How is Imperfect Foods Actually Making a Difference?

This Q&A is brought to you by Rose Hartley, sustainability manager at Imperfect Foods (which you might know as Imperfect Produce).

Estimated reading time: 14 minutes (but it's worth it, seriously)

What you'll learn:

Here's more about Rose Hartley, the star of this Q&A: 

I am the Sustainability Manager at Imperfect Foods, a nationwide e-commerce grocer reimagining grocery delivery for a kinder, less wasteful world. At Imperfect Foods, we are dedicated to eliminating food waste, building a better food system and partnering with like-minded organizations and communities to change the course of climate change. I have spent the majority of my career working in market-based and non-profit solutions to environmental and social crises, including in disaster relief, microfinance, and the high-performance built environment before joining Imperfect. I am generally obsessed with identifying ways to design and partner for meaningful change for the Earth and all who call it home. I believe the changes we need to make will be led through diverse community action, and supported by technological innovation.

Headshot of Rose Hartley, Imperfect Foods

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1. How did your career lead you to Imperfect Foods? What got you interested in sustainability and the company?

I grew up attending Waldorf schools, where we went on nature walks everyday, practiced biodynamic composting, and celebrated the changes in season in community. It sounds pretty crunchy, but what it meant was that sustainability wasn’t so much a word I knew but something I felt in my heart as a young person.

We were taught to take responsibility for ourselves and our impact on the planet, and that everything is connected, which I have consistently found to be true in my personal life, in nature, and in our globalized world and economies. 

This sense of responsibility and of joy for caring for the Earth are values which have shaped my career, including my choice to join Imperfect. I joined Imperfect Foods (Imperfect Produce at the time) in 2018 because I was completely enamored and fascinated with what I call their “win-win-win” solution - Imperfect’s business model is designed to offer a “win” for the environment (saving food from waste), a “win” for the customer (amazing quality foods delivered to your doorstep, via one of the most environmentally friendly delivery models) and a “win” for Imperfect (if our mission does well, our company does well). I am still in love with this mission, and it has been a true honor working to expand it and then develop it. I initially joined Imperfect as their New Markets Manager (second hire in a team of two), identifying and managing the expansion into new markets across the US. When I joined, we were in seven or eight markets - a year later we had grown the business to 35 markets - and now we are available to around 80% of the population of the US (and we’re still growing). In August of 2020, I was invited to join our newly created Sustainability Team. 

The throughline in my career, though I have worked in several different industries, has been a journey towards identifying and understanding systemic world issues, and how to create change - specifically the changes we need to make in order to curb climate change - while attempting to advocate and amplify the voices of those beings most impacted and vulnerable to a changing climate.

More of the work that the Sustainability team is leading at Imperfect can be found here, and in even greater depth here.

2. What skills do you need to be a sustainability manager? Can you tell us more about your role and what your day-to-day entails?

The work of “sustainability” and “sustainability managers” really depends on the company you work for and the specifics of position. However, I think a “must” for any sustainability manager is understanding your organization’s needs, goals, and potential, in order to build sustainability goals in alignment with the nature of your organization. Look at the role your organization plays in its industry, and in all the systems it is part of - how is your business (or non-profit) uniquely positioned to drive change towards sustainability? This is also true for all teams within your organization - what is each team uniquely positioned to achieve? What are their pain points? At the end of the day, everyone, and every organization, has a role to play in developing less wasteful, kinder, more inclusive practices in their business, communities and world. You don’t have to have “sustainability” in your title to do this. 

Some of the skills that I’ve found useful or important in my role are: 

5 skills of a sustainability manager

3. What are some of your main sustainability and corporate social responsibility initiatives?

Imperfect is a grocer on a mission to both reduce waste and build a better food system. Our priority, from an environmental standpoint is creating a home - both a marketplace and a logistics solution - for foods that are in danger of being wasted, or ending up at a “lesser” environmental or economic outcome. For produce, a lesser outcome can mean that if Imperfect hadn’t bought it, the produce would have been tilled under, composted, landfilled, sold to a processor or placed on the open consignment market where produce items have a higher likelihood of going to waste.

Each month, Imperfect purchases around four million pounds of produce that otherwise would have gone to such a lesser outcome had we not been able to purchase it. For packaged foods, imperfections that can lead to waste can include packaging errors or changes (products can be really hard to sell with these sorts of errors), or other cosmetic issues, as well as surplus products, or products whose supply networks have changed - we saw this a lot during the first few months of the Covid-19 pandemic, and we're proud to be able to be a home for these foods, and keep them out of the landfill. Ultimately, a big part of our mission to build a kinder, less wasteful world is partnering with more than 1,250 growers and producers to identify waste streams and build programs to support our partners.

