Over the past few years there has been a lot of press coverage about the rise of "urban" and/or "indoor" farming. The evolving solutions offer more sustainable methods for growing fresh produce using advanced technology — conserving water, land, and energy in comparison to open-field farming practices while also allowing for a reduction in transportation time, fuel consumption and the associated carbon emissions.
However, there is a lot of variety within the category itself, each option varying in its degree of sustainability. One leader in the space is Gotham Greens — which operates the largest network of high-tech, climate-controlled hydroponic greenhouses in America with nine facilities across six states. With these facilities they conserve 300 acres of land and 270 million gallons of water, as compared to conventional farming.
In addition to offering a more sustainable means to fresh, longer-lasting produce, Gotham Greens also focuses on adaptive reuse projects, which help revitalize urban communities by transforming real estate that is otherwise underutilized into productive agriculture that provide sustainable jobs for the surrounding community.
I recently spoke with the CEO of Gotham Greens, Viraj Puri, about their just-announced expansion to California, which coincides with their B Corp Certification, of for which the company had to demonstrate not just environmental, but also social sustainability. We discussed what makes the company unique from others in the space, what they were able to learn from the B Corp certification process, why their expansion to California is important, and their sustainability goals for the coming years.
Long before the COVID-19 pandemic, we set out to help innovate and differentiate the fresh produce supply chain by building and operating a decentralized network of greenhouses across the United States, which makes Gotham Greens a valuable partner for grocery stores, foodservice providers and community groups across the country. We’ve grown from a single rooftop greenhouse in Brooklyn, New York, to over 600,000 square feet of hydroponic greenhouses from coast to coast. With a decade of commercial growing experience, we have proven financial success with consistently strong unit economics and validated margins, which most indoor farming brands, including vertical farms, have yet to demonstrate.
In addition to growing a variety of salad greens and herbs, Gotham Greens also offers a line of fresh salad dressings, dips and cooking sauces that celebrate plant-based ingredients as the main hero and inspiration.
Marquis: Did you learn anything new while going through your B Corp certification process? Did you change anything in your operations as a result?
Puri: Sustainability has been in our DNA from day 1 and going through the B Corp certification process was an exciting opportunity to learn more about where we, as a company, excel. For example, we discovered that our team’s commitment to health and safety excelled beyond other businesses within our sector. These policies earned us the highest scores in questions related to our robust safety programs, worksite protocols and self-audit practices. We also verified that 94% of our inputs are sourced from domestic suppliers and our company provides at least 75% of our leafy greens and herbs to local and independent partners located within 50 miles or less of our regional greenhouses.
The B Corp certification process also helped us to really hone in on concrete, outcome-based sustainability goals for the future, and to think critically about what it will take to meet these goals. Of course, some changes can be made more easily and quicker than others. Alongside our California greenhouse opening, we have introduced new resealable lidded film packaging for our leafy greens, which reduces plastic packaging for our salads by more than 30%. Going through the B Corp certification process helped us formalize a timeline for further reduction in the short and medium term.
As a company that was founded with the goal of conserving natural resources and reducing food waste and long-haul transportation, we knew that our business model positioned us to do well in terms of the “environment” category. Even so, the assessment challenged our team to develop new tools to truly quantify our environmental footprint. This meant evaluating our environmental performance in key categories, including energy use, emissions and resource consumption. It also challenged us to assess our impact related to our manufacturing operations, external supply chain and distribution practices.
During our certification process, Gotham Greens transitioned from being a C-Corporation to a Public Benefit Corporation. This legal structure creates accountability in our decision-making that requires the consideration of all our stakeholders and prioritizes social and environmental values.
Marquis: Why do you feel that this certification is particularly relevant in the category of farming, and more specifically, indoor farming?
Puri: B Corp Certification is the only third-party accreditation that measures a company’s entire social and environmental performance. As a Certified B Corp, Gotham Greens has been externally verified to meet the highest levels of social and environmental performance, public transparency and accountability.
