As the University continues to launch an increasing number of sustainable initiatives in recent years, two long-standing businesses have maintained long-term commitments toward environmental sustainability since their foundations.

Zingerman’s and the People’s Food Co-op, prominent businesses serving students and community members in Ann Arbor, have engaged in environmentally-friendly operations in an effort to create a more sustainable city through programs that encourage purchases of local products and reduction of waste.

Sustainable efforts at Zingerman’s

After local businesswoman Jean Henry closed Ann Arbor restaurant Jefferson Market and Cakery, she found a new place in the Zingerman’s organization, heading up the business’s transition to sustainable environmental practices.

Henry — Zingerman’s “Green Queen” — said partners in the businesses seek not just to protect the interests of each of Zingerman’s several businesses, but also to safeguard the health and well-being of the company.

Henry said this attitude demonstrates the company’s goal to be a force for positive change in the community.

“(It is) not just (about) profitability. (We want to be) a function for good in the community (and) enhance the well-being of the staff and our community,” Henry said.

Zingerman’s began its campaign for sustainability in Aug. 2009. Henry said the family of businesses previously kept its practices “just above” the laws mandating environmental protection standards.

However, it wasn’t until last October that Henry persuaded the managing partners of Zingerman’s to sign a vision that dictated the future of the company’s environmental sustainability. She said educating employees and management about sustainability composed a major part of her work.

To spur the organization’s sustainable efforts, Zingerman’s began to examine its operating standards and how to best improve them. Henry said the company also consulted with individual workers for guidance on how to make Zingerman’s more environmentally friendly.

“The only way to do efficiency studies is not to have someone from the outside looking at it, but have every single person on the floor looking at how can I do my job better,” Henry said.

Zingerman’s first environmental effort was composting. According to Henry, each of Zingerman’s businesses has its own composting operations and the goal of the program at Zingerman’s is to start composting meat scraps instead of throwing them out.

The company also started using more green cleaning products, and now buys concentrated products with less packaging — saving upward of $30,000, Henry said.

Henry added that ensuring cost effectiveness while embarking on a “green” path is crucial to maintaining the success of the business.

“You can’t do a sustainable business plan that doesn’t allow the business to keep going,” she said. “You have to have a return on investment that is positive. It is not because we are profit mongers at all. The business runs on a 3 to 5-percent profit margin … it is just about having enough profit to keep going.”

Once the company saw money-saving changes from making the switch to environmentally friendly cleaning products, management started looking for additional ways to reduce waste.

Zingerman’s is working on improving heat insulation at Zingerman’s Bakehouse, the company’s bakery business, which is undergoing a full-scale energy audit. Henry said the saved energy could be used to provide air conditioning in the summer, but this is still in the works because of engineering and funding complexities.

She noted that the heat recapture project is emblematic of Zingerman’s environmental goals as they are in the process of fulfilling their vision they set in October.

A focus on locality and organic food options at People’s Food Co-op

Since 1971, the People’s Food Co-op — a small grocery store located in Kerrytown —has placed a major emphasis on environmental sustainability.

The co-op used to consist of two stores, one on Packard Street and one in Kerrytown, before eventually merging into a single store in the 1990s. Kevin Sharp, interim general manager, said the loss was tough but necessary, as it enabled the owners to better provide environmentally sustainable products for the community.

“It is just an inherent part of what we do,” Sharp said. “For us, to not do it is not an option.”

Over the years, the co-op has faced competition from other grocery stores, but it never particularly worries Sharp.

“We are never going to compete with the other stores,” Sharp said. “We keep trying to do what we do the best we can … the real difference between us and another store is that we are a co-op, and people get to have some say and ownership in their food source.”

Sharp said this sense of ownership and the products provided at the store gives the co-op a unique market niche.

The Ann Arbor Farmer’s Market also plays into building the co-op’s place in the community. Sharp said many people view it as a Saturday morning ritual to first visit the Farmer’s Market and then pick up the rest of their groceries at the co-op.

The co-op strives to be as sustainable as possible in its product choice, as it stocks about 3,000 certified organic productions. Additionally, it works with a network of about 18 to 20 local farmers — some of whom the company has worked with since its formation — supporting the farming community with over half a million dollars in purchases.

With its mission to provide environmentally sustainable and natural foods, the People’s Food Co-op often incurs slightly higher costs. However, Sharp contended that the co-op’s prices are competitive with other markets.

“We fully acknowledge that natural foods are expensive,” he said. “But our prices are competitive.”

Sharp hopes that the co-op educates people about sustainability and encourages them to do live a mor environmentally-friendly lifestyle.

“The idea is to do more,” he said. “(Because) we are not all going to be experts in sustainability.”

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