Likewise, part of building a better food system also means working to create food access. Access to fresh, amazing quality groceries is built into Imperfect’s mission, and is something we aim to extend to all via our Reduced Cost Box program, through which we serve thousands of our customers. At the box level, Imperfect already provides a discount, and the Reduced Cost Box provides an additional 33% discount for those who would qualify for SNAP / EBT benefits (customers self-report). We also cover over approximately 82% of the US’ food deserts, which means that we have the logistical means to provide this produce and fresh foods where they’re needed.

There are other ways Imperfect is looking to create and grow food access: Imperfect has over 100 community and donation partners across the country. In 2020, Imperfect awarded 18 grants through our grant program, the Feeding Change Fund, to help support emergency food distribution efforts in response to the COVID-19 crisis. We also had a matching campaign, matching employee donations, to the NAACP and Appetite for Change.

In regards to vetting suppliers for safe working conditions, this is ultimately in hands of our vendor partners - Imperfect is not a certifying or auditing body. Our incredible supply and procurement teams really take the time to get to know, and cultivate relationships with any potential grower/vendor partners, and form a partnership only when we trust it will be a strong and healthy partnership for all of us. We also require that all our partners carry liability insurance, and we visit our farm partners regularly and are in constant communication with them. We are really proud to partner, in a true sense of this word, with our network of growers and producers.


4. Which parts of your supply chain do you focus on when it comes to sustainability?

Our team’s goal with offsetting is to offset only those things we cannot currently change in the operations of our business and the food system. As an example, we have what we call a “consciously convenient”, highly efficient last mile delivery model: neighboring deliveries are grouped together and delivered on the same day; we have larger delivery windows; and we don’t offer on-demand delivery.

This means that in 2020, Imperfect’s last mile delivery system emitted around 13,000 tCO2e less than the US average for car trips to the grocery store for the same deliveries. That’s the equivalent of taking 2,800 cars off the road for a year.

That said, our last mile delivery of course generates emissions, and so until we can switch to hybrid, electric or other vehicles with low or no emissions, we are creating a plan to offset these emissions along with the much larger emissions buckets of food production and upstream logistics, and all areas of our operation where we cannot completely avoid emissions. 

 

Like most businesses, the largest contributor to our carbon footprint is in Scope 3 Emissions, specifically emissions related to food production, so we have begun developing a plan to work with customers to offset these emissions first, as well as enabling our buyer teams to purchase foods with the lowest possible emissions in their category.

 

We measure and proactively improve upon virtually all areas of our business. On the sustainability team, we are focused on data related to reducing waste to landfill, sourcing intentionally and using energy responsibly. We believe data is one of the cornerstones of our decision making, and put a lot of time and attention towards measuring our full carbon and waste footprints across the country, and then using this data to determine where to focus our energy first for optimal impact in CO2e and waste avoidance and reduction. 

We compost at all our refrigerated warehouses - this was a must before we even had a sustainability team, and is really a must for any food-related business or operation. Check out this article for more on our composting practices and partnerships.

5. How do you source your produce? Do you prioritize smaller, local farms?

We have an incredible sourcing and procurement team that has built up our relationships with farmers, growers and food producers across the country. We have cultivated relationships with over 1,250 producers across the country over the past five years. We opt for regional sourcing whenever possible while remaining a marketplace for products that are in danger of being wasted. The vast majority of our sourcing comes from the US. But of course, when a product has been imported already and is at risk of being wasted, we wouldn’t turn it away due to its origin.

Our goal is to drive change in the supply chain and design waste out (waste is a design flaw, after all - Soapbox addresses that here, and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation addresses it here). The majority of food waste occurs at large and mid size farms so we have many strong partnerships with larger farms to reduce food waste, and in most cases we ask for a one pallet minimum from our growers/farmers. But as we prioritize regional sourcing, we connect with small and mid size farms often and are always working on ways to help mitigate waste at all levels.

6. Are there any plans to open brick and mortar stores?

Not at the moment! An e-commerce model, served out of regional fulfillment centers, allows us to not only reduce food waste, but also allow us to keep our carbon footprint relatively low, via the following mechanisms: 

  1. Fewer trucks: Aggregating our supply at our fulfillment centers allows us to minimize our upstream logistics footprint.  
  2. Less waste: having refrigerated warehouses means we are able to optimize the temperature for our food, allowing us to reduce waste in our facilities. Berries and greens that are often in the center of the store would prefer to stay cold, and we want to make sure they can! 
  3. Last mile carbon efficiency: our delivery model (with neighborhoods’ deliveries grouped together by day) has allowed us to offer one of the most carbon-efficient ways to get your groceries (unless you live on a farm) since Day 1. More on that in response to Question 3, and here.

