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:
- 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.