Grocer buy-in - 25th September 2012

As I meander through the veg aisles of my local supermarket, Matthew the British apple farmer beams down, Chairman Mau-style, from giant posters. He looks like a nice guy, and while the supermarket may be getting a lot of mileage out of him, it does mean fewer nasty air freight and truck miles. In turn that means fresher, healthier produce, reduced carbon emissions, and more of the economic benefits staying close to home; so buying Matthew’s apples is good for us, good for UK plc and no doubt good for Matthew too.
 
An emphasis on local produce is just one of the ways in which big business is trying to be greener. Larger businesses are making all the right noises, and many see themselves as ahead of the game. Meanwhile the would-be “greenest government ever” is adamant that business should not be held back by red tape and that voluntary agreements are the way forward. So who is now setting the agenda? Has business really seized the green initiative from government?
 
In the old days, when all the debate seemed to revolve around carrots and sticks, there was no confusion: legislation set the agenda; business grumbled before complying; and a few savvy operators found ways to capitalise on the green feel-good factor. These days, it’s not so straightforward. It may still be fashionable to diss the environmental record of big business but, increasingly, they seem to be the ones driving behaviour change.
 
What’s making business go green? The British Institute for Facilities Management (BIFM) Sustainability in FM Survey 2011 identified corporate image as the greatest driver for increased sustainability, closely followed by legislation, organisational ethos and senior management leadership. It would appear that ‘doing the right thing’ is becoming a priority, not a hindrance. However, those committed to significant improvement need to bring their workforce with them – a recent study by energy giant Eon showed that just one in 10 staff members saw energy efficiency as part of their role.
 
Staff sentiment is not the only limit to how far business can go in pursuit of green results. The British Retail Consortium’s (BRC) position on carbon reduction legislation is a good example. Its members are, it says, “fully supportive of energy efficiency legislation, but it must be policy that achieves its overall objectives whilst enabling the retail sector to develop and grow in a highly competitive market.” In other words, we’re behind it, but only if it’s good for business.
 
This level of commitment is enough to produce results. We’ve seen impressive achievements on landfill diversion, and even the disappointing Phase 2 of the voluntary Courtauld Commitment on waste reduction has had its highlights. Morrisons, for example, has begun selling misshapen vegetables at a reduced cost. This not only reduces waste – and disposal costs – but also creates additional product lines that return valuable income.
Food redistribution schemes such as Fareshare are also becoming increasingly popular, although I was surprised to learn the motivations of certain shrewd retailers: selling off reduced price products takes up valuable shelf-space, while donating unsold food and using the space to sell full price products, is, they think the more profitable option.
 
With landfill tax now at £64 per tonne, many businesses have already reached the point where maximizing recycling is good business sense. Stansted Airport, for example, has collections in place for all food waste produced in the terminal. CSR may have played a significant role in the decision, but it was taken because disposal to landfill was no longer an economic option.
 
The key question is, what happens at the point when resource efficiency stops being profitable? It seems that business still acts mainly in the short term interest of shareholders, and where this doesn’t incentivise resource efficiency we must rely on something else to advance us further.
Must that be government intervention? The appetite for legislation varies enormously across the UK. Scotland and Wales are working towards ambitious zero waste plans, while the Waste (Scotland) Regulations 2012, require that by 2014 that businesses must start separating a wide range of recycling. If England lags behind legislatively, companies operating across national borders – particularly those signed up to integrated waste contracts – may begin to demand the same waste service across the board; England may adopt the devolved administrations’ rules by default.
 
Legislation can certainly prove useful, especially when supported by transition funding. The problem of separating and recycling mixed plastics, for example, is unlikely to be solved without a helping hand. Programmes such as the WRAP’s ERDF West Midlands scheme to fund plastics reprocessing equipment, and Zero Waste Scotland’s recently announced £2.5 million loan fund for plastics recyclers in Scotland show the how government money can help. Legislative measures could further support this aim by deterring the use of problematic, historically ‘non-recyclable’ plastics.
 
In the short-term, resource efficiency makes good business sense and win-win results are possible. For change on a dramatic scale, legislation may be needed to alter the playing field. The waste management sector has proved surprisingly reluctant to rise to the challenge of the speed of change within our industry – for example, as pioneering businesses began to demand affordable food waste collections – and we may see more examples of the cart apparently dragging the horse. Traditional roles are reversing and service providers need to look sharp to keep up with demand, whether driven by legislators or businesses.
 
This blog originally appeared on the Isonomia website.

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