Can Coles and Woolies be more sustainable?

Traffic on Lisbon's main 'arteries'

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. Read the rest of this entry »


Are our local shopping centres doomed by technology?

The geography of surnames in the US (click)

In an interesting article on Crikey, Guy Rundle riffs off the Borders bankruptcy to ask if technological change will inevitably destroy local strip shopping centres:

The whole centrality of the shop is changing. It is no longer a necessary place, and so the high street no longer acts as the spatial core of a community. At some point a whole series of mainstream shops will succumb to insufficient, intermittent demand. Everyone will want to know they are there, but no-one will use them enough.

Whether Borders succumbed to poor management, competition from e-commerce, the dead hand of the parallel importing restrictions, or the fall-off in consumer spending, there’s no question that the nature of shopping is changing profoundly.

For example, I bought my first lot of ten novels from Amazon back in 1994 and have purchased many more books from various on-line retailers since. Whenever I have the option, I now download e-books to read on my e-reader in preference to hard copies.

I started home-banking in 1994 and now visit the bank maybe four times a year max (I hate being paid by cheque!). My wife and I have bought so much stuff on eBay we have Turquoise Star status. The household increasingly downloads movies via T-Box rather than hire DVDs and all our music is purchased through iTunes. We book our travel on-line and even negotiated the purchase of a car over the net.

Guy Rundle foresees that these sorts of changes will extend to the local supermarket and beyond, driven by improvements in on-line ordering and home delivery. I expect that once the public has confidence the problems with e-commerce – like affordable and secure home delivery and safe payment systems – have been overcome, many people will surely choose to use their time for higher value activities than routine consumer shopping.

Mr Rundle fears that if the boring but essential services like supermarkets are lost to the high street, then specialist stores like bookshops that rely on passing trade from ‘anchor tenants’ will also go under. He says:

The wider question, in terms of future life, is how we will sustain any form of public spatial life at all – as the last shared, necessary space dissolves

I don’t think the high street is in any imminent danger. It’s likely to change but I doubt it will die. Not all the changes will necessarily be bad. Read the rest of this entry »