Packer Interview - Jeff Lyons with Costco

Costco locations in the West recently promoted fresh produce items certified by Equitable Food Initiative, and Costco senior vice president of fresh food Jeff Lyons provided some insight on why EFI — and other programs that promote responsible labor practices — matters to the company.

Costco, a founding member of EFI, helped start the organization years ago because the retailer prides itself on doing right by its people.

“We found that there was a void in the industry that was just not consistent with the culture that we have at Costco,” Lyons said. “At Costco, our mission statement and our code of ethics all deal with taking care of our employees, taking care of our members, but also respecting our suppliers, and that goes all the way down to the people that work in the field.”

EFI is one of a number of certification programs in the area of responsible labor practices, and Costco would like to see all of its suppliers move in that direction.

Not only does investing in this area ensure better conditions for farmworkers, Lyons said, but the increased collaboration between that group and management often leads to better processes and culture, both of which have positive business implications.

“We think everybody should make this a priority in their workplace because it helps their brand,” Lyons said. “it helps who they are.

“Our goal is to have every one of our suppliers involved in one of many opportunities that are out there,” Lyons said. “We think EFI is a class of its own, it’s the gold standard, we’d like to see everybody doing that, but we’ll accept other processes or applications if they meet our guidelines. So they have to meet what we’re looking for — it can’t just be something that glosses over and you sign a piece of paper and it says, bam, we’re there,” Lyons said. “No, it’s got to have teeth, it’s got to be able to be audited.”

Consumer awareness is still growing about labor practices and social responsibility, but Lyons mentioned that other stakeholders have definitely taken notice.

“It’s really obvious in investment communities as well,” Lyons said. “So we have a lot of people that invest with Costco, in our stock, and they’ll come in and they want to know what we’re doing in some of these areas because they’re concerned. They are investors that kind of have a heart for certain things, it might be for farm labor, it might be for something else, but we find it not just from our consumers but also from the investment community.”

With its recent promotion of EFI-certified produce items, Costco aimed to make more shoppers aware and eventually spur change across the industry.

“Once we have awareness, I think then the community of people start to get involved and say, ‘Okay, I think this is a good thing, I’m going to vote with my dollars, I’m going to shop in these areas,’ so in essence retail will have to move in this direction because number one they’re not going to let Costco get away with being the only one doing this, because they’ll see it as we have an advantage,” Lyons said.

If competition prompts retailers to raise the bar on their own labor practices standards and food safety requirements, all the better, Lyons noted.

Check out the video for the full interview.


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