Green Growth

From innovative refrigerant systems to responsible sourcing, Brandon Lombardi uses the law to support sustainability efforts at Sprouts Farmers Market

In 2014, Sprouts Farmers Market received notable honors from the Environmental Protection Agency for its innovative use of a new cooling system in one of its Georgia stores. The state-of-the-art cooling plant uses carbon dioxide as a refrigerant instead of environmentally toxic hydrofluorocarbons. It’s the first installation of its type in southern climates and is the sort of innovation that helps Sprouts maintain its leadership in sustainability.

Clearing the legal hurdles for installation of such a system is just one of the tasks Brandon Lombardi, chief legal officer and corporate secretary, must confront on a daily basis at Sprouts Farmers Market, a natural foods grocer with 179 stores across ten states. “Sprouts is a unique company in many respects,” Lombardi says. “As a fresh, natural, and organic food retailer, we have a heightened responsibility as it relates to customer protection and expectations.”

Lombardi is quick to explain some of the layers of demands Sprouts confronts when opening a store. “Our legal work starts well before store construction begins with the negotiation of a complex lease agreement,” Lombardi says. “That work continues as we assess the current labor market, determine the unique licensing and permitting requirements for the location, work with our HR and operations teams with respect to team-member recruiting and compliant hiring and training practices, work with our merchandising and marketing teams to ensure our advertising and promotional practices are compliant with the law, and so forth.”

When Sprouts hired 37-year-old Lombardi in January 2012, he was already familiar with the grocer’s fledgling business because he’d advised as outside counsel since late 2010. With corporate ambitions to grow to more than 1,200 stores, Lombardi immediately set about assembling an 11-person in-house legal team that could provide services for his fast-paced company. “There are many moving pieces to our business,” Lombardi says. “Thankfully Sprouts has incredible team members who work behind the scenes and in our stores to deliver an outstanding shopping experience.”

Members of the Boney family, long-time San Diego grocers with a focus on making fresh foods affordable, founded Sprouts Farmers Market in 2002 with its first store in Chandler, Arizona. Offering abundant produce and a focus on natural, organic foods at low prices, Sprouts’ identity is a commitment to responsible retailing founded on care for the health and well-being of its customers, team members, communities, and the world. “We take a holistic approach to entering and integrating into a community with the health and well-being of our customers and team members being first and foremost,” Lombardi says.

Sprouts decided to focus its sustainable model on four main areas: partnering with suppliers and vendors to ensure responsibly sourced products, reducing waste and the stores’ environmental footprints, reducing energy use, and caring for and contributing to the communities the stores serve. “Being a responsible retailer is not just the right thing to do, it’s part of our culture here at Sprouts,” Lombardi says.

Sprouts stores are meant to evoke the feel of a farmer’s market with abundant bins of fresh produce and grains and low shelving to create an open feel. Because of the comparatively modest footprint of the stores—typically around 27,500 square feet compared to 45,000 square feet—Sprouts is able to easily move into markets where existing retail space is vacant.

The grocer’s commitment to responsible retailing led Sprouts to be one of the first grocers in the nation to receive Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certification for one of its stores in 2010—only a year after the green design certification was released by the US Green Building Council.

Whereas many companies see sustainable initiatives as being cost-prohibitive, Lombardi sees things differently. “At Sprouts, we view responsible retailing as both a business opportunity and a responsibility,” he says. “Take our initiatives around waste reduction and store operating optimization. Our waste diversion program is designed not only to reduce our environmental impact, but also to reduce our expenses through less tonnage and pickup charges. There’s also the potential to develop new sources of revenue through recycling plastics and cardboard.”

Steering through the labyrinth of legal obstacles required to open a sustainably designed store might seem like a headache for some, but not for Lombardi. “We don’t view any of these legal concerns as ‘headaches,’” he says. “Consumers identify with brands that stand for transparency, compliance, and ethics.  That’s why we view our legal work as opportunities to further our reputation as a leading fresh, natural, and organic grocer; an employer of choice; and a responsible corporate citizen.” With Lombardi’s faithful guidance and his legal team, Sprouts looks to continue to be a leader in sustainable innovation.