There are different approaches to indoor farming, and we believe that ours is the most environmentally sustainable. Our sunlight-powered greenhouses are sustainable from the top down. By using hydroponic growing systems and renewable electricity, Gotham Greens uses up to 95% less water and 97% less land compared to conventional farming. Our sustainable farming practices allow us to grow salad greens and herbs all year round — regardless of the season and temperature outside — while conserving 300 acres of land and 270 million gallons of water annually compared to conventional farming practices. In fact, our unique irrigation techniques use less than 1 gallon of water to grow a head of lettuce compared with up to 10 gallons used in conventional open-field farming for that same head of lettuce.
At Gotham Greens, we’re farming with the future in mind and closer to your home. Our approach is designed to cut down on food miles and bring our farms closer to you. Building greenhouses next to large urban populations and distributing our produce regionally allows us to reduce transportation time, fuel consumption and associated carbon emissions. Our greens get where they’re going faster, stay fresh longer and retain more of their nutrients, which helps to reduce food waste.
Marquis: You're just now expanding to the West Coast with your new California greenhouse — why is this expansion important, and what do you hope to come from it in the coming years?
Puri: We selected Davis, California, as the site of our newest greenhouse in an effort to bring a more sustainable form of farming to the West Coast. California is the center of North America’s leafy greens production––in fact, 98% of lettuce grown in the United States comes from California and Arizona––but water shortages, wildfires and other results of climate change are straining the state’s critical agricultural resources. By putting down roots in California, and on the West Coast, we’re expanding our footprint to serve our retailers and foodservice providers throughout the region more quickly, while conserving precious natural resources in an effort to build a better food system. But perhaps even more importantly, our expansion to California and partnership with the University of California system will enable Gotham Greens to innovate with the agricultural industry in California and be a part of the greater industry’s solution to the increasingly visible impacts of climate change. We’re excited to collaborate on research and innovation with the University of California system focused on advancing the science, workforce, technology and profitability of indoor farming.
We choose our greenhouse locations strategically with the goal of growing fresh produce that can be delivered within less than a day’s drive for most people in the U.S. We’re also committed to adaptive reuse projects –– helping revitalize urban communities by transforming otherwise underutilized real estate into productive agriculture –– breathing new life, high-quality jobs and economic development into local communities. For example, our Baltimore greenhouse is located on the site of the former Bethlehem Steel Mill and our Providence, R.I., greenhouse is located on the site of a former GE lighting factory. We are proud to play a small part in helping to revitalize communities across America.
Marquis: Gotham Greens' new sustainability commitments are very ambitious. Can you describe the process of coming up with those goals and what some of the concrete next steps you are working on toward achieving the goals?
Puri: As we look toward the future, Gotham Greens is committed to several outcome-based sustainability commitments, including:
- Goal #1: Reducing plastic packaging for leafy greens and herbs by 40% by 2024: Alongside our California greenhouse opening, we are introducing new resealable lidded film packaging for our leafy greens, which reduces plastic packaging for our salads by more than 30%. The development marks progress toward the company’s goal of reducing plastic packaging for leafy greens and herbs by 40% by 2024 and 80% by 2030.
- Goal #2: Achieving a reduction of 5% in our electricity use intensity by 2024 and reduce our Scope 1 and 2 greenhouse gas emission intensity by 5% by the end of 2024: We plan to achieve this by reducing our energy use and our reliance on fossil fuels, investing in cleaner, more efficient, and smarter equipment to power our facilities, and switching to more LEDs. Gotham Greens currently relies primarily on renewable electricity sources to power our greenhouse facilities.
Marquis: As a company that's growing quickly, how do you balance sustainability with your growth and expansion plans?
Puri: Our goal is to bring our brand of premium quality, sustainably grown produce to more communities across the country. When we first started the company, we began with smaller footprints to prove the concept and have expanded our presence in response to overwhelming consumer and retailer demand for our produce and line of fresh foods. Each new greenhouse project brings us closer toward achieving our sustainability goals - whether it’s launching new sustainable packaging solutions or reducing our dependence on vital natural resources.
Water conservation is so critical in California in particular, during this time when drought, wildfires and other results of climate change are straining critical agricultural resources. By putting down roots in California, we aspire to be a part of the agricultural industry’s solution to the increasingly visible impacts of climate change.We see a bright and promising future for the “greenhouse-grown” produce category. Growing produce indoors certainly has an increasing role to play in the future of sustainable food production. And while indoor farming may not represent the future of all fresh produce production, for certain types of crops, it will become more prevalent.