Sustainability in focus as retailers look to meet ethical shopper demands

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Source: Unsplash/Kentaro Toma.

As a society, we’ve become more aware of our impact on the environment and, over the past few years, many of us have made simple changes to our purchasing habits. These changes continue to rapidly increase with the rise of the sustainable shopper gaining prominence, largely due to the emergence of young consumer activists, an increase in social media awareness, and the ability of those on higher incomes to absorb the costs associated with producing eco-friendly products.

Australian retailers are responding by being proactive in reducing their environmental footprint across store formats, prioritising energy efficiency, adopting sustainable packaging, addressing ethical sourcing, and implementing company-wide sustainability policies. In May 2021, major supermarkets, and multinationals such as Coca-Cola and Nestle, signed a pact to eliminate plastic waste from supply chains in Australia by 2025.

Retailers are continually evolving their practices to become more sustainable despite the challenge of materials, processes and regulations. This includes implementing several sustainable changes across many elements of a retailer’s operations in the form of reducing, minimising and adapting. 

Single-use plastics are being phased out

Reducing plastic continues to be the biggest change we have seen in recent years and the most significant measure continues to be the removal of single-use plastic bags from supermarkets. 

This has encouraged us to purchase enviro-bags or purchase re-usable bags during our shopping. State governments across the country have also vowed to go further, with Western Australia banning plastic bags by December 2021 and single use-plastics by 2022, four years earlier than planned. 

The NSW government has also announced it will seek to ban items such as single-use plastic bags, cotton buds and straws, as part of a five-year plan costing $356 million. Other states have similar announcements and changes within their respective jurisdictions with the same aim of reducing plastic.

At the same time, bring your own (BYO) refillable containers have been an emerging and continuing trend. As an alternate option to using provided zip lock bags at supermarkets, Coles is encouraging the use of containers for its ‘scoop and weigh’ products and its laundry and soap products. Overseas retailers such as ASDA have introduced shampoo, pasta and rice refillable stations which are gaining momentum and expanding in categories. Independents such as local co-ops have long led the way in this regard and continue to push included categories further.

Supermarkets have also recognised the need to reduce their environmental footprint by making their energy use efficient. Simple measures have included tackling high wastage in refrigerated aisles by installing night blinds on open refrigerated structures, anti-condensation heater controls on glass door freezers, and cool room controllers, many of which have been implemented by Coles in its public environmental policy.

Other measures include climate control to better manage fresh air in store and reduce air-conditioning. Plus, installing LED lighting and automated lights can reduce energy use outside of trading hours. Woolworths has also implemented many similar initiatives, including installing solar panels in selected locations across its entire portfolio, while retail landlords have improved their green credentials by building, renovating or adapting existing premises with energy efficient practices.

Ethical sourcing on the rise

Ethical sourcing has become a rising concern in which larger retailers are facing increasing pressure to understand and consider the origins of the goods they sell, and what happens to their food choices from farm to offering within their supply chains. 

Ethical sourcing also involves respecting labour laws, fair wages for employees and safe working conditions. Given supermarkets own and control private labels, they have been more openly transparent and committed to sharing information with us as their customers. 

For example, Coles prides itself on using independent and internationally recognised certification programs for its own brand of tea and coffee, and where cocoa and palm oil are used as an ingredient in their own brand products. In addition, all seafood products have Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certification or meet Coles Responsibly Sourced Seafood criteria. 

Woolworths, meanwhile, requires all of its suppliers to comply with its Responsible Sourcing Policy framework. Large multinationals are also not immune from this responsibility and have made significant global changes that local operators in Australia can implement to ensure they protect and respect international labour, economic, climate and employment laws. 

Reducing waste

Reducing landfill is an important step and customers have long demanded that retailers reduce their fresh food wastage and what goes into landfill. Independent retailers and supermarkets have since implemented solutions to achieve a zero-food waste goal by 2025.

Some retailers, including fruit and vegetable grocers, now sell a portion of cosmetically damaged produce that is edible and ideal for many recipes. Other methods include donating unused/unsold produce to local food kitchens such as OzHarvest and Foodbank to ensure those less fortunate are supplied with nutritious and regular meals.

Multinationals have also stepped up by reinventing sustainable solutions for packaging and introducing products such as eco-nappies that are now made from partly bio-degradable materials and with less toxic materials. Plenty of examples exist and demonstrate how businesses in Australia and around the world are adapting to meet demand and improve their own green credentials. 

With the emergence of electric vehicles, opportunities to further reduce carbon emissions and operations will help enable additional green programs, including other processes such as regenerating forests, using more efficient technology and replacing fuel-based vehicles into electric technology. 

In the coming years, as governments, retailers and the wider public continue to push sustainability goals higher to achieve greater levels of ethical and sustainable practices, social responsibility will become ingrained in our hearts and minds in the future.

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