Retail Week Columns Richard Walker

Why sustainability can’t just be a middle class concern

It’s hard to disagree with Sir David Attenborough’s assertions that humanity has made a ‘tragic, desperate mess’ of the planet and that we all need to ‘look after the natural world’. Encouragingly, he believes that we can all ‘live the way you want to live – just don’t waste’.

His advice resonates with people of all ages – notably our switched-on and maybe even striking schoolkids – but naturally makes more sense to those who can actually afford to live the way they want.

Because no matter how much you care about the fate of the ice caps or orangutans, they must inevitably slip down your list of priorities if you spend most of each day worrying about how you are going to put food on the table for your family.

We live in a supposedly rich country that has more food banks than branches of McDonald’s, and 4.1 million children classified as living in poverty – a situation made far worse by the disastrously botched introduction of Universal Credit.

We see the effects at first hand in our Iceland stores because we trade in most of the poorest communities in the UK, and we recruit our colleagues from those same areas.

I am passionate about sustainability because I can see – as all but the most blinkered must surely do by now – the growing impact of climate change, and the imminent danger it poses to all our children. On this, as Sir David said last week, ‘the moment of crisis has come’.

But we will never resolve this crisis if it remains only the concern of middle-class consumers who can afford to pay a bit extra for their food. We urgently need to involve everyone in accessible eco initiatives that truly democratise environmentalism and make it relevant to all.

That’s mainly, but not exclusively, an issue of price. Three million of those British children in poverty have working parents, many of them juggling more than one job. So they are not only cash poor, but often spectacularly time poor as well.

We found during our loose fresh produce trial in Liverpool last year that convenience was a major driver of our customers’ preference for packaged products – even though we made loose varieties cheaper.

I very much hope that Asda’s trial of refill stations in its ‘sustainability store’ proves more successful and is scalable – which will only be the case if it adds nothing to their shoppers’ bills.

The pressures on all food retailers seem to increase every day. Are we doing enough to combat deforestation driven by palm oil and soy, avoid labour exploitation, raise animal welfare standards, fish sustainably, cut salt and sugar, reduce carbon emissions and minimise waste?

Iceland is doing its best on all of the above – helped, of course, by the many environmental benefits offered by frozen food. (Yes, I would say that, but it’s true.)

Doing It Right – as we call our sustainability culture in Iceland – is not a luxury we can’t afford as all the pressures of declining high street footfall, online competition and sky-high business rates put all retailers under pressure to tighten their belts.

In every initiative we take, I have to balance considerations of climate justice, social justice and business performance.  We care about delivering environmental benefits, but we also have to maintain our prices at levels that hard-pressed families can afford.

And we need to keep making profits both because we have 25,000 colleague families depending on us for a pay cheque each week, and because it is the only way we can stay around to keep Doing It Right in the future.

We will only create long term value for Iceland by focusing on this triple bottom line of profit, people and planet, and I believe this approach needs to be embedded in the culture of every retail business.

That is the only way, at this moment of crisis, that we can hope to guarantee our future not just as retailers, but as a species.

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