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.