Richard Walker

A setback on our plastic journey

In January 2018, when I announced our audacious goal to become plastic free across our own label packaging, I always knew that the journey would be filled with setbacks, time and time again. This is because the road is long … and we are basically trying to achieve the impossible. The important thing is how you deal with those setbacks – we shouldn’t and won’t stop trying.

Last year at COP26 I announced that we would be the first supermarket to become plastic neutral, and that we would do this during 2022. We reckoned we could meet this challenge despite being in the middle of a pandemic, but at that stage we didn’t know that there was a major cost of living crisis just around the corner, or that Russia was going to invade Ukraine. Both of these emergencies put huge pressure on the cost of food and this ultimately impacts our customers.

I made a promise at the beginning of our plastic journey not to pass additional costs onto customers. We need to democratise sustainability, and that means making it understandable, accessible and affordable by everyone. If we became plastic neutral now, we would have to pass some of that extra cost onto customers – and I’m simply not prepared to do it.

We are a family owned, privately run business and we pride ourselves on doing the right thing. Right now, we need to put our customers first. That doesn’t mean the planet can wait. But we are a business, and we must prioritise. We have therefore made the decision to invest instead in keeping the price of our food as low as it can be, including freezing the price of our range of £1 value lines, delivering discounts to staff and OAPs, and rolling out an innovative ethical credit scheme.

I know that some might say “Well why did you announce something that you now can’t do? You should have been aware of market pressures.” And maybe this is a valid point. But I will never stop wanting to innovate and drive change as quickly as possible. Since making that announcement, I’ve had conversations with big players across the food and drink industry about how they could become plastic neutral too. Those conversations wouldn’t have happened if we had waited.

This isn’t the only plastic setback we have had. Our target of removing plastic packaging from our whole own label range by the end of 2023 is also now impossible. The last two years have provided major setbacks: we’ve had to fight to keep the nation fed during a pandemic, when the use of plastic packaging went up by 6%. There was a dramatic switch to online shopping, which was also using more plastic. And the focus, investment and momentum across the industry in plastic alternatives not unsurprisingly stalled.

However, we are continuing to make huge progress in reducing our plastic use and I’m excited about some big changes that you will see in our stores throughout this year.

By the end of next year, we won’t be out of plastic, but we will have done everything we can to reduce plastic despite the unforeseen crises we are still working through.. And just because we’ll have missed our target doesn’t mean we’ll stop: the destination doesn’t change, but it will take us longer than I thought to get there. And I won’t stop until we’re out.

I was right to put a stake in the ground – and I would do it again. Up until, and even for a year or two after our announcement, industry remained stubbornly focused on recycling – falsely arguing that we could just recycle our way out of the problem. Fortunately, all that has changed and now everyone agrees that we need to turn down the tap of production. All the major supermarkets have since brought in ambitious plastic reduction targets.

But we remain the only UK supermarket to have a target to be entirely out of plastic. Being alone on this is not good enough, and I very much hope that (much like the myth of recycling) others will eventually come around to our way of thinking and make the same commitment.

I’m gutted that we won’t be plastic neutral this year. But we’ve always put our customers first – and we always will. And although we won’t achieve our original target of removing all plastic packaging from our own label range by the end of 2023, I am confident that we are making progress and will move further ahead on our journey as we continue to work towards our unchanged plastic-free goal.

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