For many businesses, trying to find low-carbon vehicles that are up to the job has been a struggle. But the John Lewis Partnership may have found a solution by holding a competition to encourage suppliers to up their game. Tom Idle reports

Reading about the John Lewis Partnership is enough to bring out the green-eyed monster in anybody.

As I write this, the company has just reported record profits (one of few retailers to do so in recent years) and all 70,000 staff at John Lewis department stores and Waitrose supermarkets will share a bonus of around £180M. Whether they happen to be the chairman or chief executive, or just part-time shelf stackers, everybody shares in the success of the business and each will receive around 20% of their salaries as a bonus payment. It’s no wonder that every year 700 people celebrate their 25th anniversary working for the company – nobody wants to leave.

“This is the best retailer in the UK,” says managing director of the 26 John Lewis shops, Andy Street.

And this ethos of looking after others while making vast some of cash extends into the way the John Lewis Partnership views its responsibilities towards the environment.

Chairman Charlie Mayfield refuses to jump on the bandwagon recently wheeled out by rivals Marks & Spencers, which is now charging customers for plastic carrier bag use. He argues that only 0.3% of rubbish sent to landfill is plastic bags anyway.

Instead, the partnership has a keen ambition to tackle, what he calls, the big issues – such as climate change, renewable fuels and transport.

Engineers, technical managers, sales people and some of the bosses from the leading vehicle manufacturers and suppliers littered the foyer of the Sir Bernard Miller Centre in Odney, Berkshire, home to John Lewis’s residential training centre. Scurrying in one by one, sipping cups of coffee and chatting excitedly, they had all been invited here to find out more about the latest sustainability initiative by the John Lewis Partnership – its Eco Van & Eco Lorry Challenge.

To keep the shelves at Waitrose stocked and to keep the whole business running, the company uses 1,700 lorries and vans. And its 1,110 company cars travel 43M miles a year – that’s 0.14% of the UK’s total. Transport is the second biggest contributor to the firm’s CO2 emissions.

In its 2007 CSR report, John Lewis recognises this huge impact and pledges to reduce the number of miles driven year on year. But it is in the area of using alternative fuels and vehicles that the company sees a potential to deliver real action on its emissions. Despite all new vehicles in its fleet being equipped with the latest Euro 5 engines, there has been limited success in evaluating alternative fuels. Step forward, the eco-vehicle challenge.

The scheme was launched earlier this year and run in partnership with Cenex, a centre of excellence for low-carbon and fuel cell technologies. And it seems to have got the juices flowing within the John Lewis supply chain.

It has allowed the leading players in the commercial-vehicle and automotive-technology industries to share their knowledge on low-carbon transport. “Technology will save the world,” according to the partnerships’ deputy head of transport, David Sheppard, who keenly kicked off the launch event, excited to have so many key people from around 20 different vehicle makers in one room at the same time. The rather boyish-looking Charlie Mayfield was also there, equally thrilled by the prospect of “all brains being focused on the big challenge of our time”, as he put it.

So, what is the challenge and how will it work? Well, the partnership is daring technology providers to bring forward low-carbon vehicles for the company to put into real fleet usage over the next two to three years.

The idea is that it will enable both the business and other fleet operators to better understand the carbon and lifecycle cost savings potential of new and emerging low-carbon vehicle technologies. “The objective is to break down the barriers and lay down a challenge,” says Sheppard.

At the end of the project, independent data will be available on the performance of the new technologies and this will then aid the formulation of the specification of the next generation of vehicles to be bought by the partnership. And, of course, the companies behind the best and most efficient solutions will be in pole position to gain new business.

The problem right now for Sheppard is the current performance being offered by the low-carbon vehicles currently on the market. “Some vehicles say that they don’t produce any emissions, but you get penalties in performance,” he says.

The John Lewis fleet is mostly made up of vans, rigid trucks, articulated trucks and refrigerated trailers. And, in investigating how best to cut the carbon arising from this fleet, it quickly became apparent that its aspirations punch well above what the current technology allows. The eco-challenge is a clear signal to the commercial-vehicle industry to up its game because it wants to adopt better, alternative trucks and vans.

The aim is to get a 20% reduction in the CO2 footprint from current performance. But what technologies are on offer? The partnership wants to look at the full range – from electric and hybrid, to hydrogen and fuel cells. And, despite the ongoing argument surrounding the sustainability of biofuels (see page 36), it is also interested in trialling high-bio-content fuels from renewable sources such as bio-methane from waste.

The challenge aims to provide innovative solutions in four vehicle categories: 3.5-tonne refrigerated vans; 7.5-tonne vehicles; 38-tonne tractors; and, semi-tractor refrigeration units.

It’s not the first time the John Lewis Partnership has shown innovation in this area. Some recent carbon-footprinting work carried out by the company shows that its fleet operations produced 57,997 tonnes of CO2 in the financial year 2006/07 – so tackling the impact is a key objective and has been for many years. In 1986, the two-layer deck trailers were bought in to reduce food miles. It was unique and the initiative picked up many awards and plaudits. Then, in 1993, under-mount refrigeration was used for all trailers, among other things reducing the noise produced by he unit, Again, this was innovative, unique and ahead of the game.

In 1999, the continuously regenerating trap (CRT) was introduced: an emission-controlling technology designed for large diesel engines that pump out a lot of NOx. Today, the CRT is widely used everywhere but back then John Lewis was pushing boundaries.

Not all innovations have been a success, however, as Sheppard admits. In 2000, the firm launched a project to produce a fuel-less trailer. “It was a failure because we couldn’t engage enough technology providers,” he says.

Most recently, the transport team has been dabbling with pure plant oil. But it’s this latest scheme that is really exciting for Sheppard and his team. As he states: “CO2 emissions have never been considered before – it’s all been about particulates.

“Doing nothing now is not an option. We will never know when our actions – or lack of them – will come back and bite us,” he adds.

And the challenge set by the John Lewis Partnership is an important step in the right direction. After all, as Greg Archer, director of the Low Carbon Vehicle Partnership, admits: “There is a limited range of low carbon vehicles available.” And the Eco Van and Eco Lorry Challenge is an important initiative to help ensure this situation changes in the future.

And it can be done, according to former environment secretary John Gummer. He cites the example of the US motor industry, which was up in arms about the pressure to introduce new environmental measures in the cars they were making. “They said: ‘If we agree to Kyoto, we’ll go out of business,'” says Gummer. “But six months later, they had succeeded.”

And he applauds the John Lewis Partnership for showing leadership by encouraging the low-carbon transport sector to innovate, as well as making the move towards a low-carbon business. “Don’t wait for the Treasury,” he advises companies. “The more businesses move before the government, the better the parameters. In the future, carbon is going to be an important part of how government taxes. Businesses that prepare now for being a low-carbon operation will succeed.”

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