Making sure the environment doesn’t pay when we shop
The food trade is an integral part of our everyday lives. Moreover, food accounts for over 25 percent of Switzerland’s environmental impacts. The WWF’s environmental rating system aims to demonstrate how the sector’s biggest players are working to protect the environment.
By Yvonne von Hunnius, 06.01.2016
Which retailer allows consumers to safely assume that their shopping will not place an unreasonable burden on the environment? The environmental organisation WWF compared major retailers in 2015 and published a rating. It scrutinized the commitment of retailers and wholesalers to environmental issues. Switzerland’s 13 biggest food sector actors were asked to provide answers to over 70 questions on their product ranges, management and social commitment. The results are intended to help consumers. Jennifer Zimmermann from the WWF and a co-author of the survey explains: “We highlight both visionary projects and weak points – the companies can then target their future efforts based on this.”
Close scrutiny fosters progress
Not another rating system, some people might think and Jürg Buchli, Director of the Centre for Sustainability and Energy at the at the Zurich University of Applied Sciences (ZHAW), can understand the ‘ratings fatigue’. However, as he points out: “Companies must allow themselves to be assessed to establish whether they are meeting the targets they have set themselves. If they are subject to close scrutiny they cannot rest on their laurels, engage in ‘greenwashing’ or ignore the topic of the environment.”
The Swiss retail giants Coop and Migros, which regularly dominate the international rankings, appear to take the topic of the environment very seriously. Thus it comes as no surprise to find them among the pioneers in the WWF’s environmental ranking. And they have no competitors snapping at their heels – competition only arises in the upper mid-range of the ratings league. So why are the two giants so far ahead of the field? Jennifer Zimmermann explains: “They adopt a very thorough and systematic approach to ecological challenges. They take the analyses of their most relevant environmental impacts as the basis for concrete measures and report regularly on the progress they make in reaching their targets.” And this has impacts on very wide-ranging areas of activity.
Migros aims to provide motivation for sector-wide solutions
Migros provides transparent reports on where it stands in relation to its targets twice yearly. According to Migros’s sustainability manager Cornelia Diethelm, resource efficiency is not the only driver of the company’s commitment. She draws attention to the Migros statutes which stipulate that greater importance must be attached to the general good than the good of the company. “Of course we can and want to improve more,” she says. The areas with room for improvement include the consideration of environmental issues in the investments made by the Migros pension scheme. The fact that it has not done this up to now is one of the few criticisms of the company that emerged from the rating.
The focus on the sustainability of the two competitors Migros and Coop promotes progress for Switzerland says Diethelm. But the market consists of many actors.. “Sometimes I wish we had more competitors on the same level and that there were more sector-wide solutions in this direction,” she says. This is also one of the WWF’s recommendations: in a separate interview, Jennifer Zimmermann explains the opportunities that can arise from sectoral approaches.
Commitment within the bounds of possibility
Adrian Wyss, Director of the Swiss Retail Federation, sees the smaller traders making considerable efforts within the scope available to them. Despite this, however, limited resources represent a particular disadvantage for them compared to the sector’s giants. “This is evident when it comes to the time-consuming participation in such ratings surveys and in the effective marketing of environmental commitment,” he says. For example, the Volg and Pam retail chains did not complete the survey for the WWF rating. Volg’s Director of Communications Tamara Scheibli explains: “Due to the limited human resources and time available to us as a small company, it was simply impossible to complete such a detailed survey form by the specified deadline.” However, it goes without saying that sustainability is also a major topic for Volg.
A sector on the move
The WWF predicts that the sector as a whole still has a long way to go to reach an environmentally-friendly way of doing business. However, the dynamics are difficult to quantify: according to one study, almost all companies have sustainable management strategies. In addition, many of them are already investing in the area of energy and CO2-reduction.
Lidl Switzerland, for example, shows just how much companies are doing at the moment. It was criticized in the ratings for still lacking CO2 targets. But they were already being developed: in early December 2015 the company presented a comprehensive company CO2 management strategy with clear targets – and from 2016, the company is officially CO2-neutral. As the company’s sustainability manager Nico Frey sees it, this suits Lidl Switzerland: “Our business model is based on maximising efficiency – and through these measures, we aim to combine savings with ecological responsibility.” The WWF plans to repeat its environmental ratings survey regularly: this will show which companies in Switzerland are making progress and how quickly.