Retailers take the lead in sustainability

August 23, 2009

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.

Food production and environmentalists: time to co-operate

May 19, 2009

Food is loaded with emotional symbolism. Therefore, this is no wonder that agribusiness industry and environmentalists regularly have conflicts.

After my graduation, I remember reading a book on such matters, which had as introduction about half a page of complaining about how low the quality of bread had gone. The funny part was that the complaint had been found on some ancient Egypt papyrus document!
The agribusiness, being a business, is about making money. As such, this is not shocking since this is what business is about. Of course, this is acceptable as long as this is does not imperil us, and this is, in my opinion, where environmentalists play a very important role. They balance the power and challenge what the food industry does. This is very useful, as it stimulates thinking about what we do, and it can help stopping us from making mistakes. The problem is when this debate slides into the dogmatic and doctrinal sphere. Then, this is no more about the general interest, but about partisan interests only. The debate shifts from the moral to the political.

On the one hand, we have aggressive opponents to the industry, unfortunately too often supported by the media, because sensation is good for ratings. On the other hand, we have the industry that tends to react too rigidly and too defensively, as they resist change very often because of short-term production costs increase, while on the long term they actually delay the possibility of securing their business. Moreover, they spend a lot of money for lobbying purposes, which could be invested in the systems of the future.

Clearly, neither approach benefits the general interest. The sad thing is that both sides always claim to possess the absolute science to demonstrate their points of view. The main result is that the public opinion is confused, which is normal, since unless you are a specialist of these matters, there is no way of knowing who tells the truth. Once, I was attending a conference organized by Marks & Spencer on public perception of animal husbandry and animal production practices. The master of conference then said one very relevant thing: the main source of scientific knowledge for the public over there was The Sun (very popular British tabloid), not Scientific American!

I believe that most has been said in the debate between the food industry and the environmentalists. They rarely say anything new, just the same old things being repeated over and over again.

Not everything is perfect in the agribusiness, as it is work in progress; and consumers deserve to be properly informed, so that they can cast their vote when they shop by electing the good products and rejecting the bad ones. Eliminating bad practices is exactly what can benefit us all.

This cannot be done through confrontation only. It is highly frustrating to hear people opposing something while not offering a solid alternative based on solid evidence, facts and thorough analysis.

The way of the future is a co-operation between the industry and environmental groups, by joining not only their knowledge and science, but also their financial and business understanding to develop and support sustainable solutions. By joining forces, they will help us develop a better agriculture and find the most sensible ways to feed nine billion people and preserve our ecosystems. Such an approach has already started, for instance with the WWF (World Wildlife Fund) and Unilever that created the MSC (Marine Stewardship Council), which certifies sustainable fisheries. The WWF is busy with a similar approach with aquaculture. In Brazil, the beef industry has agreed with Greenpeace on a moratorium on deforestation and they will not expand their ranches at the expense of the rainforest anymore. This type of co-operation needs to be developed to a much larger scale!

Copyright 2009 The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.