Malcolm Walker Retail Week Columns

How retailers could make medical history

The plastic bag levy offers retailers the ideal opportunity to fund vital charitable causes and research into dementia should be a priority.


The biggest killer in the world today isn’t famine or ISIS – it’s dementia.

Right now 850,000 people in the UK suffer from the illness and, if nothing is done, half of all children born today will develop it.

It’s the only major killer disease that is claiming increasing numbers of victims every year.

The total annual cost of dementia to the UK economy is £26 billion – exceeding that of cancer, heart disease and strokes put together.

Yet, amazingly, for every £10 we currently spend on dealing with the effects of dementia, we only invest 6p in research into preventions and cures.

University College London (UCL) has some of the best neuroscientists in the world, many of them Nobel and other major prize winners, but they are scattered across multiple sites and working in cramped, almost third-world conditions.

There is a plan ready to go to build a world-class £350m Dementia Research Institute, which would bring everyone together with state-of-the-art kit.

This would enable a huge leap forward towards finding a cure.

But there’s a problem – they are £100m short of the funding they need to enable work to start.

Most British retailers give money to charity every year. The new 5p carrier bag levy provides an additional charity windfall for retailers which, by my reckoning, should amount to over £100m in one year alone.

The VAT charged on the bags will add another £20m plus to Government coffers.

I know that on the retail battlefield we spend all our time trying to kill each other but wouldn’t it be a great idea if we could put aside our differences and agree to give just one year’s money to UCL and make medical history?

Iceland has pledged all its revenues from carrier bag sales in the UK for the next three years, and committed to donate at least £10m to the project.

I am delighted that we’ve already been able to forge a unique coalition with our new-found friends at Asda, Waitrose and Morrisons, who committed to support the project from the outset.

Since then HSS Hire, WHSmith and Booths have all come on board and it’s looking likely we can promise around £25m to the cause we all support.

Last week’s Government spending review promised £150m towards a dementia research centre and some of that could provide additional funding for the UCL project. We are not there yet, but well on the way.

Just think what properly funded research can achieve.

Thirty years ago contracting HIV/AIDS was a death sentence; today those with the condition have a life expectancy only slightly shorter than average.

Dementia is an issue with which it is amazingly easy to engage colleagues and customers, because almost every family has been affected by it.

We all have our pet charities but as businessmen we surely appreciate putting our investment where it will achieve the biggest impact. This project will save and improve millions of lives.

Please contact me if you want to join the club.

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