20 by 20: how Sainsbury's is trying something new

Waste and packaging are key pillars in the retailer's new sustainability plan, which sets 20 environmental goals to achieve by 2020. Maxine Perella finds out more

Sainsbury's was the first major retailer to commit to sending zero food waste to landfill according to its climate change and environment manager, Jack Cunningham. Although that pledge was made before he joined the company, Cunningham believes it led to a fundamental shift in thinking in how the business viewed its operations with regard to resource efficiency.

Since then, the company has come a long way. In October it unveiled its £1bn '20 by 20' sustainability plan in which it plans to send zero waste to landfill and reduce its packaging to half of 2005 levels by 2020. Cunningham says the company is nearly there with its zero waste goal - he's fairly confident that one will be ticked off within the next 18 months.

But it's the food and packaging aspects of this waste reduction drive that the retailer is most likely to judged on by its customers, and it's something that Cunningham is acutely aware of. "Commercially our most obvious waste stream is food ... volume-wise, it's about a third of our total waste stream, but clearly from a reputational and commercial point of view, it's our biggest, costliest stream."

He adds: "If you look at consumer environmental issues, customers tell us they are most worried about waste and packaging - in terms of what they are left with, not what's generated through the supply chain."

Behind the scenes however, Sainsbury's is looking to take greater responsibility and minimise waste at all stages of the supply chain. When it comes to food, some of it will never make it to shelf especially if it has been damaged in transit. "This will be sitting in our depot network - we take ownership of that waste, but we have an interest in returning some of it to the supplier, especially big brand products where there is a commercial value that we want to recover," explains Cunningham.

The rest of it is either distributed through the retailer's Fareshare food redistribution programme if it's edible, or sent to an anaerobic digestion (AD) plant. Indeed, AD is now the preferred recovery route now for the retailer's food waste and a three-year deal was recently struck with Biffa in this respect.

While Cunningham admits there is a conflict between the Fareshare programme and the AD recovery route and that the volumes given to the charity are likely to reduce going forward, especially as stock management systems become more efficient, he points out that there will always be some food that Fareshare don't want or can't take, and that value needs to be extracted from that.

As for the food that makes it to shelf, it then becomes the individual store's responsibility to manage any wastage. Each store has a waste budget which shrinks year-on-year - this means they are financially incentivised to carry out better stock control and forecasting, and manage the replenishment of products more accurately. Food that doesn't sell is discounted up until its 'best before' date, if it still doesn't sell it then either goes to Fareshare (or a local food charity) or AD recovery.

Where savings can really be made however is in waste prevention and better stock management control across the supply chain. Sainsbury's has worked with WRAP on implementing a forecasting system capable of making real-time decisions to improve product availability, shelf life and waste reduction. The retailer has already carried out some work on two products - tomatoes and salmon - and achieved good results from it.

The company is now looking to embed an extensive waste prevention plan throughout the business, one that will reach out to suppliers as well. "Supply chain wise, we've launched waste reduction as part of a wider sustainability scorecard. Initially it will be about the basics, but at some point we'll work with suppliers on waste prevention and find new ways of utilising product before it arises as a waste," says Cunningham.

Another '20 by 20' goal the retailer has set itself is to collect more waste through its own recycling facilities than what it generates as a business, and Cunningham says the company is reviewing what recycling services it can offer customers. "We're trying to work out whether or not customer recycling is something we can do ourselves, and to what extent we continue to work with and rely on local authority partners - whether we focus on particular waste streams that aren't easily collectible from kerbside or household level," he explains.

He adds: "The aspiration is to do something more positive with our net waste - I think we have a role to play on a national level to increase recycling rates. We've got a partnership with Oxfam on textiles, and partners like Coca-Cola and Unilever will become more important going forward because they are looking for specific materials, and we're generating quite a lot of that material through the product we sell."

The other key issue with regards to waste minimisation is packaging, and Sainsbury's has made great strides along with many other retailers to 'lightweight' and portion size its products better. But as Cunningham points out, packaging is no longer a single issue - it has become a balancing act between shelf-life, product protection and innovation with regards to waste reduction.

He says there could be a trade off in the future with bulkier, heavier materials that are lower in carbon and deliver better shelf life. The trick, he maintains, is to get that message across to the consumer. "Customers expect less packaging, they don't get the argument that says we need to give you more packaging because there's a lower environmental impact of both the food waste and the packaging itself."

As Cunningham points out, retailers such as Sainsbury's are only one part of a highly complex waste management industry supply chain. "We can only do so much to make products consistent in terms of material use, there needs to be demands for those materials and outputs from them."

Future challenges will be how businesses like his can influence consumer behaviour on matters of sustainability - and have a lasting effect. Cunningham pauses to reflect before saying: "We can champion food waste, but how do we influence consumers once they are in the home? There are still some really chunky operational issues with waste in the UK still, about ownership and markets in those materials, that need to be fixed first and we can't do all that alone."

Maxine Perella is editor of edieWaste


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