food products imported from a Chinese food manufacturing facility were deemed contaminated by the Food and Drug Administration. So it’s no wonder that shoppers are flocking to supermarkets promoting freshness and eco-friendly principles.

“Consumers are more attentive to the kinds of food they’re buying and how it’s prepared,” says Bill Eberhard, principal-in-charge for Oliver Design Group (Cleveland), “and they want a store environment that reflects their growing environmental awareness.”

Across the globe, food retailers are making those ecological principles a top priority – grocery stores in San Francisco no longer use plastic bags, Giant Eagle achieved LEED certification and Canada has joined the crusade with SPUD, a grocery delivery service that distributes local and eco-friendly products and helps cut down on the number of cars on the road.

All retailers have the ability (some would argue the responsibility) to educate people who shop in their stores everyday about green building materials and initiatives. But when it comes to taking the lead, it’s food retailers who are at the helm.

That increased awareness of responsibility is just one piece in the proverbial green puzzle, however. Energy and cost concerns for lighting, heating and cooling systems have also prompted grocery retailers to adopt energy-efficient, sustainable methods more quickly than other retail sectors.

Thus there are a lot of green initiatives happening both on the sales floor and behind the scenes at grocery stores – lighting that reduces spoilage, insulated walls that maintain store temperatures and high-performance glass that reduces heat loss.

“Everybody understands that we need to start making better choices,” Eberhard says. “Grocery stores are taking the first steps in understanding that building materials need to have a more responsible selection process. It’s not just the food that consumers buy, but also what you put it on to sell it and how you light it.”



Supermarket staples such as dairy, frozen foods, prepared foods and produce all require extensive energy – refrigeration, lighting, heating or cooling. And with more stores switching to longer hours, keeping those elements running, coupled with rising energy costs, can add up to one hefty bill.

“Energy efficiency translates to lower costs,” says Abel Villacorta, director of innovation, store design for Wild Oats Markets Inc. (Boulder, Colo.). The natural and organic specialty food retailer has done its part to lower costs and at the same time save energy by using high-efficiency motors for cooling and circulation fans as well as using reclaimed heat from refrigeration units that otherwise would have been wasted to warm the store in cooler months. To reclaim this heat, the HVAC and refrigeration systems reuse heat from refrigeration compressors that has been removed with a closed water circulation loop. The waste heat is then supplied to heat pumps instead of a typical furnace for an estimated savings of 35,000 therms of natural gas per year.

Likewise, the company is also supporting the effort to replace ozone-depleting chemicals like hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs) or chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) that are typically used in refrigeration with propylene glycol, a more planet-friendly, non-toxic option. By using propylene glycol, Wild Oats is removing a chemical that increases greenhouse gases and “reducing the global warming potential up to 76 percent,” Villacorta says.

Considering the payback for installing these energy-efficient elements has become quicker – down to four years from 11, according to Eberhard – food retailers are more confident about writing that initial check for expensive green methods. “Energy efficiency makes economic sense,” he says. “And it allows food retailers to support this rebranding initiative of claiming stewardship.”


One area in particular where retailers can be energy-efficient is through lighting.

Problems like spoilage, heat emissions and energy consumption are driving more grocery retailers to turn to lighting manufacturers for the latest energy-efficient products that will preserve freshness, reduce energy consumption levels and emit less heat in refrigerated cases.

Ted des Enfants, marketing vp for Energy Focus Inc. of Solon, Ohio (formerly Fiberstars Inc.), has seen food retailers incorporating energy-efficient lighting systems in refrigerated cases, accent lighting and overall store illumination. High-efficiency T8 fluorescents are replacing T12 lamps and retailers are installing motion sensors to measure occupancy and switch lighting off accordingly to save energy.

Fiberoptics and LEDs are also growing in popularity for their significant energy savings in frozen or refrigerated cases.

“LEDs do emit heat into the cases,” des Enfants explains. “Fiberoptics reduce energy consumption by 64 percent over T8 fluorescents and provide light without heat.” His company’s latest product, EFO (efficient fiberoptics), is replacing halogen MR-16s in prepared foods and seafood sections in Albertsons, Whole Foods Brookshire, Harris Teeter and Pathmark stores. “With no-heat lighting, we’re not cooking the food again or causing spoilage, while saving up to 82 percent in energy over the MR-16s,” he says. “So it works best in seafood or other perishable areas where retailers are concerned with freshness, bacteria formation and energy savings.”

Des Enfants also credits food retailers’ need for energy-efficient lighting with the adaptation of more lighting contrasts. “Energy consumption was hard enough to minimize at stores’ traditional lighting levels,” he says. “So the old style of flat, uniform store lighting has disappeared and retailers are lowering the overall foot-candles and using better accent lighting to emphasize specialty sections.” This idea of high-contrast – what des Enfants calls “the Nordstrom-style of lighting” for its high-fashion look – is a concept that retailers like Whole Foods and Wild Oats have mastered.

“We maintain a certain level of ambient light so key merchandising spots like produce or thematic food displays stand out,” says Wild Oats’ Villacorta. “Ceramic metal halides emphasize those key displays and ambient light is controlled by a light metering system that allows natural daylighting through to save energy.”

Daylighting has also become a popular way for supermarkets to use less energy. However, Oliver Design Group’s Eberhard cautions that food retailers must be aware of its placement and where that natural light is landing. For instance, Villacorta notes that Wild Oats was careful to use UV-protected skylights to avoid merchandise spoilage or product degradation over areas like the wine and vitamin and supplements department.


In addition to saving costs and improving operating efficiencies, planet-saving initiatives can look good to the media, to the public and to shareholders. Most shoppers won’t be able to identify the energy-saving qualities of a T8 fluorescent lamp or know that a refrigeration system is emitting fewer greenhouse gases. But for every behind-the-scenes green element, there are canvas bags, reclaimed wood fixtures or a concrete floor to denote that that particular store is taking a more responsible approach with its materials selection.

Bob Welty, director of integrated prototype solutions for WD Partners (Dublin, Ohio), notes that some retailers use those obvious green materials as a marketing tool. “They may not be in it for the greater good, but at least they’re taking a step in the right direction,” he says.

That step could be educating the masses. “We have a responsibility as retailers and designers to educate consumers about these products,” says Wild Oats’ Villacorta. “At Wild Oats, we show our commitment to being a green company by telling our story to our shoppers with in-store signs, which make consumers more aware of everything we are doing in the store, as well as in the back of the house.”

Villacorta isn’t surprised that grocers use easily recognizable green materials in plain view. “You want to make sure in-store design pieces and components are recognizable to shoppers as sustainable and environmentally friendly,” he says. In Wild Oats’ case, that includes recycled-content countertops, certified wood shelving and white roofs, which absorb less heat and help control store temperatures.

“The majority of customers come in looking to eat healthier and cleaner,” he says. “From there, we educate those consumers about a more holistic green lifestyle by implementing sustainable materials.”

A number of supermarkets are doing the same. In Hong Kong, ThreeSixty, a supermarket designed by Tampa, Fla.-based api(+), uses the marketing position “Change the world one bite at a time” to convey its renewable and sustainable design practices, such as using LED and fiberoptic lighting and terrazzo tile with recycled glass pieces. Heinen’s Fine Foods in Hudson, Ohio, adopted a similar tagline: “Saving the world one aisle at a time,” to promote its sustainable store design.

“I believe it’s good for brand identity for Wild Oats to be recognized as a green company because consumers are learning how to live a more eco-friendly lifestyle,” Villacorta says. “You have to tell people what you’re doing. Retailers have a lot of impact on how they touch people’s lives.”