Retail giant B&Q is no slouch on sustainability. But, in 2008, it brought in some impressively stringent self-imposed guidelines - in the form of the One Planet Living initiative - which it hopes will benefit its bottom line as well as the environment, writes Duncan Brown
Inside the building, from the basement to the roof, the shelves are stacked the height of four men with stone tablets, shovels, fencing, strimmers, drill bits, batteries, curtains, ovens, and hundreds of thousands of other enormous or minute products all neatly ranged and labelled. Outside, Christmas trees are ranked like a private army along a concrete ravine beside the underground level, where tonnes of fertiliser, gravel and soil stand in invincible square piles.
Sutton is one of more than 300 B&Q stores in Britain, part of an operation that employs about 38,000 people across 323 stores and has an annual turnover of about £4B. But, for almost two decades, B&Q has been a leader in sustainable business, and a successful one. In 2008, it brought in some of the strictest green guidelines a business of this size has ever seen. But it says that, working with its consultants, it's hammering out a solution with as much benefit for the business as it will bring to the environment.
To give an idea of just how strict the guidelines are, in February 2008 it came out with a mission statement that calls for, among other things, an 89% reduction in carbon emissions by 2030. This is for a company with a fleet of 240 vehicles and 118 heated warehouse-size stores, which sells vast quantities of timber, paint, lawn mowers and other environmentally questionable items. It also plans to be recycling 90% of its waste by 2012. It is, as B&Q's official announcement at the time put it, "not a decision we have taken lightly".
Sustainability on this scale is a proposition that many businesses will greet with scepticism, even outright disbelief. As Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman said in 1970, "there is one and only one social responsibility of business - to use its resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits so long as it stays within the rules of the game".
What B&Q is doing is acknowledging that the "game", such as it is, has fundamentally changed. Not beyond recognition. But to the extent that it sees operating sustainably as a vital hinge of its business model, introducing it on this revolutionary scale is a fresh - and risky - approach. B&Q is either making a terrific leap forward or condemning itself to be a dying business in a dying world.
"I think it started when Greenpeace started asking questions about our tropical timber in the early 90s" says Gin Tidridge, manager of B&Q's sustainable product range One Planet Home. A journalist had phoned B&Q in 1990 to ask how much tropical timber it sold. Believing that the company didn't know, the journalist concluded it didn't care.
Swift consultation with stakeholders led B&Q to becoming a founding member of the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) in 1993, in partnership with the WWF. B&Q capitalised on its former bad publicity by turning its new FSC-accredited wood range into a flagship product, with itself leading a new market in sustainable timber.
This was good business. But the company's ambitions didn't stop there. During the 1990s, it centralised its distribution network to save six million transport miles a year; pledged to reduce and eventually eliminate harmful peat from its products; and set up QUEST, a supply chain monitoring system. Since 2000, nine out of ten of its stores have been built on brownfield sites (land formerly used for industrial purposes), it stopped selling patio heaters, and introduced "smart" irrigation systems in 28 Scottish stores.
The sustainable projects have always been built on a backbone of commercial interest. But the new initiative, called One Planet Living (OPL), raises the stakes considerably on both sides. The premise, developed with the WWF, is simple: the average European consumes three times as many resources as the planet can supply. OPL is living within your ecological means.
B&Q has signed a three-year contract with UK OPL consultants BioRegional, and it will have its first annual review next month. Jonathan Couper, in charge of sustainability at B&Q, explains how it's changed things. "BioRegional come and say to us: 'This is what you said. And this is what you delivered. Now this is what you're going to have to do next'."
He adds: "You think you're doing things the right way, and then they come along and give you a...", he pauses, "...a different perspective."
Some of the targets look tough enough on paper. In the present economic climate, reducing your landfill waste by nine tenths over three years is a Herculean undertaking. Scrap metal and waste paper prices evaporated last autumn, leaving B&Q's existing model for selling off its waste unviable. At the time of writing, it still hadn't nailed a way around the problem.
Despite this, Couper is sanguine about the way BioRegional pushes so rigorously. "We don't want to have a soft target. What's the point of a soft target?"
Economic circumstances at the end of 2008 haven't been encouraging. The chain reported a sales drop of 9.2% at the end of November under the increasingly shaky market conditions that saw Woolworths go under. But, Gin Tidridge says, they're still turning out initiatives.
"These are seeds," she says, indicating a swathe of square envelopes in one corner of the gigantic basement in Sutton. "We thought local food, which is one of OPL's key principles, was a we-can't-do-very-much product. But we're about to launch a massive Grow Your Own campaign for planting time next spring." She leads the way down the canyonesque aisle. "These are unheated propagators for them."
Although they're side by side with the conventional electric propagators, their shelf is marked with a little OPL certificate, which lets the consumer know this is the ethical choice.
The usual problem with the "ethical choice", though, is that it's usually more expensive or less functional than the conventional product. Tidridge is eager to change this. "We want to say to our customers: 'We're doing what we can. If you want to join in, you can'.
"We're not expecting customers to compromise on style or quality," she says. "We're not expecting them to have to go for the expensive one." B&Q has deliberately avoided fitting OPL-compliant products into pricing that pegs them as a luxury alternative. A side effect of this is that the added promotion these products receive in store can act as an incentive for suppliers to get OPL accreditation for their products.
"Instead of threatening suppliers to get One Planet Living accreditation or risk being discontinued, we encourage them to qualify for this extra promotion," adds Tidridge.
"It's not a decision we've taken lightly," reads the announcement. It goes on to say: "It's not a decision we've taken naively."
B&Q has been the first British retailer to sign up for this scheme and its progress will be the acid test of how successful it can be for an operation of this scale. But there's no question that B&Q is committed - it introduced One Planet-branded uniforms for all its staff in January, and is already wrangling with councils over the installation of wind turbines.
Success stories come from surprising quarters. Wherever there's waste there's potential for increased efficiency.
"We used to use a corrugated cardboard box to transport a worktop to a consumer. Now we have a giant padded polypropylene bag," says Couper. "We used to use 11,000 tonnes of cardboard a year this way.
"To get an economic benefit, we need to use it ten times. One bag we've used 80 times. But that wore out, so we turned it into a water butt."
The long-term savings B&Q will make after these measures, and its plan for domination in the sustainable DIY market, promise to ratchet up the benchmark for sustainable business in the UK. And, if the rest of the retail sector turns out as resourceful as it is proving to be, prospects for meeting the increasingly dizzying targets carbon-cutters face over the next few years are only going to improve.
The only question is: can it make it? "We have a saying here at the moment," says Jonathan Couper. "'One inch at a time.'"