One of the most interesting things for me about the food industry is how it’s approaching sustainability.

In my previous job, I covered sustainability a lot, but it was in the context of commercial buildings, such as offices, schools or hotels. In those kinds of facilities, energy managers, facility managers and engineers have a lot of tools at their disposal. They can use daylighting to replace artificial lighting; take part in demand-response programs to cut energy usage during peak times; they can install low-flow water fixtures or add aerators to sinks; or they can raise or lower HVAC setpoints, among many other examples.

But food processors don’t have a lot of those options. If a product has to be cooked to 180 degrees or frozen to -10, you can’t cook it to 179 or freeze it to -9 to cut down on your energy usage. If the food safety regulations require a certain amount of water or a certain quality of water, then you can’t use less or repurpose water that’s already been used for food processing.

So it’s often a conundrum: Sustainability is a goal we all want to pursue, but we’re constrained in how we can pursue it. And if you’ve already done all the easy stuff, then suddenly you’re faced with a big challenge when it comes to squeezing more energy or water savings out of your operations. 

Basically, we’re getting to the point where sustainability doesn’t necessarily pencil out any more. That means that the C-suite and financial people have to stop thinking about what the payback is and start thinking about whether the worth of a project outweighs the cost.

In a lot of cases, the answer will be yes, because sustainability is a core value for a lot of companies, and if you can make the case that you can’t do any more of the small stuff, you might just get an opportunity to do something bold.

We have an example of that in our cover story this month. Hispanic Cheese Makers (formerly Nuestro Queso) is a relatively small specialty cheese maker in Illinois. When the company was faced with needing to upgrade its wastewater disposal system, the decision makers decided to go big. (I’m not going to say just how big here. You’ll have to click here to find out.)

When I was talking to the company’s CEO about the project, the one thing that struck me was just how many times—and how easily—he referenced sustainability being one of the company’s core values. It was abundantly clear that he wasn’t just paying lip service to the idea of being sustainable; instead, it’s something that he and the company consider as a part of every major decision.

Some companies don’t have that flexibility, or at least they don’t have it yet. But if companies like Hispanic Cheese Makers commit to sustainable projects that go beyond what they are required to do or are more than the bare minimum of what they need to do, then hopefully they’ll be the start of a trend.