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Sheri L. Flies
Assistant General Merchandise Manager, Corporate Foods
Costco Wholesale Corporation
“Costco doesn’t talk much about what they’re doing in sustainability, but the company is pioneering procurement practices that benefit people and communities. Sheri Flies leads those initiatives from the inside. Trained and experienced as a lawyer, Sheri got the sustainability ‘bug,’ and we’re glad she did!”
– Hal Hamilton
It all started with green beans. As Costco’s corporate counsel, Sheri L. Flies worked on a project with a cooperative of farmers growing French green beans in Guatemala. Convinced that protecting the interests of even the smallest players on the supply chain would benefit everyone, the Costco team worked with researchers to analyze the procurement process from start to finish. The results were eye-opening for Flies.
“What I found out was that a fair return is more than how much farmers get paid per pound,” she explains. “We want to make sure that they and their family are healthy, that they have educational opportunities, that they have clean water and access to adequate health care, that there are adequate inputs for soil and plant health, that yields are maximized and proper harvesting techniques are used, and that, in the end, quality products are produced. All of those factors need to be part of the equation, but at the same time you still have to remain competitive. It takes a lot of creativity from a lot of people to get that to work.”
Though most people would balk at this challenge, Flies was hooked. After completing the Guatemala project she left her 13-year post as corporate counsel to start over in the company’s procurement department.
Today Flies oversees the sourcing of many limited-resource commodities—items like nuts, cocoa, and organic eggs—for Costco’s Kirkland Signature label. For each product, Flies’s team evaluates relationships and processes to maximize the benefits for everyone involved: the farmer, the supplier, the processor, the consumer, and Costco.
“We want to make sure that we give back to the communities that provide us with whatever their treasure is,” Flies explains. To that end, she goes directly to farmers to find out what they need to maintain their livelihood. Her team is helping to set up a literacy program for adults, a cooperative store for a community located hours from the nearest town, and a midwife-run health center for a village that recently lost women in childbirth, among other projects.
“It’s not philanthropy, it’s not charity. It’s the true intrinsic cost of responsible sourcing,” she explains. “If everyone gets a fair return, the system works and it continues to renew itself.”
Flies also works closely with producers to make sure all operations are as environmentally sustainable as possible. Using a greenhouse gas calculator sponsored by Sustainable Food Lab, which partners with Costco on sustainability issues, Flies’s team helped the farms that supply the company’s organic eggs examine their carbon footprint. She also convened a meeting of all the farmers to share ideas about environmentally friendly procedures.
Sustainable Food Lab’s Hal Hamilton commends Flies for her unique approach. “Because she’s led from a sense of purpose as well as being very pragmatic about business,” he says, “she’s been able to connect a lot of people with each other in a deeper way than normally happens in the business world.”
Flies is more than happy to do her part. “I truly believe you know your vocation when your heart’s desire meets the world’s need,” she says. “For me, my heart’s desire is to do this work. I feel so fortunate that Costco has given me the opportunity.”