Speaking at an Economist event in London on Thursday (22 March), Coupe said the nation’s retailers “don’t stand a chance” in the fight to improve recycling rates of plastics due to diversified approach to collection and waste management.

“Plastic packaging is a failure of public policy in that we don’t have a unified recycling policy in the UK,” Coupe said. “If you’re a retailer, you don’t stand a chance because every single local authority has a different approach to recycling.

“Unless there’s a framework for the whole of the UK, it’s impossible to solve the problem and I make that very clear to politicians. You have to have unified and global frameworks to make these types of things work.”

The UK currently has to adhere to the amended Packaging and Packaging Waste Directive, which sets a minimum recovery target of 60% and a recycling target of 55% for packaging waste. Percentage levels vary across materials, but plastics need to reach 22.5%. The amount of plastic packaging being recycled in the UK is up by 20% year-on-year, with the amount heading to landfill falling by 9.5%.

The Government has pledged to eliminate all “avoidable” plastic waste by the end of 2042, as part of the 25-Year Environment Plan, but Coupe isn’t alone in criticising current packaging policy and legislation. The likes of Lidl, Aldi and Iceland have all back a deposit return scheme for plastic containers, while Tesco is just one retailer calling for an overhaul of the Producer Responsibility Obligations (PRO) system.

Coupe has been chief executive of Sainsbury’s since 2014 and has helped steer a commitment to reduce volumes of own-brand packaging by 50% by 2020 compared with 2005 levels. Sainsbury’s is almost two-thirds of the way to this goal, but Coupe dismissed notions that retailers could easily switch to biodegradable or compostable packaging.

Sainsbury’s sells approximately 250 million items each week and has established long-running supply chains across 60 countries. Coupe explained that significant amounts of capital had been invested into packaging supply chains that couldn’t be abandoned by the retailer “overnight”.

“Many of our suppliers have a lot of embedded capital in machinery that they have invested in over decades,” Coupe said. “To change the substrates of plastics and packaging will require a huge amount of investment over time. It can take decades.

“There are certainly things we can do as a business to reduce the amount of plastics more generally, but it is naive to think you can switch on recycled plastics overnight as a way of solving a broader problem, due to the amount of embedded capital in a very efficient, and highly-invested supply chain.”

However, Coupe claimed Sainsbury’s has a track record of going “way beyond” legal requirements when it came to corporate sustainability and responsibility. Sainsbury’s recently became the second retailer in the UK to publicly release its food waste data, which is not a legal requirement, three years after Tesco, while it became the first company in the world to incorporate “closed-loop” natural refrigerant trailer units for its delivery vehicles to reduce HFCs.

Defensive and offensive

Coupe was adamant that Sainsbury’s should lead, rather than follow, the sustainability agenda and noted the importance that a holistic strategy can have as both a competitive driver and a defence mechanism.

While plastic has been the single lightening rod that has sparked consumer demands in recent months, new allegations regarding data harvesting and the ethics of some technology specialists have led to new public questions on data management.

Coupe noted that business actions would have to be “defendable in the court of public opinion” and suggested that sustainability strategies would help companies alleviate public concerns over issues that are yet to emerge as widescale challenges.

“When we think about how we run our business we have to think about it in two dynamics,” Coupe added. “One is, there are sustainable sources of competitive advantage by doing the right thing… and there’s also a defensive approach.

“We have to start from the point of view that we are judged in the court of public opinion. Regardless of legal frameworks, we have to be able to tell our customers that we are doing the right thing, even if they’re not top of the consumer mind. Things can rear their heads in the public domain because of another organisation failing to do the right thing. We have to make conscious choices.”

Matt Mace

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