Natural refrigeration is a challenging sustainability issue for consumers

By Keilly Witman
KW Refrigerant Management Strategy LLC

This is the first article in a three-part series on sustainability and refrigerants.

In this day and age, most supermarket companies recognize that their customers care about the environment and their communities. Customers want to spend their money at businesses that share those values. They want to feel good about where they shop, so they want to know that their grocery store is helping to make their community a better place.

Given these facts, and given the enormous progress that many supermarket companies have made in reducing the environmental impact of their refrigeration systems, it’s logical to ask why more companies aren’t communicating with their customers about refrigeration.

Why do supermarkets communicate about sustainable seafood, energy efficiency, plastic bags, and reduced waste, but not about refrigeration?

The challenges that supermarkets face in communicating about environmental progress in refrigeration are best demonstrated by looking at other environmental issues. Let’s take, for instance, sustainable seafood. I imagine that there are several reasons why people are interested in sustainable seafood. There are those who understand the web of life and the concept that the destruction of one part of that web leads to the larger parts of the web collapsing. There are people who have moral and religious concerns about the concept of humans wiping entire species off the face of the earth forever. Finally, there are the people who care about fish simply because they like to eat them, and they want to continue to be able to eat them. The point is that most people, for one reason or another, have thought about sustainable seafood. It is an issue that is relevant to them.

Now let’s compare that to refrigeration. How many people do you know who think about the significance of refrigeration? If you find anyone outside our industry who has pondered the importance of refrigeration, it’s usually in the context of the freezer in their own home and the miraculous nature of ice cream. There are probably people with a philosophical bent who look around Las Vegas and wonder at the miracle that allows an entire city to grow and thrive in the desert, but there are few people who go so far as to consider the environmental effects of refrigerants and our reliance on them.

You can’t see refrigerants or touch them. They don’t stink up the neighborhood or reduce property values. It’s a shame that customers can’t see refrigerants leaking from cases in their stores. If refrigerant emissions were visible, the industry wouldn’t have the problem that it does.

Unfortunately, you also can’t see or touch the ozone layer or watch the negative effects that refrigerants have on it. People don’t look out the window when they get up in the morning and say, “Oh dear, the ozone layer was thicker yesterday.”  It’s not relevant to peoples’ daily lives.

So does that mean that it’s impossible for supermarkets to create a compelling story about refrigeration and the environment? No, it’s not impossible. It’s just a little trickier than communicating about other issues.

In part two of this series on sustainability and refrigerants, I’ll look at ways to make refrigerants and refrigeration relevant to supermarket customers.

Keilly Witman is the owner of KW Refrigerant Management Strategy, a consulting firm that helps the supermarket industry manage the many strategic challenges of todays and tomorrows refrigeration world. Prior to starting her own firm, she ran the EPAs GreenChill Partnership, which grew to encompass more than 8,500 supermarkets during her tenure.




    The information you submitted is as usual spot on. I also believe you will probably mention that not enough Companies are approaching the Utility’s in order to assist the end user to make a better decision. You have brought this to our attention last September and again recently. I appreciate what Hill Phoenix is doing, and hope to learn more from their lead on communicating the message.

    Best Regards


      Hi Joe,
      Thanks for your comment. I also appreciate that Hill Phoenix has opened this forum for discussion. It’s a pleasure to read the different types of posts by a variety of people.


    Yes, refrigeration is not a very “sexy” issue. The environmental impact of refrigerants is hard to convey in a catchy, visual way. Organic foods have pictures of happy family farmers, sustainable foods have healthy critters in beautiful settings, but it is hard to put a face on refrigerants and their importance.

    We deal mostly with the fishing industry, industrial freezing facilities, offshore rigs, cruise ships, support vessels, and commercial HVAC. These industries view environmental issues differently than most consumers do. Many companies take global warming and related issues seriously, but others view refrigerant regulations as just more expense and paperwork hassle. I recently wrote a piece for Fishermen’s News magazine on this topic:

    As with so many other issues, the government takes a carrot-and-stick approach to global warming and ozone depletion. Cap-and-trade, tax credits, and other tools encourage one type of behavior while potentially heavy fines discourage another. However, tax credits available in other industries and to consumers are virtually non existent for in the industrial refrigeration world. More carrot and less stick would be a good thing for our industry!

    The challenge of “creating a compelling story about refrigerants and the environment” is even greater in the commercial/industrial sectors than for the retail consumer. I am interested to hear about other companies who have successfully addressed this issue for their industrial clients.


    Dear Keilly,

    we have been thinking about the same issue these days. There are actually press articles existing in the german speaking countries that are touching natural Refrigeration “at the side”. It usually finds attention along with those prevalent topics energy efficiency and reduced waste. Technical topics that we are pondering on, simply need mainstream subjects to gain public attention.



      Hi Michael,
      In the US, refrigeration is also often mentioned as a side note in articles about other environmental improvements in supermarkets. I think a lot of the reason for this is that the marketing and PR people writing the press releases don’t understand enough about refrigeration themselves to say much about it to the press. It is important for those of us in the industry to learn how to explain refrigeration to lay people, so that others can join these important conversations.

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