Exploring water usage: Sainsburys journey to a 50% water reduction

Exploring water consumption throughout Sainsburys estate has been a difficult but rewarding challenge. Announcing last month that it had achieved a total water reduction of 50%, Leigh Stringer discovers the financial gains from cutting water use at one of the largest retailer's in the UK.

A productive month in April, the retailer announced two major achievements that has potentially put it ahead of the pack of the UK’s top supermarket chains and arguably the sector, in terms of sustainability.

Following the announcement that it had cut water consumption by 50% since 2005, the retailer also claimed that it had opened the greenest store in the UK.

Both have been hailed as bold achievements by the industry, while its green store in Solihull looks to set the benchmark for future stores coming into operation.

However, it was the announcement of its water consumption that really caught the interest of those adept with sustainability and the magnitude of the achievement.

Without dismissing the importance of the reduction, Sainsburys head of sustainability Paul Crewe put it down to simply “understanding our water usage”.

“If you don’t measure water consumption you can’t understand what’s happening. So we made a real effort to really analyse this data and understand exactly where our water use was,” he added.

Crewe said this involved automatic meter readings throughout the company’s operations and allowed it to understand the impact of its equipment and, essentially, leaks across its estate.

“This isn’t rocket science. The things that we did are robust, common-sense, pragmatic, problem solving activities,” said Crewe.

One of these problem solving activities included rain water harvesting, which Crewe says has been introduced to all new stores as standard. The company is also retrofitting rain water harvesting units into existing stores.

However, carrying-out high cost technological solutions has been only part of the company’s strategy to achieving substantial water savings. Measures such as low flush toilets and rinse spray taps have made considerable impacts on staff water usage.

“Taps that only generate several seconds of water running for colleagues are simple but effective and when we’ve got over 150,000 colleagues those things make a huge difference,” said Crewe.

Although down playing the savings, Crewe highlighted the impact Sainsburys has had on water usage by claiming it has saved the equivalent of 393 Olympic-sized swimming pools each year, which he says is “quite a visual message to share with our colleagues on the vitally important part they play in reducing water”.

With its 20×20 Sustainability Plan, the company has driven its sustainability agenda inline with its commercial viability and according to Crewe the strategy must, and does, have a positive impact on the bottom line.

Last week, Sainsburys unveiled its Preliminary results up to March 16 2013 which showed that the company’s profit before tax was up 6.2% to £756m. It also showed that customer transaction numbers are up 800,000 to 23 million each week, while it has seen 33 consecutive quarters of like-for-like sales growth.

“Everything we do [to become a sustainable business] has hopefully contributed to the good news about our preliminary results. Ultimately, it has the important impact of doing the right thing by the environment but we look at how to benefit the customer and our colleagues and how we can reduce our impact on the environment,” said Crewe.

He explained that the company is carrying out a “very active ” programme, which has just commenced for this new financial year. “We’re committed to a number of technologies, such as photovoltaics, ground source heat pumps, biomass boilers, continuation of CO2 refrigeration in our stores, LED lighting,” said Crewe.

Much of this technological advancement comes from its collaborations with NGOs and academia. The company has a relationship with Imperial College London and the Grantham Institute, where they work to deploy new technologies across its existing portfolio of stores.

Crewe says the water reduction achievement and the store in Solihull are just a few of the announcements it will be making this year on its work to reduce its environmental impact. Without giving any detail, Crewe says “watch this space”.

Leigh Stringer is the energy and sustainability editor at edie

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