Richard Walker

The need to democratise environmentalism

My ‘Saturday Essay’ for The Grocer

Iceland has taken the lead on some key sustainability issues – recently plastics and palm oil – because we believe in Doing It Right, and not purely in the hope of commercial gain. Which is just as well, because so far we haven’t seen much of the latter.

In the short term, this genuinely does not matter to me – and I say that as a shareholder in the business. What does matter, though, is striking a balance.

I am determined that we do not lose sight of social justice goals in our efforts to tackle the climate emergency, nor must we do anything that endangers our ability to continue meeting the needs of our five million weekly customers and sustaining the jobs of my 25,000 colleagues.

We have over 950 Iceland and Food Warehouse stores across the UK, and serve many of the country’s most challenged communities, where some customers struggle to put food on the table.

Our store colleagues live in the communities where they work, and their feedback plays a vital role in keeping me grounded. On the issues of food waste, for example, one memorably put it to me that ‘If you’re a family with only £25 a week to spend on food, you are not wasting food.’

We have many customers who rely on those reviled multi-buy deals to help feed their children nutritious meals.

I defy anyone to tell a committed and hardworking parent, who is using every bit of their weekly food shop, dressing their kids in hand me down clothes, travelling everywhere by bus and on foot, and never going on holiday, that they need to wake up and cut their carbon footprint.

I would personally love to sell only organic, free range food. But it would not be a sustainable choice for Iceland because our customers could not afford to buy it, and the business would go bust.

We tried selling loose fresh produce in one of our stores earlier this year, and we have had to go back to the drawing board: sales fell 20%. We offer a limited range and our key selling points are convenience and value. Clearly we’re not going to invest millions to install new tills with weighing facilities when we know it may be a move that will drive sales down, not up.

We’ve been transparent about setbacks like this because I think it’s important for people to understand that what we are trying to achieve is really hard – and made harder by the fact that no one else in the industry has followed our lead.

But we’re not going to give up because it is also really important to recognise that we can’t simply recycle our way out of the plastics crisis. So we will keep on trialling and implementing new ways to reduce our plastic footprint. And I’m pleased to say that we are now making meaningful progress – having already removed over 2,100 tonnes annually.

Snobs may argue that we are wasting our time because our customers don’t actually care about environmental issues in the way that Waitrose shoppers do. This is simply wrong. Our research confirms that they care just as much about the future of the planet, but they simply can’t afford to pay a lot more for their food in the interests of sustainability.

In the long run, we will only save the planet we all have to share by democratising environmentalism: making it relevant  – and affordable – to each and every one of us.

I am very proud of the part we have played to date in helping to make this happen.

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