Can Coles and Woolies be more sustainable?

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Giant US department store chain Wal-Mart has some interesting initatives to promote sustainability and public health that the likes of Coles, Woolworths and Bunnings should be taking note of.

My interest in Wal-Mart was piqued by a large number of hits The Melbourne Urbanist received last month from the US on a piece I wrote about the value of ‘food miles’. The hits were generated by an article published in The Huffington Post and the Harvard Business Review.

Written by Andrew Winston, the article looked at Wal-Mart’s efforts to green its supply chain and linked to the analysis of whether or not ‘local food’ is more sustainable that I posted here back in July.

Andrew Winston says there are three initiatives in particular that demonstrate Wal-Mart’s strategic focus on sustainability.

First, it’s doubling the quantity of locally sourced food on its shelves; second, it’s reducing the amount of saturated fat, sugar and salt in its house brand products; and third, its donating $2 million to 16 food banks to help them lower their energy costs (food banks are non profits that distribute surplus food to the hungry).

I doubt there’s any sustainability dividend from buying locally (the point of my earlier piece on ‘food miles’), but apparently Wal-Mart believes it will lower supply costs. It should also help the company create a friendlier image with local communities.

The second initiative is the key one. It could potentially provide a better public health outcome for customers as well as reduce the environmental impact associated with complex inputs like saturated fat and sugar. It should improve Wal-Mart’s standing on health and environmental issues and thereby give it a continuing commercial incentive to keep up the good work.

The third initiative donates funds to food banks so they can buy more energy efficient equipment and lower their ongoing operating costs – it saves enough annually to buy another 300,000 meals. Andrew Winston says it’s the gift that keeps on giving.

That may be true, but the managers of food banks would very likely prefer to decide for themselves how donations should be spent (BTW $2 million seems small but Winston says Wal-Mart has donated $2 billion in other cash and in-kind projects to reduce hunger).

Wal-Mart is doubtless motivated by commercial considerations and keen to improve its environmental credentials, but so what? Wal-Mart’s a business in the capital of capitalism! What really matters is that the chain is responding to consumers’ concerns and, it appears, actually getting ahead of customers and leading better practises.

That’s vital because in my view significantly better environmental and health outcomes aren’t going to come about unless business – and particularly the big corporates – comes on board. And business can’t be relied on to do that unless it makes commercial sense.

Perhaps our major supermarket, department store and warehouse chains already have comparable sustainability and/or public health initiatives in place. If they do I haven’t heard about them and my local Coles and Woolworths stores aren’t telling me.

I’m still appalled at the open planning of the dairy and meat section in supermarkets. It means more cold air has to be pumped in to cope with the warmer air drifting in from the rest of the store (or in the case of my local Coles through the front doors).

Hopefully our chain store conglomerates are watching Wal-Mart with interest.

3 Comments on “Can Coles and Woolies be more sustainable?”

  1. Cheis says:

    Wall mart is doing a lot more sustainability than just the food initiatives mentioned in the article. They are impacting the entire supply chain, because whenwall mart says they will onlytakesustainably made products, producers change their business models.

  2. Rob says:

    Lowes in the USA and Sainsbury’s in the UK have looked seriously at sustainable buildigs types as well which would add to a holistic view about food miles.
    My comments on Woollies and Coles is around the Milk Wars. Shouldn’t we be encouraging people to walk to their local milk bar (or equivalent) to buy their milk thereby increasing the likelihood that they might meet a neighbour, contribute to street surveillance and leave their car at home -all wins here I’d say. I’m sure the dairy farmers would agree

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