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UK retailers reduce their environmental impact



UK retailers have halved the amount of waste sent to landfill compared with 2005, while cutting energy-related emissions from buildings and CO2 emissions from goods transport by 18%.

Less than 25% of waste produced by UK retailers now goes to landfill compared with 50% in 2005. This dramatic reduction is one result of a comprehensive set of goals signed by retailers in 2008 to reduce the environmental impact of their businesses by 2013.

"These remarkable achievements show retailers’ commitment to tackling climate change has not wavered, despite tough trading conditions,” says Stephen Robertson, Director General of the British Retail Consortium (BRC), following the publication of A Better Retailing Climate Progress Report 2010 by the BRC in September 2010.

Strong industry commitment

In April 2008, a group of well-known retailers that included supermarket chains, clothing stores and DIY groups accounting for 49% of UK retail by market value, launched a series of industry-wide environmental commitments for the following five years. These were intended to remove barriers to progress in responding to the challenges of climate change.

Their commitments included: reducing the direct environmental impact of retail businesses by cutting emissions from buildings and vehicles, minimising water use and reducing waste sent to landfill; managing climate-change risks by planning future supplies and ensuring continuity; and helping customers and staff reduce their environmental impact by offering energy-efficient products, reducing packaging and consistent carbon footprinting of products.

Actions envisaged included:

  • Improving the energy efficiency of vehicles, distribution systems and stores;
  • Minimising waste from operations and sustainably managing any unavoidable waste;
  • Measuring water consumption to drive more efficient and appropriate use of rainwater;
  • Reducing own-brand packaging and encouraging the same for manufacturers' brands;
  • Improving recycling and environmental impact information for customers; and
  • Planning for the effects of less predictable weather on supplies and logistics

Quantifiable progress obtained

Four quantitative indicators were established on the direct environmental impact of UK retail business. And strong progress has already been demonstrated by 2010. Carbon emissions from energy use in buildings and transport have been reduced by 17% and 12% respectively on a like for like basis, and 55% of in-store water use is measured versus 45% in 2005.

"Retailers have a record of delivering environmental results on a voluntary basis,” Robertson points out. But to help retailers go further, they need government help. Supermarkets, for example, need colleges to train engineers to provide maintenance expertise and to encourage the development of low carbon alternatives to hydrofluorocarbon refrigeration systems.

Achieving local impact

“A national approach is the best way to help retailers achieve environmental objectives at a local level," he says. “The BRC on-pack recycling label (OPRL) scheme, which is increasing local authority recycling rates, is a good example.”

Despite an improvement in household recycling rates, the UK has lagged behind the rest of Europe. This has not been helped by increasingly frustrated consumers not knowing what packaging can be recycled. The BRC realised clearer on-pack guidance could improve this understanding. In 2009 it launched the OPRL initiative to deliver a simpler and consistent UK-wide recycling message on both retailer private label and brand-owner packaging.

The BRC scheme had a two-fold objective: to help more consumers recycle more packaging; and to assist local authorities and others in increasing recycling rates for materials that could be recycled but that currently have low collection and recycling rates. At the same, the BRC ensured that its proposal did not conflict with the EU Packaging and Packaging Waste Directive.

The OPRL scheme addresses the following challenges:

  • Keep it simple for customers;
  • Be practical in application to already space-constrained packs;
  • Provide clear advice to customers on how they can recycle in their local area in view of the widely varying provision of recycling facilities across the UK;
  • Ensure that established recycling streams are not contaminated with packaging materials that are not currently recycled; and
  • Encourage development of materials that cannot currently be recycled towards greater recyclability or other suitable means of recovery.

The OPRL, for the first time, provided customers with standardised information to replace the potentially-confusing range of recycling symbols used previously. OPRL is designed to increase recycling rates by telling customers how likely it is that a particular piece of packaging can be recycled where they live. After less than a year and a half, it is already being used on over 50 000 different product lines.

More information

Related information on the EcoAP Website

Practical examples

Next has invested in an in-house recycling centre to divert waste from landfill and is reducing the amount of packaging.

Sainsbury’s has cut water use by harvesting rainwater, reducing mains water needs by 40% in stores where harvesting has been installed.

Argos has improved access to energy-efficient products; its 2008/09 catalogue had 18% more eco-product lines than the previous year.

ASDA has significantly reduced own-brand packaging, saving 48 000 tonnes of waste a year to end 2008 across all packaging types and materials.