Asda: sustainability through the eyes of the consumer

While others in the retail sector focus their sustainability strategies on products and supply chains, Asda claims it has created the only plan seeking to be built by its customers. Leigh Stringer finds out more

According to Asda’s head of corporate sustainability, Julian Walker-Palin, sustainability strategies have moved on from the days when companies would tell the consumer how to approach sustainability and what choices to make.

Today, Asda and its competitors are focusing more of their efforts on products and supply chain, which according to Walker-Palin is the right way to approach sustainability “because this is where the majority of our environmental impact is”.

However, Walker-Palin claims that Asda’s strategy is unique in the fact that it is “seeking to be built by customers” rather than by the company.

Walker-Palin says: “I intend our strategy to change over time to be that customers tell us what we should be focusing on and us building targets around those priorities, really turning it on its head. And that should put the company most in tune with what the people around the country are thinking and demanding in this space”.

The project separating Asda’s strategy is a self-proclaimed ‘pioneering’ study, thought to be the largest ever in Europe solely focused on attitudes to sustainability.

Announcing the study last month, Asda has partnered with the University of Leeds to develop the results and is aiming to create more affordable sustainable products.

The study will use the retailer’s customer panel, also thought to be the biggest in Europe with 7,500 customers participating. Known as the Everyday Experts panel, the study and discussion with the panel will lead to the creation of a “green lifestyle action plan”, which aims to engage people across the UK in sustainability.

Walker-Palin says: “At the back end of 2010, we were looking around at the different studies that were being produced around what customers think about sustainability and we were frustrated that there didn’t seem to be a definitive answer. One study would say one thing another study would say another”.

“They were all quite small scale studies as well with hundreds of people rather than thousands of people and we decided that as a business that is driven by its customers we felt towards the end of 2010 that our sustainability strategy could be driven more by our customers. But in order to do that, we needed to really have a stronger view of what sustainability meant to them”.

One of the study’s main findings was that shoppers considered ‘green behaviours’ to be normal and that they would become “greener in the future”.

It also found that customers do not see huge amounts of information as the way forward. “They are not saying they want us to brand our stores with extra messaging on packs and shelves. What they are saying is some sign posting in store could be helpful and they do like some logos on packs, such as fair trade or messaging on products showing that they are locally sourced,” says Walker-Palin.

The University of Leeds will place a full time colleague into Asda to lead the research, help shape communications, new product development and examine large-scale shifts in customer behaviour.

“We’re very serious about this project, we’ve invested time and money into the project so far and we’ve guaranteed investment over the next two and half years, even to the point of having a full-time head count focusing just on this project.

“I can’t think of any other company, let alone retailer, that has a full-time person just looking at sustainability and how people think about sustainability and how it affects that company,” he added.

The director of business and organisations for sustainable societies (BOSS) research group at University of Leeds, Dr William Young, said that it would look at what will work for the mainstream customer, and not necessarily those who are already committed to a ‘deep green’ lifestyle.

“This means working within people’s busy lives, desires and needs, so that reducing food waste for example becomes a habit and a way to reduce household food costs.

“This is an exciting partnership amplifying our research expertise to an enormous scale to which researchers rarely have access. We’ll be pioneering research methods and tools that will be significantly important in the move to a low carbon society.”

Leigh Stringer, edie energy and sustainability editor

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