Gilroy’s Viewpoint: Wholesalers need to be keeping pace with sustainability has it grows in importance

Sustainability wholesale

Sad, I know, but I love my mobile device. Managing all aspects of my life on the move: communication, navigation, finances, research and acquiring lots of new friends. Dr Lee has located a long-lost uncle of mine who has bequeathed $10m to me in his will. All I have to do is send him my account details and he will go halves on the proceeds. Mr Smeaton has arranged for me to enjoy an upfront payment of £400 towards my energy bill. He also simply needs my bank details. And Curtis has kindly checked all my household appliance insurances. He is concerned my washing machine cover is inadequate, so is kindly recommending a five-year plan. “But hold on,” I say to Curtis. “The machine is over eight years old. Why would I waste money insuring it? Next time it breaks down, I’m going to junk it and buy a new one.”

Herein lies one of the fundamental issues with today’s society. We are completely wedded to convenience, disposal and consumerism. The concept of having my machine fixed is totally alien and economically non-viable. When did you last see a TV repair man? No, nor me. However, all is not lost. There are signs that things are turning. Jay Blade’s The Repair Shop on BBC is a brilliant showcase for the revival of trade craft skills and for the art of repairing and renovating. Websites like Facebook Marketplace are great for buying and selling previously loved items (second hand to the rest of us).

Okay, some need fixing or cleaning, but better that than sending to landfill. I confess I am addicted to it. I have even sold half-cans of paint. How do you dispose of paint without polluting?

Sustainable solutionists 

The conundrum facing us all is whether continuous economic growth is compatible with extracting and destroying parts of Earth and its finite resources. Environmentalists and economists argue the green agenda and the transition to net zero will itself create many economic opportunities.

Macroeconomics is way above my pay grade, but I am clear that the route to a sustainable future will be from the bottom up, not from the top down.

Read more: Gilroy’s viewpoint: Can wholesalers learn from the field of elite sport?

Small incremental steps taken by businesses and individuals making a difference. This is elegantly argued by Solitare Townsend, a sustainability expert in an article for the National Trust (NT). Almost three-quarters of the land cared for by NT is vulnerable to climate change and changing weather patterns. Solitaire’s article details the impressive work underway to prepare the various landscapes for the changes ahead. NT has a clear and tangible plan to be net zero in all their operations by 2030.

She talks about NT seeing problems and responding with “excitement to the solutions”. She calls this being “solutionists”. A great starting point with relevance for our industry.

Starting the journey 

In an article in last year’s December edition of BWI, I set out what I called my “commercially based sustainability starter pack” for wholesalers. Six main elements of focus for even the most resource-constrained enterprises to start their sustainability journey: energy; vehicle fuel; food waste; packaging/ recycling; product selection; and people; selected to add value to the bottom line.

Work in these areas will involve only small capital investments – if any – while yielding significant financial benefits. I urge every business to nominate a sustainability champion. This is a good first step on the sustainability road, but if you want to see the job done brilliantly, check out Bidfoods’ website and read its latest sustainability report, ‘Future Forward’. This offers some great lessons and demonstrates that Bidfood puts sustainability at the heart of its business, from the top, permeating through and owned at all levels. It includes measurable targets with objective performances actually achieved and with the future actions for improvement. 

There is a commercial imperative, too. In a Sunday Times article about B Corps, Martha Lane Fox stated that customers were demanding more transparency on the origins and environmental footprint of products and services. 

Not-so-fantastic plastic 

We are all becoming more aware of plastic dependency in our everyday lives. Centred around the products we consume in food, drink, cleaners and packaging. In her article for the i newspaper, Emma Henderson details how she tried to shop plastic-free for a week. Despite a valiant and committed attempt, Emma concluded it was too inconvenient and expensive to be realistically possible. Picture the distribution of soft drinks in PET bottles, shrink-wrapped in outers, and then plastic-pallet-wrapped for transport – three layers of plastic to get goods to market. The plastic challenge requires cross-sector partnerships and cooperation. 

WRAP leads the way. Established in 2000, its vision is a “thriving world in which climate change is no longer a problem”. Fine words, but they do have substance? WRAP has detailed plans and actions to support this statement around changing the way goods are produced, consumed and disposed of. 

WRAP has developed impressive resources and expertise across businesses, governments, NGOs (non-governmental organisations) and funding. and has mastered ways of uniting multiple sectors and interests behind a common cause. In 2018, WRAP established the ‘Plastic Pact’. This is an action-centred collaboration across supermarkets, brands, packaging and recycling centres geared to creating a sustainable system for plastics. Based on the principle that everything should be reused or recycled, the Plastic Pact has achieved notable progress, including 10% less plastic on supermarket shelves and a 46% fall in problematic plastics since 2018. Major brands such as Coca-Cola and Ribena are active participants. 

The refillable offering is also proving a tough nut to crack and is still experimental. Tesco junked Loop earlier this year. In an update entitled ‘Store lessons’, Asda’s Susan Thomas talks about the supermarket’s partnership with WRAP and its refill store trials. Asda has learned the ways customers engage with the proposition, the challenge of paying for goods by gram and the value expectation of lower pricing, but her update is short on tangible results. 

Lidl has just reported it is trialling refill machines for its Formil detergent pouches in two stores. Customers can pick up empty pouches, choose their favourite detergents via touch screens and fill their pouches. The machines can distinguish between new and used pouches, and offer customers 20p discounts when refilling. This seems like a good starting point. 

The reusable opportunity 

“Recycling is not the solution. We need to fundamentally change our relationship with plastic packaging,” says Dizzie, which is focused on leading the transition from single-use plastic to reusable packaging, end to end. Its research indicates that reusable packaging is set to disrupt a $2tn global grocery packaging market. Three factors support this assertion: increasing consumer demand for reduction (83% of those surveyed); tougher global legislation to drive down use of packaging materials; and the availability uncertainty and rising costs of packaging. 

Dizzie has created and operates a direct-to-home infrastructure of responsibly sourced products with smart, affordable packaging. 

The model consists of packaging, product fill (about 500 products and growing), returns recovery operations from homes and cleaning for reuse across 13 dedicated hubs. Dizzie is still in start-up mode, but is heading rapidly towards being self-sustaining, and is seeking B2B distribution partners. 

The UK has just experienced its hottest recorded summer, and the country is facing profound adverse economic changes, many accelerated by the conflict in Ukraine. These impacts bring the intelligent use of resource management into sharp relief. Now, more than ever, is a good time to become solutionists for sustainability. 

Avatar photo
David Gilroy is the founder and managing director of Store Excel. He was previously the convenience retail lead at W2 Commercial and held operations director roles at Bestway Wholesale and Nurdin & Peacock.


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.