Nikki Cossio is founder and CEO of Measure to Improve (MTI), a sustainability consulting firm that works with produce companies and related industry associations throughout the US. She joined OPN for a conversation about MTI’s services, how she helps clients avoid greenwashing, her excitement about the USDA’s Partnerships for Climate-Smart Commodities program, and more.
What is your background in the produce industry, and why is sustainability important to you?
I come from a farming family—I’m the daughter of a fourth-generation farmer—so I appreciate how hard it is to be a farmer. I started my career in sustainability for my family business, Rio Farms and Gills Onions. In 2007, I started a sustainability department of 1 because my dad said, “Go figure out what ‘sustainability’ means; our customers are starting to ask about it.” I never looked back, and that was nearly 16 years ago. In 2014, after building a sustainability program for Gills Onions (processing) and then Rio Farms (growing/on-farm), I decided to venture out on my own and serve a larger audience.
I see sustainability as a platform to talk about great things many growers never thought to talk about before—because in the past most people weren’t interested in where their food came from. That has all changed now in the age of transparency.
When and why did you found Measure to Improve (MTI)?
I founded MTI in 2014 to help produce companies measure, improve, and credibly promote their sustainability efforts.
Can you describe your customer base?
We are committed to serving the produce industry—specifically in the area of specialty crops. This includes growers, shippers, processors, packers, produce associations, and foodservice distributors. All of our clients grow/process/pack both organic and conventional produce.
What services does your company provide?
Measure to Improve’s projects address various sustainability challenges, including water, energy, greenhouse gas emissions, waste reduction, regenerative ag programs, strategic planning (sustainability), social accountability, sustainability certifications, and responding to buyer sustainability surveys.
Our staff has a proven track record of helping companies identify and implement strategies to increase efficiency. By supporting clients in setting ambitious yet attainable sustainability goals, MTI encourages progress that can be validated and marketed.
What are Measure to Improve’s KPIs, and how did you choose them?
We have 11 KPIs, which cover the most critical aspects of a sustainable agricultural operation: Integrated Pest Management, Transparency & Reporting, Ecosystems & Biodiversity, Energy Management, Fertilizer Management, Greenhouse Gases & Air Quality, Packaging, Social Accountability, Healthy Soils, Waste Reduction, and Water Management.
Choosing our KPIs was a twofold process. First, we analyzed produce buyer surveys and identified the most frequently asked topics. Second, we looked at topics that were most meaningful to organizations and had the strongest business case—things that could cut costs, save money, and improve efficiencies. These included some low-hanging fruit like waste reduction.
Your website notes that MTI “helps clients communicate their sustainability stories credibly, proactively, and without ‘green washing.’” Can you talk about how you help your clients avoid greenwashing?
This question ties back to our company name: Measure to Improve. Measurement requires data—lots of verifiable data. The way that any organization can make credible sustainability claims (and thereby avoid greenwashing) is to be able to substantiate statements and back them up with data. This proves that an organization knows what they are talking about versus speaking in generalities. Good data supports marketing claims and can also support improving management decisions, justify capital expenses, and demonstrate commitments.
Many growers are worried about disclosing their operational data. However, to communicate credibly, you don’t have to use proprietary data that gives away your trade secrets. Instead, you can communicate in a way that uses metrics or percentages overall. For example, a claim like “we reduced plastic use by 30 percent with the new packaging” doesn’t involve sharing total plastic use or costs. MTI understands why growers and processors have concerns about their data, and we work with our clients to help them communicate their sustainability efforts in a way that doesn’t give away proprietary information.
At Measure to Improve, we emphasize that you don’t have to be a big company to start measuring. You can be large, small, organic, or conventional. Regardless of operation type, it’s important to demonstrate and communicate your sustainability initiatives—differentiate, substantiate, and validate with data!
Can you share a case study of MTI’s work with a grower client?
One great example is Rich Uto who grows organic and conventional strawberries for California Giant Berry Farms. MTI helped California Giant identify an approach for responding to sustainability information requests, particularly those around social accountability. With MTI’s support, California Giant’s first step was to determine the best way to evaluate and share their progress. MTI and California Giant agreed that for the company’s claims and achievements to be credible, it needed an approach that included validation of both data and practices.
MTI recommended California Giant work to achieve a reputable sustainability certification since third-party certifications provide a standardized approach and recognizable logo, which make them increasingly popular with consumers, buyers, and produce companies alike. California Giant chose the comprehensive Sustainably Grown certification by SCS Global Services, which involves 372 indicators, more than half of which are focused on social accountability. The company chose the certification for two reasons: First, Costco, one of the company’s major buyers, agreed that the Sustainably Grown standard is compliant with their requirements. Second, California Giant recognized that taking a comprehensive approach would strengthen both the company and its growers, creating a competitive advantage.
In 2020, Rich Uto’s Satsuma Farms was California Giant’s first grower to pilot and achieve the Sustainably Grown certification. Through this certification, Rich was able to identify opportunities to improve his environmental impact and his bottom line. Rich’s contribution and efforts support the larger strategy California Giant has set to have 50 percent of their acreage become Sustainably Grown certified over the next few years.
What are your thoughts on the future of the organic produce industry—and the produce industry in general?
First and foremost, it’s important to recognize that agriculture has an opportunity to be a part of contributing to mitigating climate change. Science-based research points to ag as not only being a huge contributor to climate change but also having an opportunity to mitigate climate change by reducing food waste, cultivating healthy soils (carbon sequestration), improving ecosystems/biodiversity, and strengthening local food systems.
MTI, along with our clients, are very excited about the new USDA Partnerships for Climate-Smart Commodities program, which intends to provide financial support and a safety net to incentivize growers to explore and implement new practices that are considered regenerative. MTI, the International Fresh Produce Association (IFPA), and several other partners were awarded a grant from this program to support specialty crop growers in trialing a variety of regenerative ag practices and measuring their impacts over four years.
Organic growers have a head start when we talk about regenerative agriculture. Many of the practices they have implemented to become certified organic are foundational to regenerative ag—crop rotation, compost application, cover cropping, nutrient management, etc. Organic growers also have experience going through the certification process, which means they are familiar with documenting their practices. That said, there is more that needs to be done. Further data validation and proof of concept need to take place to quantify what organic growers are doing and the benefits to their business and climate mitigation.
Scientists have been studying regenerative and climate-smart practices in commodity crops for years—but regen ag is the Wild Wild West for specialty crops. There isn’t a road map to help us navigate our way. We have a lot to learn, and we appreciate those growers who have already stepped up and signed a letter of intent to participate in the USDA Climate-Smart Commodities program and who intend to share the results of their trials to help bring progress in this area.