Leaders: Waitrose - Top of the Food Chain

The concept of sustainability is nothing new to Waitrose supermarkets. Despite the economy, it is building and refurbishing stores but, writes Tom Idle, it has substantially reduced its emissions relative to its sales - and is on target for a 10% carbon cut by next year

Despite producing a separate corporate social responsibility report, CSR is just "business as usual" for Waitrose. As the supermarket arm of the John Lewis Partnership, the business has taken environmental issues seriously for a number of years - from environmental protection and sustainable product sourcing, to responsible farming and agriculture. "The importance we attach to these responsibilities is embedded throughout our business operations, from the shop floor to the boardroom," says Mark Price, the company's managing director.

The absence of external shareholders (every employee is a partner, effectively owning a piece of the business) has meant that Waitrose, and the John Lewis Partnership in general, has been able to make long-term business decisions, putting sustainability at the core, rather than chasing quick-wins to appease the City. But the firm's CSR activity is not just about doing the right thing, "it's just good business sense", says Price.

Despite the recession, Waitrose has ambitious growth plans. It is building new stores, refurbishing older ones and last October, even opened a branch in Dubai. With that growth has come an increase in carbon emissions. The entire Partnership's total carbon emissions in 2007 were up 8% on the previous year to just under 380,000 tonnes, of which 251,574 was attributable to Waitrose.

But the company's strict carbon management programme has seen a 16% reduction, relative to sales, between 2001 and 2007 and it is on track to meet its target of cutting emissions by 10% by 2010, 20% by 2020 and 60% by 2050.

The company will continue to source 100% of its electricity from renewable providers. The store in Rickmansworth receives its power from two tomato farms in Chichester and Stansted through Green Energy UK. The farms' combined heat and power (CHP) units produce heat for the tomato-growing greenhouses, CO2 which aids the growing process and electricity, which Waitrose buys for its shop.

The supermarket chain uses 454 million kilowatthours of gas and electricity a year to power its shops, offices, the Leckford Estate (a 4,000 acre farm that the company bought in the 1920s) and its four distribution centres. Due to business growth this has gone up over the last five years, but there has been a 19% improvement in shop energy efficiency since 2004.

However, recognising that efficiency drives will only go so far towards meeting its climate change goals, the company has made significant investment in updating its refrigeration systems which account for 64% of electricity use. Now in the third year of a five-year programme that will see £55M invested in new equipment. Upright freezers are being replaced by cabinets with glass doors, flexible doors are being used for walk-in coldrooms and night blinds are being added to retain cool air. HCFCs are also being phased out, well before the 2010 legal obligation deadline.

Waitrose is also working hard to reduce the distance food travels - between where it is produced and where it is sold - by identifying more efficient means of transport, supporting local and regional food growers, and improving route planning systems. Last year, the firm's 795 vehicles drove 17.5 million miles.

As reported in Sustainable Business last year, the Partnership's chairman, Charlie Mayfield has laid down a challenge to commercial vehicle manufacturers to develop prototype eco-vans and trucks for the company to trial. In the meantime, 1,583,044 miles were avoided last year through back and forward hauling.

As a signatory to the Courtauld Commitment (signed by a host of retailers to cut down their packaging), the supermarket recognises that although essential for the integrity, safety and usability of its products, packaging needs to be reduced. It is a long-term programme, but the firm has already reduced the weight of the cardboard sleeve used for its breaded fish by a third, its salad bag film by 14%, and the plastic pots of its Delicatezze range by 20%, by removing the lid. The strawberry punnets are now made from 100% recycled PET and for its Easter egg range last year it removed all cardboard and used plastic with 40% recycled PET.

Beyond its stores, the long-term relationship Waitrose has developed with its suppliers ensures its customers can have trust in the 40,000 product lines offered. "Whenever we work with our British producers, we are doing much more than striking a deal with suppliers," says Price. "We are making agreements with the people who ensure our country's long-term ability to feed itself." All suppliers are assessed against the firm's Responsible Sourcing Code of Practice, which sets out views on acceptable working conditions. The company uses Sedex, a large database of labour standards, to allow suppliers to self-assess their workplace practices against those expected by Waitrose. The system covers 22,000 sites of employment in 143 countries, allowing the firm to access hundreds of ethical audit reports.

Meanwhile, the Waitrose Foundation, set up in 2005, is an independent charity which allows the company to support schemes in communities where suppliers live and work. For example, in South Africa, where Waitrose gets a lot of its fruit, 58 social, educational and health projects have been established using cash from the Foundation. The projects include things like literacy training, IT skills and life skills that might help workers earn a living outside of the fruit-growing season.

Ask anyone why they would shop at Waitrose, and they are more than likely to refer to the quality of the food. But more and more customers are demanding to know where that food comes from, how it was produced and whether the suppliers were paid fairly. So, Waitrose enforces ethical sourcing policies, supported by inspections and farm assurance schemes. And it is keen to communicate this effort in the form of labelling, containing nutritional information, the country of origin and certification marks for verified ethical standards like Linking Environment and Farming and the Marine Stewardship Council. "Few things in life are as important as the food people buy," says Price.

As one of the country's leading food retailers, Waitrose has a great opportunity to lead on climate change, fair trade and sustainable supply chain management. These are incredibly complex issues with no easy solutions. But the commitment shown so far by the John Lewis Partnership is impressive and will hopefully help encourage more responsible retailer activity in the future, as well as aiding the much needed change in consumer behaviour.

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