Policies, data and imports: tackling the trilemma of collaboration for Britain’s retailers

In the wake of some key waste and resource efficiency issues being brought to light within the UK retail sector, edie's Matt Mace speaks to the British Retail Consortium (BRC) about how to drive collaboration in this highly-competitive market as a means to deliver low-carbon, resource-efficient ways of doing business.

Efforts to create a fertile environment for collaboration among retailers are being hindered by cheap import markets; a “mismatch” of legislation and poorly utilised data collection.

So says the BRC’s director of sustainability and food Andrew Opie, who claims that barriers limiting the prospects of collaborations aren’t reducing company appetite to drive sustainability, but are reducing the amount of “real change” that can be delivered.

BRC members, including Sainsbury’s, Ikea and Kingfisher, account for 70% of all UK retail sales and have pledged to solve sector-wide issues in an effort to promote sustainable practices and produce sustainable products.

However, the retail industry as a whole has been barraged by waves of intense media campaigns, most recently driven by celebrity chef-turned eco-warrior Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall with his War on Waste TV series, highlighting the sustainability issues that still plague a variety of retail sectors.

But for Opie, who is speaking at edie’s Responsible Retail conference next month (scroll down for details), the BRC is encouraging its members to converse with organisations that can deliver change.

“We need to choose the most effective partners to deliver real change,” Opie says. “It’s less about headlines because consumers don’t see a lot of the work that is going on. Current collaborative efforts are a reflection that the buying power of UK markets is diminishing around the world, despite consumers wanting better and more responsibly-sourced products.

“UK markets need to influence other global buyers, where there may not be the same responsible sourcing requirements that our members have. The only way you can do that is by building scale in collaborative action. That’s what’s driven our interest and a recognition of the catalysts for change and how we can drive collaboration both inside and outside of the UK.”

Contorted imports

For Opie and the BRC, the lack of responsibility and standards that occur in global markets such as China have paved the way for unethical fast-fashion to stifle attempts to generate a sustainable market for UK retailers. This issue isn’t just haunting the textile and food industries, it has also had dramatic ramifications for the UK’s floundering steel market, leading to the collapse of Tata Steel.

But for retailers, corporate social responsibility goes beyond the imports – which are affecting the UK’s carbon footprint – of one material and creates a navigational dilemma of sourcing materials and products such as cotton and fish in a sustainable manner.

That’s not to say that the BRC and its members are failing to act in these areas. While companies like Marks & Spencer have signed up to the UK’s Responsible Fishing Scheme, the BRC has been working in global markets to eradicate illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing standards, and at times, has had to use the leverage of its members to indict change.

The BRC itself collaborated with the European Commission (EC) and the Environmental Justice Foundation to produce a guide on how companies can source non-IUU fish. The BRC’s commitments went beyond informing companies of the issues, and called on US and European companies to write to the Thai Government claiming that it was “risking [it’s] export market by failing to enforce standards”.

Legislative handicaps

According to Opie, the complex nature of national legislations – which has also been voiced by Coca-Cola in regards to promoting closed-loop practices – creates another barrier that retailers are struggling to overcome, not just in developing countries but also amongst the Home Nations.

“Legislation can be a handicap,” Opie adds. “Competition law [across the EU and UK] is set up to look at the impact on individual customers and it doesn’t take into account the wider solutions that can benefit society.

“Rules are inadvertently limiting collaboration and the good that a company could do for the public. Legislation is actually a bit out of date and it’s here where there are changes that we want to make.”

While Opie was alluding to the competition laws for the UK and EU, which lays out the penalties companies can face by promoting “anti-competition” behaviour, he also noted that legislation was failing to mesh with organisational initiatives such as the Courtauld Commitment – a 10-year plan ‘to transform food industry’ in the UK.

