Greggs: Businesses need to ‘demystify carbon’ for staff and customers in net-zero transition

EXCLUSIVE: Greggs' first head of sustainability Paul Irwin-Rhodes has told edie about how formally launching a new sustainability strategy with a net-zero target has helped to engage a range of stakeholders, including executives, retail workers and customers.

Greggs: Businesses need to ‘demystify carbon’ for staff and customers in net-zero transition


As was the case for virtually all retail and hospitality businesses in the UK, Covid-19 lockdown restrictions, which closed all “non-essential” retail locations, put bakery giant Greggs into crisis management mode from March 2020. The business, Irwin-Rhodes says, placed more than 23,500 retail workers onto the Government’s furlough scheme, with around 150 people remaining at work in office-based and executive roles.

Nonetheless, the company forged ahead with the continued development of a new sustainability strategy called the Greggs Pledge, which had begun pre-pandemic. Irwin-Rhodes, who was made the company’s first head of sustainability this March, tells edie that he was “pushing on a very, very open door” even during this challenging time.

Speaking exclusively to edie ahead of his appearance at the Sustainability Leaders Forum (scroll down for details), he says: “We’ve had sustainability, in all of its previous guises, in mind. Whether that is badged as social responsibility, CSR, or responsible business, we’ve always done it.”

Irwin-Rhodes has notably been with Greggs for more than 18 years, but says his role’s positioning has previously been more to do with compliance and engagement than strategy. He continues: “In 2018, we had a discussion with our chief executive following a talk with our commercial team and speakers including Mike Barry and Hugo Tagholm…. It was very clear that we were doing a lot of good, but probably not talking about it enough – or considering it as a strategic priority in the first instance. The idea was to build a strategy and properly badge it.

“The Greggs Pledge is that badge. We can tie all our sustainability work onto it and also use it to drive behavioural change within the business. It helps to align people’s thinking.”

Irwin-Rhodes’ first piece of advice for engaging staff with a sustainability strategy is to give them a role in its development. Pre-pandemic, around 90 Greggs staff – a representative sample of the 24,000 it has – were selected to develop the key focus areas, the “kernel of the idea”. Decarbonising in line with climate science was selected, alongside issues that have long been strategic for businesses such as Greggs, like public health and nutrition.

Also important, Irwin-Rhodes argues, are conducting an internal launch first, to familiarize staff with the new targets, and using a catchy name. He draws inspiration in these respects from Marks & Spencer’s long-standing ‘Plan A’ approach, which was first launched in 2007 and recently updated.

“I’m hearing ‘Greggs Pledge’ as a phrase – as jargon – being used informally in business discussions,” he explains. “I hear it from the procurement team, when they are considering the sustainability of a contract, for example. It is already permeating everyday language for us.”

Cutting the carbon jargon

Zooming in on the issue of decarbonisation specifically, the Greggs Pledge commits the business to achieving net-zero operational emissions (Scope 1 and 2) by 2035 and to delivering a net-zero value chain by 2035. These timelines are in keeping with the British Retail Consortium’s (BRC) decarbonisation roadmap for the sector.

The company has measured, disclosed and had a formal target to reduce operational emissions since 2010. However, targets thus far have been intensity-based, and have excluded indirect (Scope 3) emissions.

Irwin-Rhodes tells edie that Greggs will be hoping to achieve 1.5C verification from the Science-Based Targets Initiative  (SBTi) in the first half of 2022, subject to the Initiative’s workload amid soaring corporate interest in net-zero. It will also report its Scope 3 emissions for the first time, following extensive measurement work with Carbon Trust.

Some of the business’s main sources of emissions, Irwin-Rhodes explains, includes its owned and operated diesel fleet of HGVs, and its supply chains – particularly for meat proteins. Tackling emissions sources like these will require high-level decisions and engagement with automotive firms, investors, drivers and suppliers, which are already underway and have plans for acceleration in 2022.

While all kinds of stakeholders will now be aware of the need to accelerate the low-carbon transition, Irwin-Rhodes urges others in his profession not to assume that all audiences understand carbon and climate jargon to the same extent.

“One thing I’ve found this year is that carbon is still quite an ethereal topic for anyone who doesn’t understand it,” he explains. “Simplifying and demystifying has been a key focus this year. All of my exec now understand that, as well as having targets, there are key actions to take and priority suppliers to work with. They know what we need to expect suppliers to be doing.”

A different kind of simplification and demystification approach will now be needed to get in-store staff and consumers on board.

For consumers, there is already information on Greggs’ corporate website and social media channels, but Irwin-Rhodes wants to make sustainability more visible in stores, beyond signs already highlighting energy-efficient fridges and lighting. He tells edie that he and his team will, in the coming months, be exploring eco-labels for carbon footprints of products.

“If we can get this right, as a sector – meaning we have consistency and simplicity – I think we will start to make consumers who might not be carbon-savvy in the first instance making choices based on this,” says Irwin-Rhodes.

In recent months, businesses to have started new eco-label schemes have included Lidl GB, Nestle, Sainsbury’s, Costa Coffee, Marks & Spencer, VeeTee Rice, Upfield and Quorn Foods. The catering firm for COP26, Levy UK + Ireland, also added carbon labels at the conference, in a move that received much media attention, with some vegan groups arguing that all options should have been plant-based to slash carbon further.

As for engaging staff, Irwin-Rhodes says many businesses will – like Gregg’s – be looking at behaviour change schemes that worked well pre-pandemic to improve in-store efficiencies.

“23,500 people in our business can’t really influence some of the big, strategic elements in carbon reduction – but they can play their part,” he summarises.

“It’s not just the decision-makers at the top of the business who need to know about carbon. It’s everybody.”

Sarah George

Register now for edie’s Sustainability Leaders Forum 2022

edie’s biggest event of the year is returning as a live, in-person event for 2022. The dates have been moved from early February to March, to ensure collaboration and celebration can take place in person. 

The Sustainability Leaders Forum will now take place on 8 and 9 March 2022, and will unite hundreds of professionals for inspiring keynotes, dynamic panel discussions, interactive workshops and facilitated networking. There will also be digital tickets.

Taking place at London’s Business Design Centre, the event will feature more than 60 speakers, including experts from Natural England, the Green Finance Institute, the World Economic Forum and the Centre for Climate Repair. We’re planning our most diverse and inspirational programme yet.

Click here for full information and to book your pass.

Paul Irwin-Rhodes from Greggs will be appearing at 11.30am on 8 March for a workshop on strategies for effective climate leadership. He will be joined by experts from the Kraft-Heinz Company and Unilever, as well as London’s deputy mayor Shirley Rodrigues. 


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