Posted: 20/03/2021

Saving the planet won’t cost your business the world

It is impossible to think of any aspect of life that plastic hasn’t infiltrated, and the sheer scale of the waste produced as a result is enormous – estimated at 6.3 billion tons, and only 9% of that has been recycled. Food retail is one area where this crisis is very apparent and, if the current methods of tackling it are not enough, then the industry has to consider other options. FFD asks if it’s time to go zero waste

Picture: The Farm Stratford

We have normalised the phenomenon of waste, says Sian Sutherland of campaign group A Plastic Planet, and we need to move away from the “take, make and throw away lifestyle” we have become accustomed to. “Fundamentally, we need to give our customers the choice.”

And this choice, says Paul Hargreaves of distributor Cotswold Fayre, is something that the public is crying out for. According to research by Capgemini, 79% of consumers are changing their purchasing preferences based on sustainability. To satisfy this growing sector of the buying public, the distributor is set to open a new food hall with a focus on sustainability called Flourish

The founders had wanted the farm shop, located just off the A4 between Bath and Bristol, to be completely plastic-free, but, says Hargreaves, “that just wasn’t viable”. The store will have a number of zero-waste options, though, and those lines will not have a pre-packaged competitor on the shelves, forcing customers hands.

Flourish will host two UnpackagedAT gravity dispenser units – a collaboration between Cotswold and zero-waste brand Unpackaged – with each unit holding around 25 lines, a large serveover containing a wide range of deli items, and all fresh fruit & veg is set to be sold without packaging.

A growing market

Hargreaves and Flourish’s managing director Paul Castle have absolute confidence in the concept, citing the shift in consumer behaviour accelerated by COVID. “A year ago, I may have said that there is some regionality in terms of the appeal of a store like ours, but I think that the pandemic has changed the way people think about consumerism,” says Hargreaves.

“Anyone doing this anywhere in the UK will be doing the right thing and the profitable thing in the medium-to-long term.”

While Hargreaves and Castle are backing the sustainability of the business from an ethical standpoint, they say that it is the sensible choice in purely economic terms, too.

“We’re getting to the point now where people are realising that they need to be making some difference,” says Castle, “and one of the easiest ways to do that is to go and shop somewhere that’s making those decisions and choices on your behalf and making it easy for you.”

Point of difference

Making a clear, visual statement that your business is encouraging people to move away from plastic packaging, says Sian Sutherland, is a good way to differentiate yourselves from the supermarkets who, according to reports, are remaining static on waste reduction, something consumers are increasingly unhappy about. According to a 2020 report by The Green Alliance, supermarkets had seen an 800% uplift in complaints about their plastic usage in the preceding year alone. 

Castle says that while initially investing in the hardware for zero-waste retailing may be a cost, once installed, the customer buys into the concept and they’re happy to come back and spend a little bit more of their money with you. “Look after the people, look after the planet and the profits will follow,” he says.

This is a message that is echoed by Sutherland in no uncertain terms. “There can be no return now to the bad old days of ‘take, make and chuck’. The public is hungry for a guilt-free shopping experience,” she says.

“Responsible businesses will be the survivors of the next decade and those that tread water, that try to squeeze every last drop of profit out of the old, flawed status quo, will not see the next turn of the decade.”

This is evidenced by the success of B Corps – a certification standard for ethical businesses – of which Cotswold Fayre is among the ranks. The organisation took a financial snapshot of its first 50 companies in the UK in 2015, and again in 2017, and it found that B Corps had grown 14 times more than GDP over those two years.

“Being sustainable is the only option,” says Hargreaves, “and giving your customers a simple way to reduce plastic waste is an obvious step.”

The distributor says businesses that don’t start taking the environment more seriously simply won’t be here in five or ten years. “It may sound a bit blunt, but the market is changing.

“And the companies that do that, in the end, make more profit anyway: they’re getting better customers, they’ve got a happy workforce and they are doing things that customers will buy into.”

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