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26 February 2018

Why retailers are so crucial to Sustainability

Last week at the North East Recycling Forum, we had a presentation from a DEFRA policy officer about the UK's forthcoming waste plan. She presented a three level lifecycle and asked for ideas on how to engage at each level:

  • Producer
  • Consumer
  • End of Life

I always like to take a step back and consider the premis of a question before I answer it (my Mum always said I was an awkward bugger). And I suggested to the DEFRA representative that there was a vital level missing in this model: retail.

The reason being is that a third of what the UK public spends is spent via retail (and I would guess that this is the most waste-producing third given much of the rest is utility bills, subscriptions etc). Of that retail spending, fully half is via 10 the top 10 retailers, the most prominent being Tesco. The buying power of that 10 not only dominates each market, but shapes it too – if Tesco demanded, say, a new type of recyclable packaging for meat, then it makes economic sense for packaging suppliers to sell that new product to every meat producer, not just those selling to Tesco, and for meat producers to sell the same packaging type to all their customers, not just Tesco.

So, in terms of intervention, here are a small number of players with huge influence – a classic 80:20 situation. And not only that, retailers already see themselves as gatekeepers for the consumer. Marks & Spencer (no 6 in the retailer top 10) talk about doing 'the heavy lifting' for the consumer by ensuring that all new products are in someway more sustainable than their predecessor. 10 years ago, B&Q (part of the Kingfisher group at no 7) refused to stock patio heaters – a massive piece of Sustainability choice-editing.

So retail is in a unique position – they have the buying power to decide what producers produce, and they decide what the consumer consumes, and thus they decide the Sustainability of all of that. And for policy-makers, the small number of big players makes engagement much easier than, say, 60 million UK citizens.

 

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14 December 2011

Growing a sustainable economy at home

About 15 years ago I lived in Hanger Lane in West London. One weekend I was left unsupervised, so I tootled off on my bike to a hill I could see in the distance and looped back around home via a river. Suddenly a magical sight appeared before my eyes - a traditional shopping street with a butcher, a baker, no candlestick maker, alas, but the independent bookshop, fishmongers and deli more than made up for that. Not a chain store in sight. Wow!

I haven't been back to Pitshanger Lane (for that was the name of this retail Narnia) since, so I don't know how it has fared, but that's what I immediately thought of when I read The Portas Review on revitalising the highstreet by the eponymous TV retail guru Mary Portas.

The Review is part of the UK Government's attempt to get the economy going again, by getting people back into town centres. There's some good stuff in it too - all designed to open up the high streets to smaller, more specialist retailers.In my view, the very dominance of big retail on the highstreet has made it vulnerable to e-commerce - why trudge around identikit big sheds if you can find the same stuff online?

To me the world economy looks like one of those cheesy sci-fi movies where an alien disease threatens to wipe out mankind, but medical science is stumped for an answer. Robert Peston's brilliant The Party's Over: How the West Went Bust on BBC2 demonstrated that debt-fuelled consumerism and financial Ponzi schemes are unlikely to get us back to the boom of the mid 90s to the mid 00s. Added to this are determinedly high oil prices and rise wages in the countries to which we have outsourced much of our production, which makes cheap tat much less cheap than it once was.

So can we harness this situation as an opportunity? Can we use the perilous position of the highstreet as an opportunity, not just for a revival of small shops a la Portas, but as a revival of small scale, local, sustainable supply chains? The modern cottage industry can be high tech and lean, able to offer quality and uniqueness, selling products that people cherish, rather than the semi-disposable cheap rubbish of yore. Loops could be closed, creating local supplies of sustainable materials.

There is still space for big shed in my utopian vision, but as actual sheds - warehouses for e-commerce, reaping the sustainability benefits of this type of business and using the local "Post Office" points Portas suggests could store deliveries that come while you are out.

Who knows if it will work, but as in those sci-fi movies, the hero usually just tries lots of stuff before he stumbles on what saves the day.

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4 November 2010

Whose carbon footprint are you part of?

My workshop, "Go Green, Win More Business!", at the Newcastle Winning Business conference went well yesterday with some really enthusiastic contributions from the participants. I'm constantly finding that more and more business people "get it" and the elicitation elements are rarely if ever met with baffled silence as they were a few years ago.

One of the points I kept reinforcing is "whose carbon footprint are you part of?" A few years ago, many organisations ignored the supply chain element of their carbon footprint, but this is now the exception rather than the rule.

If your customers, or indeed their customers, are in the public sector then they will have stiff carbon reduction targets to meet. Take, for example, one of my clients, the NHS. 60% of their footprint is in their supply chain. So they either have to get their suppliers to cut their carbon footprint, or find new suppliers.

If you supply to retail, or to customers who do, then Amazon, M&S, Tesco, Wal-Mart, IKEA and many other big sheds have aggressive supply chain sustainability programmes. You are part of their footprint and you'll be expected to shrink that footprint or take a hike. Lots of other big manufacturers and service providers have their own carbon reduction targets.

Traditionally we think of the business case for sustainability being about "what's in it for me?". Perhaps a more pertinent question to ask is "what's in it for our customers?"

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2 April 2009

More green shoots?

I commented a few weeks ago on the car industry going green to beat the recession. Well last week I saw some evidence that retail, another sector said to be on the brink, is trying the same tactic. John Lewis had given two windows over to green products, clearly believing that this sets them apart from their competitors.


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9 July 2008

The unrecognised recycling sector

On Monday I gave a seminar on carbon footprinting and carbon management (using the Terra Infirma brainstorming tool) at the Association of Charity Shops Annual Conference in Keele. I learnt a lot, as I always do in this trade (I've worked with everyone from multi-national pharmaceutical companies through to a crazy golf course - you pick up all sorts of weird factoids). The sector is a huge, professionally run, and very competitive retail operation, a huge chunk of the reuse industry and a huge source of materials for recyclers. This was not lost on the three recycling companies who sponsored the event.

The seminar went to plan and was well received - despite some shock when we spent half the time actually doing some work. Solutions we generated included checking tyre pressure of vehicles, better use of steamers, buying translucent kettles and even screwing down the thermostat dials. The big contentious issue is open/closed door. As with all shops, open door = more sales but massive energy loss. We didn't resolve this one, but if anyone can think of a solution, post it in the comments.

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