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Sustaining the Bottom Line

Sustaining the Bottom Line

We are in a race against time.

Tired of watching our industry react rather than lead in the climate crisis, Nikki Cossio and her team at Measure to Improve, LLC (MTI) have mapped out a strategy to put produce back in the driver’s seat.

“At MTI, we believe that you must start with a good business case that translates into environmental and social benefits. The core of what we do depends on data collection, analysis, and review,” she begins.

As a fourth-generation farmer’s daughter, Nikki was born and raised in the produce industry. Today, she is the Chief Executive Officer and Founder of a sustainability consulting firm that has become one of the fresh produce industry’s go-to sustainability experts.

“When I started on my sustainability journey 15 years ago, sustainability was a relatively new area that didn’t come with a road map or directions to help me navigate my way through,” Nikki tells me. “I will never forget the day I first heard the word sustainability.”

Seven years before establishing MTI, Nikki founded the sustainability department for her family’s processing and farming operations, Gill’s Onions—one of the nation’s largest onion processing facilities—and Rio Farms.

“I was in a meeting, sitting around a conference table when the moderator mentioned the idea of sustainability initiatives. I immediately leaned over to the Owner of the company—who happened to be my dad—and said, ‘What does that even mean? Sustainability?’ His reply was, ‘I am not sure, but why don’t you go figure it out, because some of our major customers/buyers are asking us about it.’”

"The core of what we do depends on data collection, analysis, and review."

Nikki Cossio, Founder and Chief Executive Officer, Measure to Improve, LLC

That day, Nikki saw an exciting challenge and opportunity to find her role within the organization. Little did she realize, it would become her role and future in the produce industry in its entirety.

“When I first started trying to identify what it meant for Gill’s Onions, there were not a lot of examples to turn to within the produce industry. I had to look outside of fresh produce to understand how to define and implement it in a way that was meaningful to our organization,” says Nikki. “What I quickly learned was this was going to require us to set goals, collect data to support our progress, and to be able to communicate what we were doing in a way that resonated with buyers and consumers—because they wanted to know.”

With some marketing experience, Nikki initially saw this as a way to differentiate the Gill’s brand and appeal to customers.

“Over time, as the sustainability program developed, we quickly discovered some benefits that we hadn’t anticipated. Our company morale increased and employees were excited about working for a company that was winning awards for our efforts. We were also finding new ways to save money and resources, and the sustainability program started creating win-wins across many different operations,” Nikki dishes.

“Duda Farm Fresh Foods partnered with Measure to Improve in 2019 to continue the company’s sustainability efforts and better serve the industry as well as the environment. We began implementing sustainable packaging initiatives with Walmart in an effort to meet our goal of 90 percent recyclable, reusable, or industrial compostable primary packaging by 2025. MTI has been an instrumental partner in these endeavors, and we look forward to continuing our work together to better our communities!”

Amy Duda-Kinder, Vice President, Food Safety, Worker Safety, and Sustainability, Duda Farm Fresh Foods

Bringing clarity, hard data, and customizable steps to sustainability—an area that sorely needs all the tangibility it can get—became a calling Nikki could not ignore.

“After seven years with the family business, I decided to venture out. I saw the need to help a larger audience and recognized that sustainability was going down the same path as food safety, which was consistently stuck in a reactive cycle of mandates, regulations, and audit fatigue,” Nikki points out. “I knew if we didn’t move quickly and position ourselves proactively, sustainability, too, would become dictated in a way that isn’t meaningful and is cost-prohibitive. There is a narrow window of opportunity to lead the way.”

The resounding message from this visionary support crew is that the future is coming, whether we like it or not. The science crystallizing the reality of climate change means urgency is warranted and required.

“To some extent, everyone is still trying to figure out sustainability,” Nikki explains. “Just like how audits proliferated in food safety, the same thing is happening in sustainability with buyer requests for data—this probably doesn’t come as a huge surprise to many of you receiving them, but it is a big challenge right now.”

As we have all come to realize over the last decade, sustainability is multifaceted, and each facet, Nikki passionately agrees, is incredibly important to a comprehensive program. But reporting this information in a meaningful way is just as complicated, with little opportunity to offer explanations.

“Multiple buyers individually request information, each focused on a different topic of sustainability—water, energy, social compliance, sustainable packaging, greenhouse gas emissions, and on-farm practices. These requests are for data, different metrics, requirements, and have different priorities from each customer. Each topic is essential and can become its own comprehensive program, but reporting information on every aspect to multiple buyers every year is becoming time- and resource-intensive. There needs to be collaboration and communications up and down the supply chain to harmonize the approach of requests,” Nikki insists.

“At MTI, our differentiator from a typical consulting firm is our intimate understanding of the fresh produce industry, our ability to bring the industry together, and to collaborate on sustainability.”

