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Driven by Nature

From ON Magazine, Issue No. 1, 2010

By Beth Schultz

Joshua Sigel
UNFI’s Joshua Sigel stands in front of a rooftop solar display that generates 175,000 kWh of power annually for UNFI headquarters. The facility was designed to achieve LEED Silver certification for commercial interiors. Photograph by Kathleen Dooher

Sustainability is a way of life for this leading distributor of organic, natural, and specialty foods.


With a company motto of “Driven by Nature,” United Natural Foods, Inc. (UNFI), strives to incorporate sustainability in all business practices—not just in the products it distributes (think of just about anything on the shelves of your nearby Whole Foods grocery)—but in every decision it makes.

Founded with environmentalism in mind more than 30 years ago, UNFI still embraces a core value of “social and environmental responsibility for the health of the planet.” For its commitment to operating an environmentally friendly business, UNFI has earned the 2009 Environment and Sustainability Award recognition from Nutrition Business Journal.

It takes pride in its green initiatives, which UNFI says guide and inspire not only employees but also clients, and in the thought leadership it provides on topics such as use and conservation of energy and water, solar energy, waste reduction, recycling practices, and sustainable building materials.

“UNFI’s commitment to serving our customers and maintaining our position as the nation’s leader in the natural and organic distribution space goes significantly above and beyond our expertise in the industry. Sustainability, whether through internal resource conservation, renewable energy, or associate development, remains a strong focus for the company and an ethic we do not compromise on,” says Joshua Sigel, vice president of IT operations and applied technologies for the company.

As testament to this, for example, UNFI’s Chesterfield, New Hampshire, distribution center recently received the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s ENERGY STAR rating, designating it as one of the most efficient distribution facilities in the country. To qualify, the facility had to place among the top 25 percent of the most energy-efficient facilities in the United States.

UNFI also taps the sun’s energy for electrical use, operating massive solar panel arrays on distribution center rooftops on the East and West Coasts, says Tom Dziki, senior vice president of sustainable development at UNFI. In Dayville, Connecticut, for example, a 550-kilowatt solar photovoltaic system output more than 500,000 kilowatt hours (kWh) of clean energy in 2009—an equivalent emissions reduction to removing 69 passenger vehicles from the road for one year.

"We take pride in our approach to the environment and are constantly seeking new information and technologies to assist us in both reducing our impact on the planet and better serving our customers through sensible business practices." —Joshua Sigel

Likewise, UNFI generated more than 1.7 million kWh of clean energy last year, or 576.3 metric tons of carbon emissions avoided, from a 1.19-megawatt system in Rocklin, California, Dziki says. That array comprises 7,000 panels covering 175,000 square feet.

Green inside and out

A new corporate headquarters is all about sustainability, too—located inside a refurbished American Locomotive Works building, UNFI selected the space, from top to bottom, with energy savings and low emissions in mind. The solar panel sitting atop this building is expected to produce 175,000 kWh annually, reducing the amount of electricity UNFI needs to buy from the grid. And inside, motion-activated sensors and flow controls have helped the company reduce water and energy use by 40 percent and 25 percent, respectively.

UNFI doesn’t stop with the critical building infrastructure. It has selected office carpets made from 100 percent recycled materials, Forest Stewardship Council-certified interior doors, and Green Guard-certified office furniture. For construction and interior finishes, it uses materials with low or zero volatile organic compounds, which can vaporize and send harmful or toxic vapors into the air.

UNFI is pursuing Silver LEED certification for its new headquarters and its distribution centers by focusing on smart water and energy use, recycling, and other environmentally sustainable elements. But assuredly, Sigel says, green initiatives do not come at business expense.

“UNFI was founded upon the tenets of superior service to our customers, the distribution of quality products, and environmental sustainability. We take pride in our approach to the environment and are constantly seeking new information and technologies to assist us in both reducing our impact on the planet and better serving our customers through sensible business practices,” Sigel says.

Sustainable transformation

Take, for example, the company’s recent decision to consolidate from five to a single primary data center—and in the process create a sustainable data center architecture.

 UNFI, working with EMC Consulting, under­took an IT transformation and data center consolidation that significantly boosts its disaster recovery and business capabilities while promising to net the company substantial savings in equipment and energy consumption over the next five years. For example, the data center, housed in a 300,000-plus-square-foot warehouse, receives power from the Dayville solar array.

Virtualization has played a central role in the company’s IT efficiency story. With EMC Consulting’s help, UNFI has virtualized hundreds of servers, a large part of its infrastructure. “By essentially unplugging and virtualizing servers, we were able to lower our power consumption,” Sigel says. “Less hardware drives a lower heat profile, which then lowers our cooling needs. So the green benefits are vast.”

Besides the new virtual servers, running on ENERGY STAR-rated hardware, UNFI has migrated its stored data from EMC Symmetrix DMX-3 and EqualLogic iSCSI arrays to a higher-end DMX-4 infrastructure. The company now relies on a storage service catalog that offers optimized storage aligned on a price/performance basis to key business requirements.

The newly consolidated, state-of-the-art data center and disaster recovery hot site delivers the required level of service to all areas of the business in an efficient, sustainable manner.

“Reducing our footprint and our heating and cooling requirements are positive impacts from a green perspective,” Sigel says. “Though green benefits didn’t necessarily drive the project, much like anything we do at UNFI, they were interwoven in it.”

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