Retailers take the lead in sustainability

Sustainability is a bit like quality: everyone talks about it but few give a clear definition when it comes to practical and concrete specifications. Just as importantly, leadership is badly needed to transform the talking into effective action.

The future is in our handsAs long as the lawmakers remain slow to bring up the change and the clarity to give clear directions, we will need the leadership of some of the most influential players in consumer markets to get things moving.

Even environmental organizations and sustainability bodies have some difficulties to agree with each other. For example Greenpeace does not seem to think that the guidelines from the Marine Stewardship Council offer solid enough guarantees that products brought to market according to these guidelines truly are sustainable. Clearly, this is an area in continuous evolution and the ideal concept is still in the making.

The consumer themselves are both still under informed as well as overwhelmed by all sorts of contradictory messages to know clearly which choices to make, therefore some decide of what to buy either based on philosophical or on financial reasons.

Similarly, many businesses are trying to find their green way as they can, but there again the lack of a strong regulatory frame and the uncertainty of the return on the green investment do not help them. The result is that, although the awareness about sustainability among businesses has grown substantially over the last few years, many companies have taken rather timid steps so far, limiting their actions to the least costly possible and the most PR and marketing-driven. They claim to go green, they communicate a lot about it, but the progress is slow.

Yet, some companies take more initiative, show leadership and push to make the whole supply chain evolve to sustainable production systems. A very active sector in this area is the retail. Retailers in the UK such as Tesco or Waitrose, in Canada with Loblaw’s and Overwaitea Food Group, and of course especially Wal-Mart in the USA have definitely made their choice. They clearly understand that the future cannot be anything but sustainable and they are demanding that their suppliers now come with products that meet the requirements of tomorrow. Last month Wal-Mart demanded from all their suppliers to “develop comprehensive programs to promote sustainability and transparency – or else contemplate a future without Wal-Mart as a customer” (read article).

Tesco is now indicating the carbon footprint of milk products on the labels (see article “Environmental performance on food labels”); Waitrose, Loblaw’s and Overwaitea are going for sustainable fish products, adopting for example the SeaChoice specifications as their guideline. Wal-Mart stores have already implemented a number of measures to reduce their carbon footprint by reducing the energy consumption, and they have already have made some of their suppliers introduce different product presentation. For example, they were the first to demand laundry detergent to be more concentrated and packed in smaller containers. This saved water, it saved energy used to transport useless water, and it saved plastic used for the jugs and for the pallets on which the product was transported. Today, concentrated laundry detergent in smaller jugs is the standard. Without Wal-Mart pushing for the change, we probably still would use the old product in the old packaging.

Copyright 2009 The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

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