E-commerce also allows us to reach areas or communities where fresh foods are traditionally harder to access, or deliver to individuals who cannot easily or safely travel to grocery stores (which has been particularly true during the Covid-19 pandemic).

7. What is your take on criticisms of the "ugly" produce movement, specifically that it could incentivize overproduction of food?

Every year in the US, around ~125-160 billion pounds, or 40%, or of food produced goes uneaten.

This amount of food, for better or worse, leaves more than enough room for all of us to work on ending food waste - in fact, it requires that we do.

We need (literally) all of us working to end food waste and promote food security.

Farmers have to build in a margin to protect their crops and business against all the things that can go wrong prior to harvest. This means that if all goes well, there will be some surplus harvest. Imperfect supports our farmers/growers by being a market for surplus as well as “cosmetically challenged” produce.

8. What are the biggest things you've learned while working at Imperfect?

It’s hard to know where to start with this question! A lot of the skills I listed above (Question 2) I learned while working at Imperfect, or during graduate school, which I just wrapped up. For example, I learned how to do a life-cycle analysis and (at least the basics) of measuring and tracking a carbon footprint.

I learned from a co-worker, Sarah Pinner, that so anything is possible if you are determined and can pitch a vision. A lot of the groundwork for the sustainability initiatives we are working on today was developed by Sarah and a group of incredibly dedicated Imperfect employees, through grassworks efforts that were eventually pitched to Leadership as the Imperfect Pledge.   

From Imperfect’s former CMO, Aleks, I learned the value of allowing people to engage emotionally with your work, and appealing to their hearts (and maybe their funny bones?) as well as their minds - Aleks and the early Imperfect team had the genius idea to put googley eyes on our “ugly” fruits and veggies, and frankly I don’t think Imperfect would be where we are today if they hadn’t sort of personified the produce and made those little guys so damn endearing. 

Imperfect's googley eye friends




9. Other than Imperfect, what are some of your favorite tools and resources for fighting climate change?

Honestly, I am loving Soapbox Project! It is informative, accessible and has a point of view. I am probably a fan of any resource or tool that enables a lighter environmental footprint, promotes environmental justice, and/or makes living sustainably more accessible for all. I love solutions that embody traditional or “old school” practices (e.g., minimal-to-no-waste, milkman models, etc), and/or solutions that are human-centered, and designed to be easily adopted in contemporary life (e.g. offsetting e-comm purchases with EcoCart or similar API or app-based solutions).

10. What is one thing you wish more people understood about the movement for a more sustainable future?

With sustainability, it’s easy to focus on what’s in front of you. However, with the urgency of climate change, resources like Drawdown, ReFED can help us know where to focus first, or where our biggest challenges/opportunities may lie. 

Also, I like to talk about how carbon isn’t evil (in fact, it’s the building block of life) but it’s probably going to get us first (before plastic waste, before anything except maybe lack of water), if we don’t make immediate changes to both our sources and sinks for it

Finally, I think it is important to remember that the world we’ve created in a reflection of our values - we didn’t end up here by accident. We have to change hearts and minds - and look to traditional, indigenous and historical leadership and examples (this documentary offers some examples) - to return to a world that can sustain life for generations to come.

11. Any advice for people who are new to the fight against climate change or aren't sure what their place is?

Start talking to people in your community about what’s important to you. Find others who are interested in the same aspects of building a healthy climate future; As Mr. Rogers said, look for the people who are helping. Read and watch everything related to climate, environmental justice and related topics. In particular, I recommend: 

In terms of employment, for those just starting out, I would recommend seeking out organizations and companies where sustainability (in everything that that term can mean) is right in the DNA of the organization. Was this organization created to do good? Does it seem to be achieving its aims, or on the path to do so? Many organizations now have sustainability or CSR-related positions - make sure you believe in the core product, mission and/or service of the organization. Here are some job boards and resources I’ve found useful:

As an individual actor, there is so much that can be done in home as well. I won’t go in depth on this subject, just because there is so much that has been written about this. One thing I will add is a reminder of how deeply impactful your feedback, as a consumer, can be. Write in to the companies you patronize, and tell them what you want them to do. If they are a company worth their salt, they will read this feedback, and they will care! Never underestimate your power - your feedback will help drive change.

Fight climate change in a way that works for you.

💌 Thinking about sustainability can be overwhelming after a busy workday, so we're here to help. Join over 4,000 other busy people and subscribe to Changeletter, a bite-sized action plan that'll take you 3 minutes or less to read every week.
Take action
Headshot of Ash Borkar (a woman with glasses and a cardigan)
"The info is always timely, actionable, and never stale." - Aishwarya Borkar, Change.org
Headshot of Meghan Mehta speaking at Google with a microphone in her hand
"Making social change always felt so overwhelming until I started reading this newsletter." - Meghan Mehta, Google