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Thursday, 13 August 2009

Reduce That Footprint: Large Retailers Outline Waste Strategies

With corporate responsibility and sustainability becoming increasingly integrated into overall business strategy, several large retailers’ environmental performance have been hitting the headlines these last few days.  Belgium’s Delhaize Group which also operates the Food Lion and Hannaford supermarkets in the US disclosed its global carbon footprint and plans to reduce its impact on the environment, while UK supermarket giant Tesco is now diverting 100% of waste in the UK away from landfill.  Meanwhile Wal-Mart announced last month that it plans to use environmental footprint data from thousands of US suppliers to create a product sustainability index, as part of its drive to establish a sustainable supply chain.

In Belgium, Delhaize switched to renewable energy in 2007 and has managed to cut energy consumption by 30% compared to 2005 by installing doors on refrigeration units, while the majority of its Food Lion stores in the US have achieved 35% less energy use and at least 35% lower CO2 emissions than comparable facilities.  The Group has set further targets for energy efficiency, recycling and zero emission refrigerants.

Meanwhile Tesco’s recent announcement that it has eliminated landfill waste through comprehensive recycling and treatment programmes has generated mixed reviews in the green blogosphere.  Their zero waste strategy includes sending around 5,000 tonnes of out-of-date meat to biomass-to-energy plants annually, producing 2500 megawatt hours of renewable energy - enough to power about 600 homes for a year, says Tesco. 

While the zero waste target is impressive, a waste reduction or even elimination strategy would be even more welcome.  To a non-specialist, 5,000 tonnes of waste meat per year does sound like a lot and this disclosure has upset vegetarians, animals rights groups and environmentalists.  As one blogger pointed out, recycling meat is just not efficient.  ‘Whatever savings are made by turning this meat into energy is more than voided by the huge amount of greenhouse gases generated by the farming and production of the meat in the first place,’ Justin Kerswell, campaign manager for Vegetarians International Voice for Animals explains.

Society loves to consume but these recent stories show that more and more retailers are putting sustainability at the top of their agenda and this can only be a positive.  UK retailer Marks & Spencer announced one of the first and most acclaimed eco-plans back in January 2007 and since then other chains have sought to follow their lead.  ‘Plan A’, as the M&S environmental strategy is known, because according to their tagline “There is no Plan B”, sets out a bold commitment to become carbon neutral in the UK by 2012, with additional targets on recycling, renewable energy and fair trade.  With retail multinationals such as Wal-Mart and Tesco keen to expand further in emerging economies such as China, it remains to be seen whether they can stick to their goals on sustainability in the race for these profitable new markets.