Nikki Cossio

Knowing this is a challenge pressuring the industry, MTI has developed a service to help called the Sustainability Buyer Survey Solutions™ service. Initiated to help clients prepare credible responses to Walmart, Whole Foods, and other buyer sustainability surveys eight years ago, this has become a comprehensive program growers or processors seek from MTI as buyer requests stack higher year over year.

“What we have developed with Buyer Survey Solutions is an adaptive service to address different companies’ needs. We have a Trained Sustainability Consortium (TSC) Certified advisor on staff and use our proven four-phase approach to ensure a verifiable reporting approach,” Nikki explains. “For the industry, this means something that is an annual burden can be leveraged as a tool to enhance the sustainability of your operations and take ownership of the sustainability narrative. But everything can’t be tackled at once, so we help companies prioritize responses based on what is most meaningful to their organization.”

The value of sustainability is rapidly increasing for both the supply- and buy-side, Nikki shares, and it’s becoming the cost of doing business.

“More and more buyers are listing sustainability data amid their buying requirements, and it’s primarily consumer-driven,” Nikki states. “Not only are buyers trying to ensure they are purchasing sustainably sourced product, but they are also trying to mitigate risks, satisfy their consumers, and achieve their own sustainability goals.”

“We were introduced to Nikki and the team at Measure to Improve several years ago when we began getting customer requests on various sustainability initiatives. They quickly became our go-to resource in the journey to fully understand, standardize, measure, and report key sustainability components across our business. MTI continues to help us as we endeavor to improve our sustainability footprint.”

Bruce Knobeloch, Vice President, Marketing and Product Development, Monterey Mushrooms

In other words, we all need to come together to conquer the inevitable necessity sustainability compliance is becoming.

“It’s important that the entire supply chain collaborates to identify common metrics and goals, and recognizes that this isn’t only the responsibility of suppliers,” Nikki observes. “There is a cost to gathering data and providing information. When one buyer asks for something similar to another but different enough to require a whole new system or process, it sinks more resources into something only to produce a slightly different answer. Unfortunately, retailers up to this point haven’t been willing to pay more for products that have additional sustainability characteristics. No one individual, company, or part of the supply chain should be responsible for solving the industry’s challenges in this area. We need to come together and hold ourselves accountable to take responsibility to do our part across the supply chain.”

Ours is a very competitive industry, so it is important to recognize that banding together on best practices is possible without revealing proprietary information. Moreover, it is necessary to avoid duplicative efforts on our path to moving forward, and MTI is more than ready to light the way.

“At MTI, our differentiator from a typical consulting firm is our intimate understanding of the fresh produce industry, our ability to bring the industry together, and collaborate on sustainability. While MTI works with individual companies to identify starting points to improve the sustainability of their operations, we have also taken on unique projects centered around bringing the industry together,” Nikki says. “I cannot say enough about the team I have around me and how necessary they are to everything we have done and will do. This company has grown from a regional firm to a force to be reckoned with, which is necessary to accomplish what we have set out to tackle. Our team has cohesiveness to it. We’re a group that truly believes in our mission and that the industry’s best work comes out of collaboration and strategic partnerships.”

Every tool is crucial in this space, especially because it is a moving target that promises to change shape as more methods of economic and ecologic friendliness emerge.

“Nikki Cossio and her team at Measure to Improve have been incredible partners for the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). MTI supported WWF’s food loss metric project implementation with passion, expertise, and gusto in working with our key stakeholder groups. MTI is one of our most trusted partners when it comes to having ‘boots on the ground’ in areas of primary production for fruits and vegetables. It is evident that MTI is at the forefront of both practical and impactful sustainability measures, setting the stage for producers in clear and actionable ways.”

Leigh Prezkop, Senior Program Officer, World Wildlife Fund

“Sustainability will continue to evolve,” Nikki promises. “The industry will need to keep pace because sustainability isn’t going away. New topics such as regenerative ag are rising to the top, and with that comes an entirely new set of metrics, practices, and buyer requests. In the near term—because this is urgent—I hope we can move away from one-upping each other. We have to roll up our sleeves and get to work because there is value with these programs. But, like food safety, it’s not instantaneous gratification.”

The name Measure to Improve is no accident. Nikki clearly lays out the path her team has paved for our industry guided by the system spelled out in its title head.

“To improve and make progress, you need to measure—in other words, you need good data as a foundation to build off of. You must be willing to set goals and communicate your progress internally and externally. Our name is about being transparent in an effort to build trust,” she says, her voice a hammer. “You have to start your sustainability journey somewhere. Sitting idle is a sure way to be left behind. Over the years, I’ve taken the scenic route to achieve success. Now, my team and I have a map.”

The engine is running, with Measure to Improve keyed into the navigation.

Now, it is on you to get in the driver’s seat.