The commitment was orchestrated by WRAP, which BRC is working with on a separate food waste system, and was backed by Home Nation governments. However, as Opie points out, around six months later the Scottish Government unveiled its own national food waste framework. The independent target to reduce food waste in Scotland by 33% creates a legislative headache for businesses operating in the country, as they have to attempt to align to both of the commitments.

“The new Courtauld was announced and Scotland has already said it wants a different food waste target. That can be quite difficult for companies,” Opie says. “Governments need to think of the long-term and keep targets consistent and visible to create a better understanding of how to work towards them. It can be really difficult for companies at times and there’s a mismatch between sector operations and political goals.”

The Courtauld Commitment touches on one of the biggest issues facing UK retailers, food waste. According to WRAP estimates, 15 million tonnes of food is wasted in the UK each year, comparing to around 41 million tonnes of food that is purchased.

To remedy these issues, BRC is working in collaboration with the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board (AHDB), the National Farmers Union (NFU) and WRAP to kickstart projects that use data to “drill down and find what reasons are given for food waste at farm level”. In the last year alone, BRC figures have revealed that its members have banded together to reduce supermarket food waste by 20,000 tonnes through a data-driven approach.

Data drive

For Opie, one of the contributing factors to waste pile-ups is the lack of evidence-based research conducted ‘pre-farm gate’, which was leading to aspects such as market purchasing signals, forecasts for demand and over production to meet contracts confusing the suppliers. Companies are reluctant to hand-out sensitive data because they are concerned that it won’t be used effectivel, he says. The cost and burdens of producing the data means that companies are looking for projects where the data will actually make a difference.

“We started an expert group to look at factors and find the real levers that can be used to talk to retailers and farmers on what improvements to food waste can be made,” Opie adds. “It focuses on a much more evidence-based approach, compared to current methods which are pretty under-researched.

“It starts with the evidence gathering and this is the first time that retailers, farmers, processors have all sat down together to look at pre-farm gate waste, where we know that there is a problem but we haven’t had the expertise and the drive to get to the bottom of it. This is where collaboration is essential as you have different people with different specialties and knowledge offering different routes to the issues.

“Because we’ve got all of the key supermarkets in membership we can send common messages and hope for common adoption, this is going to create the biggest difference. But I think you have to convince companies that this isn’t just a data collection exercise but it has a purpose that will benefit both them and their suppliers.”

Consumer habits

Consumer awareness – either driven by the media or government legislation – is also dictating what retailers are having to address within their operations. A recent outburst from MPs on the lack of willingness to phase out microbeads in toiletries and cosmetics has gained traction among consumers, and companies are turning to BRC for help. In response, the BRC will gather relevant businesses and organisations together in the Autumn to tackle an issues that it is “very aware of, but not as far down the track as other issues”.

For Opie, the willingness of companies to address challenges is a positive step and, driven by the Sustainable Development Goals, these companies are now able to strengthen CSR policies at a boardroom level. However, Opie still feels that companies need to engage with consumers in a different manner in order to stave off media storms.

“In regards to consumers, there’s a need to anticipate them as much as there is a need to react to them,” Opie adds. “In very competitive markets, such as the ones in the UK, companies aren’t handling controversy that well and if the issue explodes then that will make a huge long-term difference to how consumers trust you.

“You need to anticipate and understand what consumer values are and reflect it with risk management in supply chains. For us, the principle question is: ‘How do you get a fertile environment for collaboration?’ Because if you get into that position, you’ve got the appetite among companies to actually achieve something and work together.”

Andrew Opie at edie’s Responsible Retail Conference


The British retail Consortium’s director of sustainability and food Andrew Opie is one of the expert speakers at edie’s upcoming Responsible Retail Conference.

Taking place on 21 September in London, the edie Responsible Retail Conference equips retailers, government representatives, sustainability professionals and key stakeholders with the tools they need to achieve more efficient resource use and improve brand reputation in the process.

View the full agenda for this brand new conference here and register to attend here.

Matt Mace

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