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Retail’s new action plan falls short

A mixed bag of sustainability targets suggests certain companies have been putting the brakes on the sector’s collective ambitions. By Nick Hughes.

The retail sector has a new sustainability action plan. The earnestly titled Better Retail Better World was launched this month at a parliamentary reception attended by leading industry figures, government representatives and campaigners.

Coordinated by the British Retail Consortium (BRC), the plan provides a framework for collective action from the retail sector to address key environmental and social challenges.

More than 25 retailers have signed up including major supermarkets such as Asda, Morrisons and Sainsbury’s, while BRC member Greggs flies the flag for the out-of-home sector.

The issues in focus are familiar enough – greenhouse gas emissions, deforestation, waste, fair employment – but the plan is especially significant for a number of reasons. First (foodservice take note), it’s a rare example of a sector acting as a collective to draw some clear lines in the sand. And second, it uses the Sustainable Development Goals as a framework, thereby ensuring that business goals are aligned with internationally agreed priorities.

So how does the plan measure up? Collaborative initiatives are inevitably defined by what you can persuade the least ambitious company to sign up to. And there are clear signs that certain members have been putting the brakes on the collective ambition.

A pledge to publicly disclose responsible sourcing practices for key raw materials by 2022 puts the group well behind many individual businesses – including many of its own signatories – which have already published commitments for responsible sourcing with accompanying key performance indicators.

Other commitments stand out for the wrong reasons. The vague and timid target to reduce waste to landfill by 2020 puts retail five years behind the food manufacturing sector, which achieved a zero waste to landfill target in 2015, and looks meek in comparison to commitments from foodservice companies such as Vacherin and Greene King.

A promise to ensure that all operational water use is measured is similarly weak. NGOs now speak the language of water risk, whereby what really matters is where your embedded water comes from and what impact it has at source rather than how much you use on your own patch.

Yet despite its weaknesses, the plan has much to commend. A commitment to eliminate deforestation by 2030 is brave; and while the end date is further in the future than some campaigners would like, it at least sets a target against which companies can be held to account.

The promise to publicly disclose business’s climate change vulnerabilities and risks is also a big step forward beyond business as usual. Not only will it help dispel the outdated notion that financial performance and sustainability can be treated as discrete strategic pillars, it also vindicates the efforts of campaigners such as Share Action who have been lobbying investors to account for environmental risks in their investment decisions.

The plan has been validated by campaigners, including WWF, who have publicly backed its objectives; and there’s no doubt it represents a step forward for the sector as much for its sense of collective purpose as for the commitments themselves.

Ultimately, however, Better Retail Better World will need to raise the scale of its ambition for its titular target to be realised.