United Natural Foods: a green company

UNFI redefines ‘corporation’ for a greener age

Sarah Etchieson of United Natural Foods Inc.’s Green Team on the solar roof of the Rocklin building.

Sarah Etchieson of United Natural Foods Inc.’s Green Team on the solar roof of the Rocklin building.

Photo By Anne Stokes

Visit www.unfi.com for links to consumer resource-education sites and video clips detailing UNFI’s sustainability projects.

As the national debate over sustainability continues, it may comfort Sacramento to know that the way of the future is right in our own backyard.

Rocklin, to be specific.

Perched in the middle of the sun-baked plains sits one of the most cutting-edge green buildings in California: the corporate headquarters of the Western branch of United Natural Foods Inc. Founded in the 1970s (older folks may remember the company as Cornucopia or Rainbow Natural Foods), UNFI is the biggest distributor of organic and natural food products in the country. The company has offices coast to coast, and it’s redefining the concept of “corporation” for a newer, greener age.

As of 2007, the 4-acre roof of the company’s Rocklin facility has been outfitted with 7,000 solar panels, a feature that supplies the enormous building (half of which is freezer space) with solar-powered electricity and, in the words of UNFI’s vice president of sustainable development, Thomas Dziki, saves the company “big gobs of money.”

This year alone, Dziki said, “we’re on track to reduce our energy consumption by 30 to 35 percent.” And thanks to the reduction in energy costs—not to mention a sizeable rebate from PG&E—the multimillion-dollar project will pay for itself within four years. According to Dziki, the company has already seen a $3,000 drop in the Rocklin facility’s energy bill.

It’s not just that one building, either. The Eastern UNFI headquarters in Connecticut boasts more than 3,100 solar panels, making it the biggest solar-power ray on the East Coast. In Ridgefield, Wash., the company is building a LEED-certified facility out of renewable, nonharmful materials.

“As a leader in our own industry, we wanted to demonstrate to other companies we work with that solar is absolutely a viable alternative fuel source to run your plants on,” Dziki said. Indeed, a large part of his job is taken up with speaking engagements at various trade shows and business meetings around the country, where he encourages other companies to implement their own green strategies. Speaking over the phone from his Connecticut office, he said he gets weekly inquiries from curious companies. When one man asked how a reluctant boss might be persuaded to go solar, Dziki happily supplied UNFI’s solar-energy return-on-investment analysis. Several weeks later, the man called back to tell Dziki that his company was going forward with their own solar project. The numbers had spoken.

The more one talks to someone like Dziki, however, the more one realizes that the most admirable thing about the green-business movement isn’t the bottom line, but the elimination of an outdated corporate mentality that puts a blind focus on the almighty dollar. More and more, companies seem to be realizing that green thinking can actually improve the quality of the business sphere. A company like UNFI isn’t just a job, but a group of people united behind a common belief. That makes for a more desirable work environment and attracts a more energetic employee. The UNFI employees SN&R spoke with in Rocklin expressed an unabashed enthusiasm for what they do and praised the company for its more “family-oriented” bent. The green corporation of the future, it seems, will also take employee quality of life into consideration as its tries to save the world.

With green building regulations being implemented in hundreds of counties nationwide—including California’s own Humboldt, Sonoma and Napa counties—the trend toward environmentally friendly businesses is rapidly becoming the status quo. As business owners big and small look to hop on the bandwagon, they could do worse than follow UNFI’s lead. After 30 years of practicing what it preaches, the company’s time has finally come to be recognized as an industry model.